Open Eye: Never Mind the Windfalls - Look More Closely at the `Third W Ay' from New Ideas for Co-Ops to the Future of Friendly Societies, the OU Explores Alternatives to Traditional Business
Cook, Yvonne, The Independent (London, England)
As building societies have converted to banks over the last few years, their members have raced to vote in favour of de- mutualisation, accompanied by large cash windfalls. Mutualism, or mutuality, as it is often callled, has seemed a lost cause.
But the tide may be turning. Mutualism, the core principle behind co- operatives, building societies and institutions such as friendly societies, may be taking on a new lease of life. It means ownership and control by members - who may be workers, consumers or savers - rather than by shareholders.
The merits of mutualism are nothing new to Roger Spear, chair of the OU's Co-operative Research Unit which was formed 21 years ago. He believes the co-operative ethic has a place in the society of the next century. As a middle way between state welfarism and free market individualism, `new mutualism' has attracted the attention of New Labour. "There is a gap in Labour thinking about how to develop a new philosophy: not private, and not state - something which has social objectives and involves a range of stakeholders. They are looking around for options, and mutualism is one. Time will tell how much they take it on board." Among Roger's latest projects is one looking at what makes co- operatives distinctly different. In conjunction with Leicester University Management Centre and the Co-operative College, he'll be studying examples of innovation and good practice among some of the larger co-ops. The largest co-op, the CWS, was recently the target of a hostile takeover bid which would have ended its mutual status. The bid failed, but it spurred the movement into funding research by Roger and his colleagues. "Until the 1950s co-operatives were leaders in innovation - in consumer rights, for example. The `divi' was around long before supermarket loyalty cards." The researchers hope to home in on new ways in which co-ops can once again become leaders. The heart of the co-operative movement is not just its financial structure, but a commitment towards social as well as economic objectives. Co-operative principles include: openness to all, non- discrimination, being democratically run, concern for education and concern for the community. What sort of new strategies can the mutuals adopt to regain the leading edge in innovation? …