In praise of cooperatives

A report out telling us all how large the cooperative movement is in Britain. Or perhaps cooperatives - this isn’t just about the Co Op itself.

Scotland’s islands have the highest proportion of co-operatives of any part of the UK thanks to a long tradition of self-reliance, a survey has found.

The study by Co-operatives UK, the sector’s development body, said its survey of co-ops by local authority area found the Western Isles and Orkney topped the table with 8.16 and 5.91 co-ops respectively per 10,000 people. Shetland came in third, with 5.63. Eden in Cumbria came in joint fourth, with 4.55, followed by nearby Allerdale with 3.6.

The Scottish sector’s businesses are generally small, often community shops which provide the only stores in scarcely populated island communities. There are also credit unions, community energy companies and fishing co-ops.

The findings have been published as part of Co-operatives UK’s annual economic survey. It put its total turnover UK-wide at £37.7bn for 2018-19, a little over 1% higher than last year’s figure of £37.6bn and 2.75% higher than the £36.3bn in 2016-17.

We’re entirely in favour of all of this. No doubt to the surprise of some who see us as apologists at best for capitalism. We are in favour of capitalism, it’s true. But also of government action, of cooperatives, of laissez faire and of strict regulation. For we are entirely pragmatists - we want whatever is the best method of addressing the point or problem to hand.

There are never going to be any cooperative nuclear power plants, blast furnaces or full scale car manufacturers. The capital required simply could never be raised by the workers themselves, outside sources will be necessary - that divorce of the source of capital from the labourers being the definition of capitalism.

Equally so the local health food shop might well work better as a cooperative among the initiated. Or even, as described in that Guardian piece, the local shop in a lightly populated area, a community co op.

What we are fully and wholly in favour of is the only system we’ve got of working out which of the varied ownership systems works best in particular circumstances. That being the free market. A free market not just in what people produce and how, but an equally free market in forms of organisation in order to produce.

That is, try it and see, what is the best method being emergent from those attempts.

Britain’s cooperative sector is yea big? Excellent, that’s just great. In that free market system if it becomes yea bigger it will be because it’s the efficient method of dealing with the point being dealt with. And why wouldn’t we be in favour of that? But do also note that if the capitalist system grows then that’s because it’s the efficient method of dealing with these other specific problems and points and yay for that too.