Coop Congress 2024

The Co-operative Congress 2024 was held in the Eastside Rooms in Birmingham – which, like many venues in Birmingham, looks fairly ordinary on the outside but amazing on the inside! It was nice being able to watch the horrible midsummer weather from behind floor-to-ceiling panes of unbreakable glass, with unlimited coffee and snacks and plenty of good company.

We had decided to attend after a few years of missing events, either because of Covid-related cancellations or because we had too much going on (2023 seemed to pass by in a blur at our Co-op). It was a great decision – once again, after speaking to dozens of other co-operators, listening to inspiring speakers and participating in workshops, we felt part of a great community that gives us a sense of purpose and shared responsibility for our work and the society in which we do it.

We had a warm welcome to Co-op Congress by Rose Marley, CEO of Co-operatives UK, followed by an inspiring talk by journalist and author Grace Blakeley, inviting us to challenge individualism and how co-ops by nature give people the sense of their own collective power. This was followed by a panel about the importance of listening, how organisations need to listen more and which challenged us to question if sometimes the listening is just performative.

Addressing the climate crisis was part of almost every talk, especially in ‘We Have the Power’  where it exemplified the role of co-ops in the energy crisis and how we can turn eco-anxiety into eco-action. 

Our Creative Director Ben Philp took part in the panel discussion called ‘Culture, Creativity & Worker Co-op; It’s not just a job (it’s a way of life)’. He was joined by amazing creatives Leena (not/nowhere) and Lucinda (Media Co-op), who spoke about creative solutions and the link between creativity and co-ops. Thinking about different, fairer ways to work in creative industries where the workers and their wellbeing, voice, and autonomy is often overlooked. 

One of our favourite talks was ‘Co-operatives at the heart of communities- solutions, challenges and where’s the support?’. We learned how a national disaster, caused by systems and governments failing the people, led to a self-organised movement of co-ops finding justice, and services that are run for and by the community in much better ways. 

We attended an important workshop relating to the upcoming Law Commission review of the legislation around cooperatives. We found out that the last major overhaul of these laws was in the time of Queen Victoria, so this seems timely. The purpose is to make the legislation more ‘enabling, functional and up-to-date’. This seems quite dry until you realise that the inadequate laws and definitions around cooperatives are a key factor in the difficulty many coops have faced accessing traditional finance and capital. There was a representative at the workshop from a pension fund that was very keen to invest in cooperatives but was unable to due to the risk profile and lack of safeguarding for investors.

Cooperatives UK are collating opinions from members around what the priorities should be, which they are then going to be presenting to the new government – which they are hoping is going to be Labour, who have promised to double the size of the co-operative sector. Interestingly, one of the key takeaways was that even this election promise seems poorly defined, and one of the first questions to the government should be what do they plan to double, and how?

Another interesting workshop addressed the problem of education. Most people don’t know what cooperatives are (this relates to the problems of definition in legislation already mentioned). Even on the train home, I met someone who had attended this congress for the first time, and after several conversations with people in cooperatives, still didn’t know exactly what one was and had to Google a proper definition. This is a problem! How do we bridge this knowledge gap and present coops as a viable alternative way to start a business? Apparently, most people working for large coops do not even know what makes their organisation different from others.

The use of educational tools in schools was promoted by Tanya Noon from Central Coop, and she was kind enough to emphasize several times that Creative Coop has designed very popular and useful educational games for them, which they have used in many different settings with great success. Playing a game is very different to attending a lecture or reading a book. In fact, the games were by far the most popular items on our stand, attracting lots of interest and admiration for the design. People wanted to know how they could buy them, borrow them, or possibly steal them, whether it was to use in education or just with their family. Several people thought their children needed to learn about personal budgeting! So we are now a games cooperative – or we’re at least thinking about how we can do more in this area.

The second day featured the Youth Summit, and the meet-and-greet area was suddenly full of younger people, which was nice to see. In general, I think this was the best Cooperative Congress I’ve ever attended, with the most buzz and positive feeling, and much less of an old-school cooperative feeling. Let’s face it, coops have often appeared stuffy in the past – we have a communications problem that is not easy to solve. One of the youth representatives in the educational workshop wondered why there was so little cohesion and coordination between cooperatives – a fair point, and one of the paradoxes of our movement. It isn’t so much a movement as a loose collection of very different types of organization. She asked why no one in the coops movement was talking to school career advisors and no-one knew. Maybe that idea will come to something?

Anyway, we’re all very glad we went. For Artem and Sofia it was the first time they had been to a co-operative event and I hope it won’t be the last. For myself and Ben, it was great to see everything back to normal and even better than before. I don’t like to get too optimistic when it comes to politics, but I have to admit it does feel like a positive moment for cooperatives with some potential for change and growth in our sector. Let’s see what’s happened this time next year. For myself, I don’t want it to be another 4 years before I feel like I’ve connected with other people working in cooperatives, so I’ve resolved to get a bit more involved and connected and try to stay that way.