Andrew Bibby


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Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist, working as an independent consultant for a number of international and national organisations, and as a regular contributor to British national newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a number of books.

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Ed Mayo: the man who leads the UK's cooperatives

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published by ICMIF (International Cooperative & Mutual Insurance Federation) in Voice magazine, 2011

Ed Mayo, who heads the British apex organisation Co-operatives UK, calls for coops and mutuals worldwide to be much more assertive.

“It's as though the cooperative and mutual sector had been locked in a room in a large old mansion. When the credit crunch came we were waiting for the knock on the door to say ‘You were right all along'. But that knock never came,” he says.

Instead, he says that the global response by regulators since then has been a ‘one-eyed' one – focused just on conventional business structures and ignoring the alternatives. “Although there were mutuals caught up in leveraged financial activity, by and large coops and mutuals emerged as relatively safe,” he says, citing Dutch-based cooperative Rabobank as a particularly good example. “But the regulatory response post credit crunch has been blind to other business models. The recent Basel III agreement, for example, assumes that all financial institutions are private sector banks and therefore need to be treated as such.”

In part, he suggests that coops and mutuals let themselves down by not managing to get their message across. “The fundamental failure was a lack of confidence in ourselves. For years, it was too easy to assume that our job was to prove that we were as good as shareholder companies,” he says. Rather, he maintains, the argument should be turned around: it is conventional businesses that can learn from coops and mutuals, he says.

Ed Mayo took over from Pauline Green (now President of the International Co-operative Alliance) as Co-operatives UK's Secretary-General last year. The organisation's membership ranges from the giant Co-operative Group (parent of ICMIF member Co-operative Financial Services) to very small worker coops, and also includes relatively new parts of the movement including football supporter trusts, renewable energy coops and a growing number of cooperatively owned village pubs. This last development gives Ed Mayo particular pleasure. “Public houses are a British institution, part of British cultural identity, but at the moment the market is very tough and one pub closes every few hours across the UK . Now pubs are reopening on a cooperative basis, using the power of shared ownership where other models would not be capable of working,” he says.

The evidence is there that cooperative models are respected by the public: he cites a recent study which claimed to find that 75% of the public believes cooperative businesses act fairly – whilst by contrast with the percentage who said that shareholder companies acted fairly was 18%. So, in Britain at least, there should be no excuse for pessimism. The cooperative and mutual sector there has had something of a renaissance in recent years following years of both demutualisation and (in the coop retail sector) market decline. Ed Mayo points in particular to the successful launch recently of the shared Co-operative brand, which is co-owned by a number of cooperative retail societies, as an example of the cooperative sector leading in innovative new initiatives.

Under his leadership Co-operatives UK has also working hard to reinforce the sector's profile nationally, not least through the launch of the first Co-operatives Fortnight, held last year from mid June to early July. The strategic aim was to get across the message that an alternative business model, one where profits and ownership are shared, is not only possible but is alive, active and vibrant. Over 150 events were staged across the country and over 3000 cooperative shops promoted the Fortnight. Co-operatives UK took the opportunity to announce the latest statistics on the size of the UK 's cooperative economy, worth in total about GBP 33 billion (USD 53 bn).

If Co-operatives Fortnight clearly provides a valuable platform for UK coops, Ed Mayo is also keenly aware of the enormous potential being offered to cooperatives worldwide by the UN's decision to brand 2012 as International Year of Cooperatives. 2012 is, he says, a “big opportunity” for the movement. Co-operatives UK is, he says, already engaged in detailed planning to attempt to maximise the opportunity.

Ed Mayo came to Co-operatives UK after a high-profile career which spanned economics, community and consumer issues. He was particularly influential in the eleven years he led the action-orientated think-tank New Economics Foundation which explored the scope for, among other things, ways to develop strong local economies. He has also engaged in recent years in the debate over the reform of public service delivery, authoring an influential pamphlet in 2001 The Mutual State .

He also brings a global perspective to his work, not least from his role in coordinating the worldwide Jubilee 2000 movement which campaigned in the run up to the Millennium for cancellation of the debt of the world's poorest countries. “The cooperative movement has always been very internationalist, but that hasn't extended to global brands and global models,” he says, pointing out that conventional companies have had no such difficulty in developing global businesses and brands. “Coops and mutuals have to go the way that the market is going,” he adds.

And there are new possibilities. One idea in Britain is to actively encourage non-cooperative businesses to convert into coops. Ed Mayo floats the idea of a business tax concession which could reward companies passing assets across to their employees. Ed is also aware that there may all sorts of ways in which the online world can bring new types of cooperative undertaking – “What are the opportunities for cooperatives in the Google age?” he asks.

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