Troubled waters at Calais

I have followed with interest over the past three years the successful operation of the cross-channel ferry MyFerryLink, which (following the collapse of the former company SeaFrance) has been managed as a workers’ cooperative (or in French, a cooperative society, a SCOP).

Encouraging, MyFerryLink’s business has been growing: turnover has grown from 74m euros in 2013 to 93m last year. Despite this, there are choppy waters ahead for the coop, however.

The arrangement has been a complicated one. It was Eurotunnel which purchased the boats from the old SeaFrance, and then sub-contracted with the newly established cooperative the actual running of the service. Eurotunnel’s involvement attracted the critical attention of the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority on the basis that the Channel Tunnel’s operator shouldn’t also be running boats. The net result has been that Eurotunnel announced in January this year that it was selling the business.

Where this leaves the coop is not clear. Any new owner of Eurotunnel’s boats might be happy to maintain the arrangement with the coop – but then again, it might not.

It’s a difficult time. It’s further complicated by the fact that the chair of the Supervisory Board of the cooperative Didier Cappelle, one of the leading lights behind the original coop proposal, appears to have lost confidence in the management of the coop.

I’ll try to keep you posted as the story develops. (Meanwhile my thanks to Angela Greenwood who, by complete coincidence, gave me this afternoon last Thursday’s copy of Libération which ran a full page feature on developments at MyFerryLink. The piece is also available at the moment on Libé’s website.)


The Co-operative Group management’s remarkable performance

I try not to go on too much about the Co-operative Group (my aim here is to talk about cooperative businesses in all their diversity, across the world and not just in the UK), but current developments at the Group require some comment.

The top management (somehow I feel myself wanting to call them the top brass) have handled the election of the three Member-Nominated Directors to the Board by taking ineptitude to a quite remarkable new level. This is a consummate performance of how not to do it.

If you haven’t already picked up the story of how the Group has decided that its members will only have three candidates’ names on the ballot paper for the three vacancies, having failed to offer members the full six-person shortlist, I would refer you to recent news coverage in the Guardian. Have a look too at the piece written by Pauline Green (ex Co-operatives UK general secretary and now the International Co-operative Alliance’s much admired President) on how she was bumped at the last minute off the ballot paper.

Allan Leighton today in Co-op News offers the canard that the Lucky Three have the professional and business expertise which the others lacked, although quite how, say, Hazel Blears meets these criteria when Pauline Green doesn’t is beyond me.

I have to agree with Pauline when she states that “Contested elections are a pre-condition for a vigorous, lively and thrusting co-operative”.  As she points out, this is a devastating blow to hopes of a more democratic way ahead for the Group: “Anyone who knows the co-operative movement will understand without any equivocation that the refusal to give some serious consideration to the wishes of the member council was a move that in a stroke destroyed all the trust and confidence that might have been built in the coming weeks and months.”

I am worried for the Group. It is a poorly performing business in a sector where even the established market leaders are struggling. There are perhaps two ways the Group could be saved. It could be run simply as another concern, ditching any pretence of being a different or more ethical form of business, with the hopes that, before too long, it could make itself sufficiently attractive to a would-be purchaser. Or it could use its cooperative structure as a unique business advantage, majoring on its ethical difference (including such things as fairtrade) and taking advantage of the shopping experiences and feedback from its many millions of members to gain competitive edge over rivals.

My route would be the second. The Group’s current Board, I believe, have chosen the first.

It’s good news week, evidently

Two separate envelopes through the letterbox here today, both in different ways bearing encouraging news of the health of the cooperative movement.

One is the Spring 2015 newsletter of Rootstock, the ‘social investment’ cooperative society which offers withdrawable shares to its members as a means of raising capital to help cooperatives (mainly housing coops) working for social change. Rootstock was set up through the efforts of the Radical Routes network of coops and deserves to be better known. Rootstock investors’ money has since 1991 been used to make sixty loans to coops. Their website gives all the information investors need.

Valley Organics is a West Yorkshire based workers’ cooperative running an organic food shop which they purchased two years ago from its previous private owners. Valley Organics’ very attractively produced Annual Report seems to me a model of the sort of way that workers’ coops should share information with their friends and customers, with details of both the business’s financial performance and its ethical policy. The good news is that turnover is 35% up on projections. (“To be perfectly honest, we are a bit surprised to find ourselves running such a successful enterprise!” they say with refreshing candour.) Good for them.

Autonomy and solidarity for Mondragon’s coops

Work Together, the e-newsletter published by CICOPA (the international federation of workers’ and producer cooperatives), is always worth a look and the latest edition arrives in my inbox this morning. Among other stories there’s one about the Mondragon Corporation’s moves to discuss how the cooperative federation should in future combine autonomy and self-management for its individual constituent cooperatives with federation-wide solidarity between the coops. This is an important discussion, one which has relevance outside the particular context of Mondragon.

On close reading, CICOPA’s story is simply a report of the Mondragon conference last December which I covered myself in a blog here on Dec 17th.  But it has reminded me that I need to continue to monitor the discussions at Mondragon. I’ll let you know here as and when I find out more.


Workers’ coops building solidarity

A cup of coffee this morning with Cath Muller from Cornerstone housing coop and Footprint Workers Coop in Leeds (well, the coffee was mine, Cath had a much healthier herb tea).

Cath reminded me of the work which many of the more progressive workers’ coops in Britain are doing at the moment to build the Worker Cooperative Solidarity Fund, an excellent initiative launched last year based on a vision of “a strong, growing and self-reliant network of successful workers’ co-operatives”.

It’s good to see that workers’ coops are getting together, as last year, for another weekend conference, being held in early May. During the fag-end of the later twentieth century when the retail cooperative movement was in dire straits it was the workers’ cooperative part of the movement which provided the energy and creativity. That energy is still needed today.

What are the Co-op Group’s wider responsibilities?

The behind-the-scenes rearguard action by the Co-operative Party to persuade the Co-operative Group not to leave it financially in the cold (the Group currently gives the Party about two-thirds of its income) has reached the news pages of the Financial Times today.

I want to comment not specifically on the Party funding issue (I may come back to this later) but on a related but more general point. Here’s my question: is the Co-operative Group simply another independent cooperative, with responsibilities just to its members? Or does it, as the largest cooperative in Britain and as the chief beneficiary of 170+ years of British cooperative development, have duties towards the wider cooperative movement?

There were a number of cooperative societies in nineteenth century Britain who chose not to affiliate to the Co-operative Union or to partake in the broader life of British cooperation, but they were always a minority. The majority of societies (including the Co-operative Wholesale Society, CWS) saw the benefits of cooperation between cooperatives and paid their dues to the central body, the Union, as well as to other national cooperative initiatives.

There were well over a thousand independent societies by the end of the late nineteenth century, so a decision by one society to stand aside from the movement was hardly devastating. It’s different today. The vast majority of British retail cooperative societies, and the CWS itself, have over the years been absorbed into what is now the Co-operative Group. A decision by the Group to withdraw funding is therefore of enormous importance.

Commercial businesses spend money lobbying and supporting causes they feel are in their business interests, so I don’t see why the Co-operative Group should be any different. But I also feel that there is a moral case, based on the history of how it has become the business it now is, for the Group to continue to support the British cooperative movement – and this means, to give a few other examples, Co-operatives UK, Co-operative News, the Woodcraft Folk (the youth organisation with strong cooperative links) and the Co-operative College. No organisation should feel it has an automatic right to be supported, of course; but, with this caveat, the Group should reaffirm a principled commitment to supporting the wider work of the cooperative sector in Britain.