As promised, here is an explanation for the failure of Co-ops to take over the world. Or at least one that sidesteps the bigger question of investment.
As you already know, the forces that aspire to exert any control over society have to ensure that they are they are deployed appropriately, and they have to hope that the historical trade-winds are blowing in the right direction. So big and small business, the police, the various professions, social classes and bureaucracies all have their ducks lined up to defend their interests.
If I had any clout, or a largish audience, I’d probably have the CBI on my ass every time I offered evidence that their members were a shower of leeches. Similarly, if I were to question the handouts that support small businesses, or if I were to suggest that there are better ways of managing the economy than promoting them, I’d probably hear from the FSB sooner or later.
Critical of your quack? Not if the BMA have anything to do with it. Whenever a journalist has a dig at the quality of senior civil servants, they can expect a stiff letter to their editor from the FDA. Anyone of any substance who slights Inspector Knacker can expect a stiff rebuttal from The Police Federation. Other professions have their Unions and trade associations. And journalists have ... well... the media.
And so on.
Now, I’ll admit that some of these organisations are more protectionist than others. Some have a regulatory role that insists upon a degree of neutrality, but generally, they offer protection to a particular grouping. If you wanted to really challenge the power of big business, you would have to outmanoeuvre the CBI, and if you want to do that, you’ll need to be up quite early in the morning.
But which organisation takes up cudgels on behalf of Co-ops? Who insists that this business model is cultivated and evangelised? Who rebuts slights against Mutualism? Who hires lawyers on behalf of Co-ops and Mutuals to do a line-by-line reading of upcoming legislation? Who focuses and builds the voice of those of us who work in the co-operative sector?
Well, if you wanted to raise a laugh, you could say that there is Cooperatives UK. And then there’s The Co-op Party. Now, in my experience, the Co-op Party is primarily a route to Parliament. If you want a safe Labour seat and have no Trade Union connections, the Co-op Party can offer an alternative. For years it has had most of it's funding from the big consumer Co-ops and, sometimes, when some contentious project that has a Co-op veneer emerges, (Foundation Hospitals was the most recent) then the Co-op Party is wheeled out to support them.
But neither the Co-Op Party or Co-operatives UK are much of an asset to producer co-ops, small consumer co-ops, or Mutuals as far as I can see.
I say all of this, by the way, not (just) to have a dig at either the Party or Co-operatives UK. I say it because I think that there is a fatal flaw in the pro-Co-op argument. None of us generate much of a surplus. We reinvest profits or - in the cases where we are very profitable - we distribute a portion of them to staff. Staff who may sometimes be even more short-termist than conventional investors.
Co-ops are often structured to supply 'at cost', or to provide services that the market can't incentivse itself to provide otherwise. We don't have the motive to grow that other businesses have. We have no shareholders yapping at our heels, and there is insufficient motive for us to fund an aggressive trade association.
However, if we were to develop a powerful voice, I suspect that these two organisations could be morphed into something useful. And of the two, the Party is the most likely candidate. It would take a good deal of restructuring and a shift of focus, of course. And it would need to disincentivise people from getting involved in order to further a parliamentary career.
Anyway, they’ve set up a blog now. It’s here. Go and guide them in the right direction if you like? In the meantime, if you’re just into uniforms, have a look at this (work-safe but maybe embarrassing) instead.