With Brexit becoming official and challenges caused by the COVID 19 pandemic, it is time to sit with the new CEO of Co-operatives UK and ask her about her new role and vision.
Rose Marley has been a social entrepreneur for the last 20 years, working with The Co-Operative Group, the social enterprise SharpFutures, as well as sitting in several boards. She believes that we have a “historic opportunity now to merge cooperative principles with digital technologies to create equitable, sustainable platforms that our society needs”.
As she takes on her new role as the CEO of Co-Operatives UK, CECOP had the opportunity to interview her.
CECOP: Hello Rose! Thank you for this interview with us. We could not think of a better moment to sit down with you, as you begin to settle down in your new position as CEO. Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself, and your new position?
Rose Marley: Of course. It is my pleasure.
I’ve actually had quite an eclectic career and have spent most of it working closely with youth. I am a great believer in investing in the next generation.
I started out in the music business where I became concerned by the lack of social mobility in the creative industries, so I founded SharpFutures, a social enterprise that supports diverse, young talent into creative, digital and tech industries. Until recently I led a creative hub called the Sharp Project, TV drama studio Space Studios Manchester, and a pilot campaign for the Mayor of Greater Manchester to improve travel opportunities and raise aspiration for young people in Greater Manchester.
I’ve always been a co-operator and I’m known for making connections and galvanising community spirit, for example I created an international broadcast of choirs singing from the steps of Manchester town hall to mark the first anniversary of the Manchester Arena atrocity. This was only made possible through collaboration. We also produced a lockdown version in 2020 using drones to film musicians and artists on their doorsteps and it was sponsored by The Co-op.
I was brought up with a strong sense of the co-operative values especially around caring for others. I learnt many of my business skills from a young age at my granddad’s family funeral business, which later joined co-operative funeral care. It is powerful for me to see shops like my granddad’s still trading to this day, but co-ops as we know, are resilient.
C: What is your vision for Co-ops UK as the new CEO?
RM: My main aim is to revitalize the sector in the UK and bring to everyone’s attention that there is a tried and tested trading model which is fair and equitable, with a shared vision to build a better world through co-operation. The pandemic has shone a light on the inequalities in our society, but we’ve also seen the co-operative values and principles of solidarity and concern for the community coming through.
It is our job as Co-operatives UK to champion co-ops. To raise awareness of the co-operative model, which was of course founded here in the UK. To position co-ops as a way to rebuild when people are looking for new ways to do business. And to lobby government, funders, and policy makers to invest in co-ops and understand that the co-operative model is a viable business model.
There is an opportunity right now to position co-ops as a way to build back better. The COVID-19 pandemic has made us all rethink how we do things – as a society, as businesses, organisations, and individuals. And now, more than ever, it is evident that co-ops offer so much to people, communities, the economy, society and the UK as a whole. We need to get that message out loud and clear.
C: This next question is inevitable, but ever so important. What do you think will be the impact of Brexit on British cooperatives, and especially worker coops? Has Co-operatives UK gathered data on this issue? How is Co-operatives UK helping the affiliated coops and particularly, worker co-ops, navigate the waters of the new rules?
RM: Brexit is going to affect British co-ops in the same way as any business that imports and exports goods, like wholefoods worker co-op Suma who export millions of pounds worth of goods each year. It will also have an added impact for some of our agricultural co-op members that employ large numbers of migrant workers.
These larger co-op members have reported that their supply chains have planned for this and are coping. The key issue is that long-term it will increase costs for them, which will have to be passed on, with profitability likely to be impacted.
The full extent of this impact will not be known until post-transition conditions are experienced in real-time and it is still early days. Coupled with the ongoing economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, these are certainly challenging times for co-ops. However, we know that co-ops are resilient, focus more on the longer term and put people and member needs before profits.
Co-operatives UK is monitoring the activity and impact of our members on an on-going basis and is providing advice and support where it is needed.
C: In 2019, CECOP had the pleasure of celebrating its 40th anniversary in Manchester, a place full of cooperative history, a celebration that could not have happened without the support of the Worker Coop Federation and Co-ops UK. It was for CECOP an invaluable opportunity to learn from the British cooperative practices on democratic innovation at work. Those presentations ignited a broader work on governance that helps the whole organisation deepen our cooperative identity. As we said often, regardless of Brexit, the cooperative movement is stronger than politics: how would you envision the international role of Co-operatives UK in international organisation such as CECOP in the future?
RM: I 100% agree that the co-operative movement transcends politics and has survived and thrived for over 175 years, outliving any government. What binds us is the co-operative values and principles and the ongoing need to find co-operative solutions to the issues we face today – whether it be music streaming services giving a fairer share of the profits to artists or emerging cycle delivery services challenging the mainstream models.
To renew our commitment to global co-operation and making the most of our existing international relationships we have created an international working group chaired by Sarah Alldred from the Co-op College which includes current internationally elected representatives such as Ben Reid (ICA), Sion Whellens (CECOP and CICOPA) and Nick Crofts (Cooperatives Europe). The working group’s current focus is our future approach to disaster relief funds, the UN sustainable development goals and improving best practice sharing on new innovations.
C: Finally, we have of course a COVID related question. Last year the world experienced a global pandemic, and the cooperative sector was not exempted from it. How does Co-Operatives UK help their affiliates? Does Co-ops UK have any claims or expectations from the British government in terms of COVID relief? And any for the co-op movement as a whole?
RM: As you would expect we have pivoted to focus on supporting members and the wider co-op sector through the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. Here in the UK, we are in the middle of our third national lockdown, which is having a devastating impact on co-ops’ ability to trade. There is government support and grants available currently until the end of April.
Through our lobbying activity we fought to ensure that co-ops were eligible to apply for this government support and created guidance to help members understand what financial support is available and the HR, governance, and funding implications of strict social distancing measures.
Our events and training have moved online, covering topics that members need urgent help with such as cashflow forecasting and holding online Annual General Meetings. We have channelled funding towards the emergency response, including setting up a support programme for co-ops in trouble.
We have seen co-ops responding to the pandemic in all sorts of ways including supporting their communities through mutual aid, delivering food to vulnerable people, and giving millions of pounds of support for local causes.
We have also seen a newfound community spirit during the pandemic, and an openness for new ways of working. We want to turn this into transformative social action, by supporting new co-ops to form and existing ones to grow. We run our own co-operative development programmes with partners, but this can be amplified by investment from local, regional, and UK government.
Co-ops can help create a fairer, more equitable society, which is key to levelling up the economy. They provide decent jobs and support the communities where they are based, and this evidence forms part of our ongoing campaigning and co-op development work.
C: Thank you for your time!