Once again I find myself in Birmingham Town Hall, with my colleague Maria, ready for the annual Co-operatives Congress.
This is the annual gathering of the UK Co-operative Movement, with attendees from all sizes of co-operative, from the small worker co-operatives like Agile Collective, Footprint and Parecco, to the large consumer co-operatives such as Mid Counties, right up to the mega 'co-op of co-ops', The Co-operative group.
The first thing I notice when arriving is how many people we already know in the co-operative sector. I guess this is through attending previous annual congress events, and more recently the worker co-operative weekends that have happened over the last few years. Cath from Footprint, Bob from Suma, Debs from Delta T as well as many of the friendly faces from Co-operative UK. I have a natural affinity with people from other worker co-operatives, as we have so much in common and so much to learn from each other, but I am also reminded that there are many people from across the sector who are inspirational, share our co-operative values and that we also have plenty to learn from each other.
We’ve arrived on the Friday afternoon to take part in Co-operatives UK’s Annual General Meeting. Agile Collective is a member of Co-operatives UK, so we are here to represent Agile Collective and participate in the AGM. (We are also here as an exhibitor to promote our services with the wider movement.)
The agenda for the AGM is pretty standard this year - minutes of the previous meeting, attendance, financial accounts, reappointing auditors, and some minor changes of the rules to bring in line with the new Co-operatives and Community Societies.
Some interesting points were raised from the minutes of last year's previous meeting:
- In response to a question from last year, the co-operative economy has now been independently audited (and published as open data).
- In response to the suggestion from Sion Whellens (Claverts) that Co-ops UK adopt the new international co-operative marque, Co-ops UK have done so.
There was also discussion about the consultation that took place on the Co-op Bank’s usage of the word 'co-operative' in their name. The bank is now no longer a co-operative! Is it acceptable for an organisation to use the word co-operative in the organisation name if they are not a co-operative? Ed Mayo reported on the consultation. On balance the feedback was in support of allowing the co-op bank to continue to use the name co-operative bank. If anyone wants to see results to the consultation they will be made available (Ed Mayo).
The voting on approving the accounts and changes took place either by a show of hands or by ballot in the case of rules changes. Interestingly, the voting at Co-ops UK meetings is based on the number of employees a member has. So Agile Collective gets three votes (cast together as a single vote). The Co-operative Group gets 9712! This is clearly a huge disparity in one sense, rather than the 'one member, one vote' we might expect. However, the fact that the larger consumer co-operatives do represent thousands of employees should clearly be taken into account, so I do see the reasoning. It is also worth noting that the membership dues to co-operatives UK are also in proportion to the number of employees. So the co-op group does pay more, does have more employees, and does have more say in voting and the governance of co-operatives UK. I often reflect on the differences between consumer co-operatives and worker co-operatives, something which is not really reflected in the membership structure of Co-operatives UK, all co-op members are treated equally based on size. But I think worker co-operatives and other employee owned businesses are in quite a different position from consumer co-operatives, but I have yet to clarify my thoughts on how this might be reflected in the membership structure of Co-ops UK. One person raised the point of cross subsidising, that the larger members pay more to Co-operatives UK to in effect support the smaller members. On the face of it this sounds like a good thing, but I need to give it some more thought.
Members questions and feedback
There were a few questions and comments from the floor throughout the AGM, some of which I will note here.
The data on the Co-operative Economy 2014 was published last Wednesday.
Members were invited to comment on how we might want to engage more with Co-ops UK and some interesting ideas came out.
Representative democracy… how do we balance the fact that some co-ops have direct access to Co-ops UK, while other members hardly know they exist?
A suggestion that individuals might become members in some way, rather than huge block votes by the larger consumer co-operatives... radical!
Replace venture capital (in the healthcare sector?) with worker co-op capital.
Change the governance of Co-ops UK !!!
Co-ops UK is 40% funded from the Co-operative group, which then has nearly 10,000 votes - is this fair?
Some of the new board members introduced themselves, including a rather fun chap called Alex Bird, who challenged the huge pay packages of executives (at the Co-op Group?)
"Anyone who can’t manage on less than a quarter of a million pounds a year, isn’t capable of managing a large organisation!" Alex Bird @coopalex3
The votes were counted and the outcome was as follows:
Vote A: (Change or rules) 19550 in favour. none against
Vote B: (Reappointment of KPMG as auditors) 19369 in favour, 167 against
After a few farewell speeches, food and drinks were served and the networking event got under way. This was a great chance to meet other co-operatives and discuss ideas on collaboration between other co-operatives.
Key take aways:
We should go to the international co-operative meetings to meet and engage with co-ops from around the world: