While the Coronavirus outbreak has meant that in-person Co-operative Party branch meetings have been suspended since March, our members were keen from the start of this crisis to ensure that they kept on co-operating at a local level. Many members were an integral part of mutual aid groups in their area, or wanted to use their experience campaigning for food justice at Party meetings to be useful during this crisis. So we were quick to provide officers with the means and instructions to hold virtual branch meetings – and even we were blown away by the response.
Making use of video conferencing and – where broadband coverage is patchy – telephone conference calls, officers have found that they are not only having similar levels of participation in their meetings, but are even reaching parts of the membership which have previously found it difficult to attend physical meetings.
Those with caring responsibilities (an issue that disproportionately affects women) and those with disabilities can sometimes find in-person meetings inaccessible. In addition, our branch areas can sometimes span a large distance in rural areas, meaning members need to travel a fair distance to attend meetings. Virtual meetings provide an easy alternative that allows those whose voices too often go unheard to contribute and co-operate. Virtual meetings obviously throw up accessibility issues of their own, but it has been great to see even our least tech-savvy members embracing the opportunity, with younger members helping older members get to grips with the technology, helping to maintain a strong and vibrant co-operative community.
It’s this community aspect which is so vitual in these difficult times. Many members aren’t just fellow co-operators: they’re friends and community members who could otherwise feel isolated. Take the Sunderland branch, which held their branch meeting on Zoom. Their Secretary Paul Stewart said: “Although the party rules state that we can have remote meetings, we decided to hold an informal meeting as we were conscious that it’s a difficult time for many. It was great to see and hear from fellow co-operators and we were delighted that a member of staff was able to join us – normally that is something we would need to plan ahead to organise. We had an incredibly useful discussion.”
NEMCO Amber Valley & Derbyshire Dales held a telephone conference call meeting. As the Chair of the Branch Gail Dolman said: “Turnout was great – as good as it’s ever been. We had an update on the sterling work that Central England Co-operative has been doing and a discussion on campaigning. It was a bit weird at first but I got the strong impression that people welcomed an opportunity to talk to each other. We agreed that if the lockdown continues we’ll definitely hold another virtual meeting and I would definitely encourage other branches to give it a go.”
Technology isn’t just enabling regular meetings to take place, but also allowing branches to think bigger and invite speakers from further afield. Derby branch held a Zoom meeting featuring Joe Fortune, the Co-operative Party’s General Secretary, and also had an update from the President of Central England Co-operative, Elaine Dean. Branch Chair Joanna West was enthusiastic about video conferencing: “It was fantastic to be joined by Joe; video conferencing made a socially distanced world much smaller and enabled us to open our meeting up. Members enjoyed it and I’m now eager to invite one of the Co-op Party MPs to join us in the future.”
Of course making use of technology to keep members connected isn’t innovative for some branches. Hampshire and the Isle of Wight has an online discussion forum where they share documents remotely and hold their remote branch meeting using Microsoft Teams, and we hope other branches will join them in keeping a strong virtual connection in future.
While most branches are excited to see each other in-person again when restrictions are eased, we have all learned an important lesson from holding virtual branch meetings that we shouldn’t leave behind after lockdown. Empowering members with technology and giving them the virtual tools to support their communities has been a great success and allowed us to reach members and supporters who may not otherwise been able to participate, giving a voice to those who need it most.
I suspect that even when social distancing means we can be together again, virtual meetings will still be an important tool in our arsenal for expanding participation. We haven’t seen the last of Zoom yet.