Monday, 17 March 2014

The demise of the Co-op movement

I once strolled into a Co-op shop in Cardiff, more by accident than by purpose and my instant reaction was one of horror. I have never seen a shop that offered so little of value yet excelled in drabness. It's shelves seemed to be filled with lots of apples of indistinct age (and taste, no doubt) and rows and rows of sugary lemonade. I made a mental note never to enter a Co-op shop again.

In a way, its food retail section is the least of the worries for the Co-op movement, given a 2 billion pound hole in its books and a former Labour minister (of all people!) declaring the company to be unwilling to reform. Oh, and yes, it also just lost its CEO, for good measure, probably driven out by vicious (and wrongful) briefing from its own board members about his (alleged) bonus take .

So, what does this mean for the Co-op movement? And why has it all gone so horribly wrong? The Co-op is closely aligned with Labour, sponsoring several MPs (and their re-election campaigns) to the tune of £50k each and giving to the Labour Party itself close to 1 million pounds per annum.

But it's main motto, to be the last bastion of mutualism, seems to be a figleaf for fiendish levels of incompetence amongst its non-executive directors (drawn from 'ordinary people') and shocking tales of morals in free fall, with the crystal meth snorting former director Paul Flowers only the tip of the iceberg.


The Rev Paul Flowers - A preference for rentboys and crystal meth when he is not in a suit

The cause of the problem however seems to lie in a useful conceit that lies at the core of the Co-op movement philosophy, that 'ordinary people' can and should run diversified companies operating in a highly complex market place. In a sense, this philosophy always lacked credibility ever since Marx  wrote several thousand pages in an attempt to analyse something that is thought to boil down to simple supply and demand by the popularisers of market economics. Yet, this 'ordinary people should run it' philosophy extends right across public services as well, including health care.

The Labour Government under Tony Blair invested heavily in so-called partnership boards that were supposed to have a say in the decision making of health boards (now disbanded in England). This was not a way of increasing shared decision making for patients with their own GP but was a way of getting communities involved in large scale decisions such as commissioning of services in an area the size of several counties. Naturally, it never worked, but the reason why it did not deliver more involvement is interesting to note. In essence, the professional classes in healthcare had enough authority (based on their training and knowledge) to swat away any serious attempt by ordinary people to keep a check on their decision making. Eventually, there were always just two players of any clout in health: the professionals and the government in Whitehall.

This raises an interesting question about the Co-op. Just like highly complex healthcare facilities, it operates in fast moving markets that require specialist knowledge. It appears that we still have not found a meaningful way of involving ordinary people in the economic and social affairs that are shaped to a large degree by the companies and services supposedly serving them. The reason the Co-op is in dire straits is that it had artificially fostered an environment where 'ordinary people' were put in charge, to the detriment of those who had the competences to run the place and to the loss of the wider public.


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