On a wet winter evening I settled down to watch the biographical film about the Rochdale Pioneers Co-operative movement. The film itself (produced by the Co-op – so possibly a little biased) tells the story of how the first Co-op store was successfully opened, despite many economic and social challenges (you can find out more at http://www.rochdalepioneersmuseum.coop/). Although the Co-op movement grew out of Rochdale in 1844 it was Robert Owen, a Welsh man, who then moved to Scotland, who is widely credited as being instrumental in encouraging co-operative communities. His mill, at New Lanark, can be visited today and is now a world heritage site (http://www.newlanark.org/).
The Rochdale Pioneers film is, in places, a little clunky (you can read a review at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2506416/) but it covers the key points of the story. One of the most striking messages was the way in which the Pioneers persevered despite having no expertise as shopkeepers, financial backing (other than their own savings) or meaningful political support. It also highlighted the way in which those with power (financial or knowledge) were able to manipulate situations, and other people, to preserve their position of privilege.
So what can we learn from the story of the Rochdale Pioneers? The way in which the Pioneers worked together, and organised themselves, meant they ultimately succeeded in their aims. Also drawing parallels to today it is sad that certain groups in society are still being marginalised and kept down by those with power, or an agenda. I believe a modern example is illustrated in the recent series Channel 4 show Benefit Street. This show caused a huge backlash in ‘social-media land’, and now it appears the depiction of life there wasn’t entirely accurate (this article provides links to some real hard data http://www.theguardian.com/housing-network/2014/jan/17/benefits-street-things-you-should-know-myths-birmingham). Perhaps the production company did not set out to fuel such hatred, but by editing out certain stories, and residents, they painted an inaccurate picture of this community. However, many of those in positions of power and privilege directed abuse at these residents. Instead of aiming abuse and anger at certain groups in society maybe, in future, we could show some compassion, and encourage community and co-operative working where possible. Oh, and make sure you join the Co-op too!