Monday, 21 November 2011
Leek Community Benefit Society- why the cooperative approach
I have been involved in the Leek Co-operative for the Benefit of All since its inception in February. The driver behind the Leek group has been to develop the Co-operative Emporium the 100th anniversary is celebrated this year. A group was established at the beginning of the year with the aim of developing co-operatives in the town around the umbrella organisation of the Emporium. We opened the ground floor of the three stories building last August and we have held a number of events to inform the business planning process. For instance one event that I was involved in was the Enterprise Day on the 14th October which attracted a number of individuals interested in setting up a business. We are developing the co-operative on a piecemeal basis and we are having a formal opening next year. But why this approach?
The global economic crisis is the most recent and potent factor in changing the bigger picture. And Leek as other towns in North Staffs the impact has been deep. The crisis has resulted in a fundamental change in attitude to the traditional business model of investor ownership. Prior to that, since the collapse of communism, investor ownership had not just been the dominant business model; it really was the only show in town. It was the idea and questioning its validity – or suggesting that it was inherently flawed – was unthinkable. Those doubts have re surfaced with the Occupy movement posing searching questions of "crony" capitalism
Intellectually, the previously unquestioned assumptions are now open for discussion. The old ‘certainties’ have gone. At grass roots level, the change from a general feeling of prosperity and security to a feeling of worrying uncertainty has been dramatic and profound in all communities. More difficult circumstances and anxiety about the future undoubtedly affect how people think and behave. There is a natural tendency to band together, to look for and talk about ways of addressing immediate difficulties, and finding common solutions, which help individuals and others in need. Self-help revives in the face of adversity when other sources of help seem to be failing. The example of the USA in the 1930s is a good historical example
The context today is therefore very different from that of ten or even five years ago. Perhaps it gives rise to a more sober and reflective mood. The resurgence of interest in mutual models of ownership, both in terms of existing and of new organisations, suggest that the self-help business model may have a contemporary relevance which is growing in importance.
The recent economic difficulties have damaged the credibility of investor-ownership. Damage has been caused because of the perception that the loss of thousands of jobs and the collapse in the value of shares – affecting the savings and pensions of many people on modest incomes – are at least in part caused by greed and the pursuit of private interests. The profit motive is not a popular concept at the moment. The pursuit of huge gains by some prominent individuals in the commercial world, and the apparent failure of a significant number of politicians to understand how their behaviour in optimising personal private gain is unacceptable, have made this even worse. And this feeling gained further impetus with the publication of the High Pay Commission this week
So, given the social context, recent developments in mutuality and the prevailing economic circumstances, the self-help model seems to be both relevant and appealing. But how will it meet today’s needs? That is the question we are posing in Leek