Ninety-one million and rising means that we’re a nation of members

Guest blog by Ed Mayo, Secretary General of Co-operatives UK, discusses the UK's growing status as a 'nation of members', and reveals what exactly makes a good membership organisation.

By Ed Mayo, Secretary General of Co-operatives UK

A country of shopkeepers? The suggestion, often attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, was certainly made, in derogatory tones, two hundred and twenty years ago in the National Convention in Paris.  Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac declared Britain to be “une nation de boutiques”. The contrast I guess that he wanted to make was between a democratic republic and a market state.

Although shopkeeping is probably a tougher livelihood now than then, there is one way in which the description holds. The UK is a nation of members – and many of these are member owners of co-operative and employee-owned retail shops across the UK.

We have just released the UK co-operative economy 2016, annual data on the sector, which point to a significant increase over the five years in the number of members of co-ops.

The co-operative and then we can add in also the mutual sector – powered by the likes of mass member owned high street businesses like the Co-op Group and Nationwide – form the largest part of the UK’s wider membership figures.  This is going to get larger too. The Co-op recently relaunched its membership scheme, so that 5% of own brand purchases are returned to members, and 1% to their communities – and aims to recruit one million new members over the next period.

The rise and rise of co-operative members

Being a member of a club, a community or a cause is part of who we are. It is rare to find someone who does not belong to any group. It is also rare to find someone for whom being a member doesn’t also change, in subtle ways, how they interact with others and how they view themselves. There is such a thing as society, and membership is one of the building blocks.

Membership, in fact, is part of a wider field of civic participation. You can sign a petition, click to like an online campaign or donate money. All these actions are part of a healthy democracy and are acts of citizenship, but they are not necessarily rooted in membership. Because the term ‘membership’ is used in so many varied, and sometimes shallow ways, we have also done some research on what the public thinks count as proper membership.

Good membership, it emerges, can be seen most clearly as a two-way relationship between an individual and an institution. We find that people think the best membership organisations do five things:

  1. keep them informed,
  2. give them a say,
  3. treat them with respect,
  4. allow them a vote and
  5. offer them opportunities to get involved.

What underpins this, in terms of social psychology, appears to be that great forms of membership are ones that offer identity and control.

We can this as a way to select across that mix of membership schemes to weed out membership schemes that are really only one-way models. Having a loyalty card for a coffee chain gives you no voice. Being a friend of a museum gives you no vote. For the most part, anyway. From this, I have had a go at identifying the top 15 membership networks in the UK. These are:

  1. Building Societies – 25 million
  2. Co-operatives – 17.5 million
  3. Neighbourhood Watch – 10 million
  4. Sports clubs – 9.1 million
  5. Mutual insurers – 8 million
  6. Trade unions – 6.4 million
  7. Christian churches – 5.5 million
  8. National Trust 3.7 million
  9. NHS Trusts – 2 million
  10. Wildlife Trusts – 1.1 million
  11. RSPB – 1 million
  12. Political parties – 812,000
  13. Freemasons – 600,000
  14. Girl guides – 538,000
  15. Scouts – 450,000

There has never been a Doomsday Book for members in the UK, so this is far from the final word. What are the next fifteen? Or fifteen hundred? Our intention has been to open up the conversation on membership, rather than close it down, and we would be delighted to find others.

In England and Wales, for example, the Charity Commission estimates that there are around 80,000 charities that have a membership structure. These come in different forms.

A number of the disability charities have members, often with a democratic model where members are able to vote on who gets on the governing board (even if that the board remain in formal terms trustees of the charity rather than directors acting as representatives of member interests). In the disability field, over many years, this shift has been key to the move away from a tradition of paternalism, acting ‘for’ people with disabilities to a model in which action is led by people with disabilities. The great participatory slogan has been ‘nothing about us, without us’.

The New Citizenship Project, led by Jon Alexander, is working with six associations on the theme of the future of membership organisations: Amnesty International, Soil Association, NASUWT, Tate, National Union of Students and House of St Barnabas. This looks a fresh and contemporary version of an exploratory venture with fourteen membership charities coordinated by Katherine Hudson for NCVO with the RSA a few years back.

So, how many members are there in the UK? Just drawing on our top fifteen membership networks, I conclude that there are over ninety one million in total. Not surprisingly, there are more members than people in the UK, because we are members many times over. But still, this is a dramatic number – for comparison, it is ten times the number of individual shareholders in the UK. Can we imagine the television news, where member ups and downs were treated with the same profile and respect as stocks and shares?

With technology platforms making it easier and more cost-effective to operate membership systems, members are likely to be part of national life for years to come. With ninety one million memberships and rising, we are a nation of members.