Desjardins backs British co-op competition

Co-operatives UK are inviting us to vote for our Co-operative of the Year, the choice this time being between the Channel Islands society, East of England, FC United of Manchester, the Foster Care Co-operative, Jamboree, Midcounties, Oikocredit, the Phone Co-op, and Unicorn Grocery. You vote for your fave co-op here.

What interests me is that this year the Canadian banking and insurance co-operative Desjardins is sponsoring the competition. Good… but why? Desjardins is a highly successful co-operative, but one with no business operations in Britain.

Perhaps because it doesn’t hurt for Desjardins to remind British co-operators that it will be staging the third biennial Co-operative Summit in Québec city next year. But perhaps also because it could just mean a little extra international good will for Desjardins’ charismatic CEO Monique Leroux. Leroux’s fixed term as CEO finishes next year, and she is still only just in her sixties. The next step for her may well be in the international co-operative arena. As they say, watch this space.

Employee-owned business goes under

It’s disappointing to read in today’s Financial Times that one of Britain’s best-known employee owned businesses, the paper mill run by Tullis Russell, has gone into liquidation. This business was converted into employee ownership in the 1980s and 1990s from the family business owned by David Erdal, who has been a strong advocate of employee ownership over the years.

According to the FT, 340 employees have lost their jobs and are eligible only for statutory redundancy pay.

On apples and activism

Illness prevented me from attending Saturday’s Co-operative Group AGM in Manchester as I’d intended, unfortunately, so I can’t offer you any first-hand reportage of the occasion. But two observations.

Firstly, just the fact that for the first time the Co-operative Group had an AGM like this which was open to members is a real step forward. It was always nonsense that the Group’s AGM was previously only open to those enmeshed in the complicated internal regional and area governance structure. This is a valuable reform. This year’s AGM is something to build on.

And secondly, I’ve been mulling over a recent quote from the Group’s Chair Allan Leighton. Leighton, according to a Guardian article, claimed: “It’s the apples, not the activists, that will turn the Co-op around”.

I think Leighton has it half-right. I’d love to see better fruit and veg in my local Co-op store. I never did understand why, every Autumn at the heart of the harvest time, English apples were nowhere to be found in the shop (actually, to be fair, a few English apples crept in last year).

But I’d change Leighton’s quote in one fundamental way. The advantage the Co-op potentially has over its commercial rivals is exactly its membership base and its latent democracy.  I’d say that it’s the apples and the activists that will turn the Co-op around.

Beyond the capitalist crisis

The UK newspaper The Guardian has run a valuable full-page feature for this May Day with the headline ‘Co-ops emerge from capitalist crisis’. The piece focuses on moves by workers in France, Spain and Greece to turn failed businesses into workers’ cooperatives. This is a welcome reminder of the energy and creativity of the cooperative movements elsewhere in the world. The piece is online here.

The coop brand: a case of blowing in the wind?

I have on my desk details of the forthcoming Co-operative Group AGM, a leaflet from the independent regional Midcounties society about their AGM, and some material that’s come through from the (also independent) Phone Co-op.

But it’s hard to tell the bits of paper apart. All three use the “The Co-operative” national cooperative branding, originally introduced with great fanfare (remember the hype over the Blowin’ in the Wind soundtrack for the TV advert?) as a way of updating British coops’ (collective) tired image. At the time this seemed to me a sign that things were moving forward.

The shared brand raises issues, however. Firstly, if you shop in a branded Co-operative store it can be very hard to know whether you’re in part of the Co-operative Group’s empire, or in a store run by one of the independents such as Midcounties, Central England or Southern that have adopted the brand. Often only the till receipt will tell you. This doesn’t seem a good way of encouraging member identification with their own society. It’s almost as though all building societies had chosen to dispense with their own signs and agreed to share a collective “The Building Society” identity.

Then there’s the problem that the some businesses (Co-operative Bank, Co-operative Pharmacy and Co-operative Travel) which were once part of the Group but which are now owned outside the movement and in no sense are any longer cooperatives continue to use the branding.

All in all, regional societies such as the Lincolnshire which chose to stick with their own logos may be feeling just a little smug.

I see that the question of the future of the brand – the rights to which are held by the Co-operative Group – is one of the motions up for debate at the Group’s AGM on May 16. The motion calls on the Group to recognise that it hold the brand rights ‘as custodian on behalf of the whole movement’. It’s an important issue: I’ll be interested to see how the debate goes.

International coops’ day coming soon

The first Saturday in July, as you may very well know, is International Day of Cooperatives, an idea which originally came from inside the coop movement but which many years back was also endorsed by the United Nations.

We try to mark the day in the town where I live, and I’ll be at a meeting later this week to discuss exactly what can be organised this year. But I’m pleased to see that the International Co-operative Alliance has produced a logo for the day – the first time, as far as I’m aware, that the ICA has done this.


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.)