Learning from France

The news out of Calais of the increasingly desperate attempts by workers there to save at least some of the jobs at the SeaFrance cooperative, which – as I’ve blogged here before  – had previously been contracted to run the MyFerryLink cross-channel ships, is not encouraging but should not blind us to the strength of the worker cooperative sector in France and to the considerable use which has been made in recent years of the SCOP cooperative legal form for rescues of businesses in difficulties.

One example is the now cooperatively run daily newspaper Nice-Matin, and I’ve written elsewhere about, for example, the printing company Hélio-Corbeil where about eighty jobs were saved and the textile firm Fontanille, based in the Auvergne, which after 150 years run as a family concern was successfully saved as a cooperative about three years ago. In many of these ‘rescue’ cooperatives, the trade unions have been key players in the restructuring work.

I think we need more information in Britain about these initiatives just across the Channel, particularly as links begin to develop over here again between parts of the cooperative movement and trade unions. Anyone able to take this on?

Remembering Jesse Gray

The photo I posted here yesterday is of J.C. Gray (Jesse Clement Gray) who was General Secretary of the Co-operative Union from 1891 to 1911, a time when the cooperative movement was riven with disagreements and with the potential for splits. Gray, who combined political adroitness with vision, kept the movement united and built its strength. He also had much to do with the successful development of the international movement following the launch of the International Co-operative Alliance in 1895. He’s been unjustly forgotten.

I will be giving an short informal talk on Jesse Gray this Thursday lunchtime to those working in Holyoake House in Manchester, just in case this may conceivably be you.

Attention! Controversy ahead!

The news this weekend that Co-operative Party general secretary Karin Christiansen is standing down after three years should, I think, be seen as an opportunity for the movement to reconsider whether it needs a political party.

I know that talk of this kind runs the risk of playing into the hands of those in the Co-operative Group looking for opportunities to cut back on their funding for the Party. But I still think the discussion one worth having.

What I think is urgently needed at this juncture in the British cooperative movement is a broad-based grouping which brings together individuals who are committed to cooperative principles and who want to see the movement strengthened. (This is what the activists at Co-operative Business Consultants are calling for, in their current Co-operative Ways Forward campaign for democratic cooperation).

What I’m not convinced is needed any more is a body established as a fully-fledged political party, with its curiously arcane relationship with the Labour Party.

Ideally I’d like to see the Co-operative Party turn itself instead into a vibrant membership body (perhaps by making common cause with Co-operative Ways Forward). This could even, dare I say it, attract cooperatively members of other political parties such as the SNP or Lib Dems who are currently excluded from membership by the direct Labour Party link.

If it’s argued that such a solution would deprive MPs and councillors who sit under the ‘Labour and Co-operative’ label of much-needed support, I have a response. Just as trade union members can pay a political levy to Labour, so members of my suggested organisation could also elect to pay a levy to Labour.

The Co-operative Party was formed in 1917 specifically because the government was discriminating against coops. Some in the movement at the time weren’t convinced a would-be parliamentary party was the correct response. Now in 2015 I think the argument is even harder to make.

Buying a truck to collect the mango harvest

It appears I have bought a truck to help mango farmers who are working cooperatively in Burkina Faso.

Well, not quite. I have lent the money to the farmers to enable them to buy the truck.

Well, even that’s not quite right. The Burkina Faso farmers’ organisation Association Ton has borrowed money from the UK-based cooperative Shared Interest. Shared Interest takes in share capital from British investors and lends it out again to fair trade producers in developing countries.

I am a modest shareholder in Shared Interest, an initiative I first covered journalistically when it was launched twenty-five years or so ago and whose development I have since followed with considerable interest.  Their latest newsletter has just arrived, and with it news of where it has recently invested my savings. The newsletter, and much else, is at www.shared-interest.com.

Holyoake: an Agitator’s life, on-line

For about sixty years in the nineteenth and early twentieth century George Jacob Holyoake was an important figure in the British cooperative movement. It’s no coincidence that Co-operatives UK’s head office in Manchester is in a building named Holyoake House.

Holyoake was, among much else, a journalist and writer.  When I was researching my book All Our Own Work last year, I burrowed away in the British Library reading several of his writings, including his account of the Rochdale Pioneers. I needn’t have bothered going to Euston Road.  Gillian Lonergan, the archivist at the National Co-operative Archive, has drawn my attention to an excellent website where most of Holyoake’s key books on the early coop movement have been digitised, as well as his autobiography (it has the great title Sixty Years of an Agitator’s Life).

You’ll find the website here.