Co-operators from all over the world gathered in Manchester and Rochdale for three inspiring days of talks and discussions showing the diversity and flexibility of the co-operative model. The conference, which was themed ‘Mainstreaming Co-operation: An Alternative for the 21st Century’, demonstrated how co-operatives are relevant to every sphere of life, from education to architecture, food to local government, agriculture to youth empowerment.
The conference, which was organised by the Co-operative College in collaboration with researchers from Liverpool University, Liverpool John Moores University, Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Central Lancashire, Edge Hill University and the University of the Basque Country, and supported by the Co-operative Group, took place in New Century House in Manchester and included a sneak preview of the Rochdale Pioneers Museum in Toad Lane, which is undergoing a major refurbishment.
As well as looking at the opportunities offered by the International Year of Co-operatives for co-operatives to maximise their presence in the public eye, keynote speeches discussed the potential for co-operatives to provide an ethical, values-based alternative to the current, profit-driven business model and help provide a solution to some of the most pressing issues facing the world, from climate change to food security.
Claudia Sanchez Bajo, Lecturer at Pavia University, Italy and co-author of the book Capital and the Debt Trap: learning from co-operatives in the global crisis, said that co-operatives gave people more control over their lives and opportunities. She told delegates: “We are going through an epic crisis and many have acknowledged that the old model of the economy is now broken.
“Co-operatives can now try to mainstream their values and capacity to provide inspiration for others. This is not a time for following, but for building a new future and a new trajectory based on shared ethical values.”
Paul Hazen, Executive Director of the US Overseas Development Council, also emphasised the capacity for co-operatives to empower people, saying “smallholder farmers must use collective action” to help meet the world’s growing demand for food. He explained: “Co-operatives offer prospects smallholder farmers would not be able to achieve individually.” Hazen called for co-operatives to be placed in the mainstream of poverty-reducing strategies, saying: “We are now riding another wave of interest in co-operative development. With the right policy and tools co-operatives can ensure the elimination of hunger around the world. We must seize this moment.”
Co-operatives are active in over 100 countries around the world, and speakers described the different contexts in which co-operatives have developed, including: meeting members’ needs and reducing poverty in the developing world; worker takeovers of factories in Latin America; offering an alternative model in the Basque Country in the days of Franco’s regime; the influence of Arizmendiarrieta, founding father of the Mondragon group of co-operatives in Spain; the evolution of co-operatives in Japan; and the tradition of consumer co-operatives in the Nordic countries.
The conference also looked at new and innovative co-operative sectors, from mutually owned newspapers and co-operatives in sport to co-operative models for local government, such as the co-operative councils network, and housing – with input from Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, which mutually owns 14,000 homes across the borough and is now the country’s largest housing co-operative.
As well as looking to the future, the conference explored the co-operative movement’s rich history, looking at some of the key figures, events and ideas behind the history of co-operation. A number of papers addressed the importance of education to the movement and presented research on the ways co-operatives have provided education for their members historically, in both formal and informal ways, from courses and exams and the establishment of co-operative schools to pageants, film screenings and performances. Delegates also heard about the development of co-operative premises in the UK from Stephen McCusker of Loop Systems, the co-operative architecture firm which came up with the plans for the refurbished Pioneers Museum. He described the significance of co-operative buildings in creating a co-operative identity in towns and cities, saying: “Co-operatives changed the face of many places.” He added: “Buildings became an aspiration and high quality investment, resulting in bigger dividends and local pride.” Elsewhere, Liverpool University researcher Rachael Vorberg-Rugh spoke on the significance of women to the co-operative movement historically. There are challenges still facing the co-operative movement, and Dr Linda Shaw and Dr Barbara Rawlings of the Co-operative College discussed the difficulty on gathering data on women’s participation in co-operative leadership today.
Academic interest in co-operatives is increasing, and John Shostak from Manchester Metropolitan University and Keri Facer from Bristol University presented research into co-operative education in co-operative schools in England today. Keri Facer explained: “A co-operative school is a call for participation, rather than just a logo or a letterhead.” She said: “The co-operative movement has the power to model a different system of education.”
Conference delegates were among the first visitors to the revamped Pioneers Museum, which will be reopening later this summer, where new museum staff Jenny Broadbent, Clare Hirst and Jonathan Priestley were on hand to answer questions. Visitors explored the new education space on a new mezzanine level, and browsed artefacts from the National Co-operative Archive. The conference continued at a reception in the beautiful St Mary in the Baum Church over the road, with sessions on the German co-operative tradition and the Raiffeisen Foundation, followed by a special dinner held in the ornate splendour of Rochdale Town Hall.
Closing the conference, Professor Ian MacPherson from the University of Victoria, Canada, argued that co-operatives’ capacity to contribute to world peace has never been greater than today. However, Stephen Yeo, Chair of the Co-operative Heritage Trust, looked at the implications of co-operatives becoming part of the mainstream, asking: “If there is such a thing as mainstreaming in global capitalism do we want to be part of it?”