jimtoggleJim O’Neill says that the co-operative model has huge potential for delivering public services in Scotland and should be promoted much more than it currently is.


Last week was the Annual Conference of the Co-operative Party, held in Cardiff. While I was unable to attend, as a former National Executive Member I kept in touch with the event, and particularly with the fine speech by Johann Lamont, on behalf of the Holyrood Labour and Co-operative Group, now grown to eight members.

This got me thinking about how co-operative enterprise could contribute to a modern Scotland. Co-operative enterprise is the secret success of the Scottish economy, but it is given little publicity other than the very largest co-operatives such as the Co-operative Group, John Lewis and a few others.

That is why I was glad to see a full page article in Co-operative News about a meeting between representatives of the Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society, the collective of agricultural co-operatives, and the Cabinet Secretary for rural economy and connectivity, Fergus Ewing. In arguing for more support for co-operatives in agriculture, SAOS Chair George Lawrie told the minister:

“Co-operative business is more crucial than ever for Scottish agriculture and we want to demonstrate to the Cabinet Secretary how our co-operation in farming, food and drink provides opportunities and resilience that are required for success in these changing times.”

Many of our farmers are co-operating in much the same way as the founding fathers, the Fenwick Weavers, did in the 18th century, sharing costs and agreeing marketing without losing their individuality as farmers. Sadly, the Co-operative News was the only place that I saw a report of this meeting, which was worthy of further publicity. Let’s hope that Mr Ewing takes the argument seriously and sets his civil servants to work devising new ways in which farming co-operatives can be promoted.

Another area in which co-operation could have made a difference was in rail transport. Transport unions and the Co-operative Party put together a very strong argument for “The People’s Rail” in which Scotrail would be taken over by a community and users’ organisation to ensure that it would respond to Scottish travellers’ needs rather than seek to make a profit for a commercial owner. Sadly, the Scottish Government preferred to take the money, selling Scotrail off to the Dutch Government owned Abellio. Already, they have run into trouble with the unions and the fares are substantially higher that those charged in the Netherlands. An opportunity lost.

In education, we have seen the first co-operative schools created in Scotland, starting with Loudoun Academy in East Ayrshire. In England, such schools are run by trusts set up by the Co-operative Group, but Co-operative Education Trust Scotland, led by Hugh Docherty, have shown how such schools can operate without removing them from Local Authority control. CETS have also managed to get modules on co-operation included in the Curriculum for Excellence, a vital step since young people have in the past only been shown the capitalist model of business.

Lots of evidence now shows that co-operative businesses are, on average, more successful that the traditional model of ownership. Employee owned businesses give each employee a real stake in the success of their business and a real voice in the direction of travel of the business. More work needs to be done to promote employee owned business in Scotland.

We hear much about the difficulties in primary care, and attracting staff to GP surgeries. Few people know that GP surgeries are doctor owned businesses who rely entirely on the NHS for funding. In England, a number of practices have been turned into co-operatives, allowing every employee, both medical and administrative, an ownership of the business. These have the same benefits as employee owned businesses with a knock-on efficiency benefit to the service. Some have also involved patients in decision making so completing the virtuous circle.

Similarly, in social care, a number of social care co-operatives have taken over the delivery of this service from the NHS and local authorities. These have all been successful both in cutting the cost of the care, but also improving the patient experience. Other areas of Scotland need to look at where these have been set up and be prepared to hand over this work.

Energy co-operatives, almost entirely in the renewable sector, have begun to prove successful, although these are really in their early stages, and community ownership of community facilities, such as local halls, community centres, sports facilities, parks and other facilities currently owned and maintained by local councils will not only allow councils to spend their funding in other ways to improve their communities, but will also allow those communities to have a real stake in developing such facilities.

This has just been a quick trawl (not troll) through the many ways that we can improve Scotland through the Co-operative Movement, a movement started in the little village of Fenwick in Ayrshire in 1761. However, much needs to be done to promote the co-operative alternative, and in this we would look to the government for pro-active policies in this regard. John Swinney, a number of years ago, committed the last SNP government to promoting the benefits of co-operation. Now we need to see specific policies on this.

Remember, the future is co-operative.