Cooperative Development SupportIn the late 1990s ICOM (the former worker cooperative federation) did a cluster analysis of location of worker coops and CDAs (cooperative development agencies) in the UK. It was very clear that existing worker coops clustered around long standing CDAs. There were few where there had not been a CDA. With some odd exceptions eg Suma Wholefoods, the largest 70s worker coop, in Leeds and Halifax.
It was also apparent that the loss of worker coops seemed to be higher where CDAs had disappeared previously due to loss of funding by local authorities as they lost funding from the Conservative governments of the 80s and early 90s.
Social Enterprise UK StyleBut when the Blair Labour government won a landslide victory in 1997, they emphasised social enterprise. Cooperatives were deemed to be 'innefective and obsolete' by the promoters of social enterprise. They successfully lobbied the Blair administration to put all their considerable 'third sector' support into promoting social enterprise. Which meant that there was almost no cooperative development support or awareness raising on the ground. No one with any authority wanted to hear about cooperatives.
Social enterprise thought leaders of the 90s discounted democracy as part of the governance of their type of social enterprise, creating a gulf between cooperatives and UK social enterprise (unlike on the continent where social enterprise and cooperatives intertwine). This was the case until fairly recently.
Change in AttitudeConservative politicians disliked social enterprise 'Blairstyle', they referred it as 'jobs for the children of labour politicians'. After 2010 and the election of a Conservative led government it was again possible to start talking about cooperatives in the UK without getting the cold shoulder from government (local and national). Cooperatives fit the politics of all major parties (for different reasons) even if they don't really understand them.
Cooperative Enterprise HubThe coalition government didn't fund cooperative development though. That was left to the retail society coops, first United NorWest's regional C Change program (2010ish) and then the Cooperative Group's national Cooperative Enterprise Hub from 2011 until their major crisis in 2013.
All of which meant there were few worker coops forming in the 90s (with amazing exceptions e.g. Unicorn Grocery) to replace those fading away after their first twenty years of life. Most small businesses have a fairly short life and few survive their founder. Coops as Virginie Perotin of Leeds University, shows in her research, do survive longer and more often but only statistically. Most still die fairly young (like other small businesses) - especially where they don't have someone to turn to for help when they have a crisis and/or have failed to do succession planning (the majority).
Upturn: Worker Cooperation Becomes Popular AgainThe upturn in worker coops currently could be linked to the Hub program directly and indirectly. Hundreds of coops were set up and revitalised by the Hub. My coop development network, CBC, alone had nearly 300 Hub clients (of all types of coops, worker coops tended to be in the minority). I personally 'saved' quite a few worker coops thanks to Hub funding where they were in a people fix and needed a third party to come in and help unblock the emotional logjams. Such jams kill coops and their businesses and worker coops are especially vulnerable to them, having no boss to cut through the tangle.
The (no longer a cooperative) Coop Bank continues to fund The Hive a smaller support program than the Hub managed by Cooperatives UK. Coop development practitioners report a lot of demand for assistance by groups of, often young, people trying to set up collectively organised businesses, in order to make a living, the way 1970s youth responded to their economic recession.
Tech Coops; the New Wholefoods
I think the tech coops expansion is an example of a business idea whose time is now. In the 70s it was a popular campaign for real food that created a demand and allowed young people to make a living from wholefoods - minimally processed foods. Today software development is the equivalent.
And it's the same junk food/real food choice. Software developers have a terrible reputation, do the project, take the money and run, even though it doesn't work. The market is not only huge and expanding faster than supply can keep up, but the opportunity for more people friendly suppliers is also huge. Learning to code is easy for those who have an aptitude for it and software development is a team activity. Individual workers must cooperate with their colleagues to get the whole development job right. Outlandish, the leading UK tech coop, famously converted from a privately owned partnership into a worker coop to increase their team working potential.
The new SumaOutlandish are undoubtedly the 'Suma' of this new network. But, significantly, they have cooperated with other coops from the start. They actively help other people form tech coops to take on some of the work that Outlandish lacks capacity for/no longer wants to do. They do the more complicated stuff now and pass on the simpler jobs to newer coops to gain experience. eg Outlandish are said to be opening a university coop where students will hone their skills before taking on better paid and more difficult work either in this coop or setting up their own.
CoTech; the Network of Tech CoopsA self supporting ecosystem of tech coops is developing. Just as once there was a self-supporting ecosystem of wholefood coops from importers and manufacturers to distributors to retailers and caterers. It isn't a coincidence that one of the principal advisers to this new, 30 coop strong, CoTech network is Principle 6. sadly the sixth principle faded and was lost from the wholefood coops movement early on and was replaced by competition. Worker coops sank or swam by themselves, and most sank.
Cooperation between Cooperatives, the solution.
CECOP/CICOPA (the European ad Global worker coops federations) have always stressed the need for cooperation between coops and building horizontal networks for successful worker coop development. The evidence is compelling. Wherever worker coops cooperate in horizontal networks, Italy, Spain, Argentina, Japan, France, they prosper and (mostly) survive the ups and downs of national politics and economics.
The loss of so many UK worker coops since 1980 (3000 and down to 400 today) is significantly due to their inability to use Principle 6 for mutual support. Why that was the case is the stuff of another essay.