There’s been a spate of bad headlines for The Co-operative Group of late, since its banking arm’s agreement to buy 632 branches of Lloyds Bank fell through in April. The botched deal was merely a curtain-raiser, it turned out, to the revelation that the Co-operative Bank had a £1.5bn hole in its finances. Downgrades and a complicated ‘bail-in’ plan followed, with TV crews resorting to stopping Co-op bank customers in the street to ask them if they felt their money was safe.
All this drama aside, it’s worth noting that the co-operative movement as a whole – co-operative with a small ‘c’, that is – is doing rather well.
A new report from Co-operatives UK reveals that, in 2012, the total turnover of the UK’s co-operative economy rose 3.3% to £36.7bn, while the number of co-operatives increased 4% to 6,169. Co-operative memberships, meanwhile, increased by 1.9 million to 15.4 million.
The figures are even more eye-catching when looked at over the last five years. Since 2008, the co-operative economy has grown 23%, with a 28% increase in the number of co-ops. Retail accounts for the lion’s share of the turnover, but only a fraction of the number of organisations – there are hundreds more dedicated to agriculture, schools, housing, social clubs and energy initiatives, to name a few.
The movement has other things to shout about, too – according to Co-operatives UK, 37% of directorships in co-operatives are held by women, compared to 13% in the FTSE 250.
“In this time of limited economic growth and social challenges, the appetite is to seek to achieve independent control, to run a fair organisation that benefits all and to place increasing importance on planning for the longer term,” said Co-operatives UK secretary general Ed Mayo.
“The result is that the co-operative enterprise, with these principles at its heart, is becoming a very real option for many creating a resilient, ‘home grown’ co-operative economy.”
The travails of The Co-operative Group – the sector’s biggest player – may have dented somewhat the government’s efforts to encourage mutuals, but the wider picture suggests Nick Clegg was on to something when, last year, he called for “more of a John Lewis economy”. The co-operative sector’s second biggest group continues to perform well, showing how it can be done.