This site is easier to read in landscape format on mobiles.

Co-op looks to the future as Movement regains strength

John Freeman
A talk on the future of the Co-op Movement by a local author takes place next week, organsed by Lancaster Green Party.

Ambleside-based author and Co-op member Robin Martakies describes his recent book, Co-operative Societies in North Lancashire and South Cumbria 1860-2011 as "a mix of facts and figures, gossip, pictures and advertisements looking back on a lost era of good service and good value, where any 'profits' were returned to members.

“It is an enthusiast’s book," Robin, a former media relations officer, told  the North West Evening Mail when the book was released last year. "It will appeal to those who love the Co-op and still remember their ‘divi’ number.

“For those of us who grew up when there was a Co-op on every street corner and a department store on every block – or so it seemed – the Co-op was our provider of choice," he recalls. “It was a comfortable friend that looked after us, ordered our furniture, delivered our milk and paid out our dividend twice a year so that mother could stock up for the holidays and buy dad some socks at Christmas.

“While Co-op department stores continued to provide a home for Santa – along with the fairies who stood by his side in the grotto and handed out presents – all seemed well with the world."

Almost every street corner had a Co-op shop or department store, and locally-based Co-operative Societies with thousands of members provided a range of services including libraries, public halls and even cinemas. (The Co-op was a pioneer from 1898 in the use of film to promote its products, with films shown in the many Co-op public halls and cinemas up and down the country).

Co-ops proved to be a success as by 1930 a million of the five million people in Lancashire were members - but now, only a handful of the Victorian town and village Co-operative Societies retain their independence in a trading world dominated by the likes of Asda and Tesco. 

“The poor old Co-op embarked upon a long and painful cycle of decline," says Robin. "Local societies closed or amalgamated with bigger ones – which routinely amalgamated with even larger ones a few years later – shops closed, services disappeared from view and – horror or horrors – the dividend stopped.”

That policy has now been reversed and the Co-operative Movement is making something of a comeback and there is now renewed interest in the Co-operative movement. So what are the prospects for Co-ops to make a comeback in the 21st century?

"As a Co-op member for years I support the mutual structure that binds The Co-operative to its membership and allows profits to be reinvested to benefit the Society," says Robin, talking about his aspirations for the Movement. "The Co-operative must continue to listen to its members and address their needs and concerns. It must be fair minded, open and accountable to the community through its ethical and charitable practices and diverse range of businesses. It must truly involve its members and staff from grass roots upwards."

• The Co-operative Movement - Past, Present and Future: Talk and discussion with Robin Martakies, hosted by North Lancashire Green Party, Tuesday 10th January, 7.30pm at the Quaker Meeting House, next to Lancaster railway station. Free admission. Refreshments provided.