Democracy is a simple concept: the governance or control of an organization by its members through majority decision-making. In practice, the democratic governance of any human institution is a complex task. Sound democratic governance of co-operatives is no exception. The struggle for democratic rights on a political level is a common theme of the history of the last two centuries, and remains so in many parts of the world today.
Democracy can usefully be thought of as a set of rights: rights to participate in the government of a state or organization. The principle of member democratic control was very radical when the first co-operatives were founded in the mid-19th century, particularly its universal application to all members, including women. It predates the extension of suffrage, having no ties to gender or property ownership.
In co-operatives, ‘democracy’ includes considerations of rights and the responsibilities, which attend such rights. But it also means fostering the spirit of democracy within co-operatives, a never ending difficult, but socially valuable and essential task. One of the key benefits of co-operatives is that they help plant deep democratic roots within the fertile soil of civil society.
One of the biggest challenges facing co-operatives in implementing the Principle of Democratic Member Control is creating a culture that welcomes and encourages debate, rather than stifles it. Lively challenging debate should be seen as a sign of a healthy democracy that needs to be reflected in the more formal parts of a co-operative’s democratic structure, in particular encouraging members to become active members of their co-operative and to put themselves forward as candidates in elections.