Clearing away the undergrowth: rediscovering coop history

I’m feeling a natural sense of relief here as the manuscript for my forthcoming book All Our Own Work heads off to the publishers, Merlin Press. The book tells the history of one of Britain’s earliest and, at that time, best known productive cooperatives (what we today would call workers’ cooperatives).  This was the Hebden Bridge Fustian Manufacturing Co-operative society, which operated successfully from 1870 to 1918.

My account explores how the workers who were motivated to run their own textile mill coped with the challenges of managing the business, among these the task of finding the necessary capital. There was also the vexed question of deciding how to share the profits: how much should go to the workers, how much to the investors, and how much to the cooperative societies who were the customers.


I’m naturally keen to get the story of this cooperative as widely known as possible, so it’s good to see a related news piece up on the Co-operative News website. The story describes how the graves of Joseph Greenwood and Jesse Gray, two of the leading figures in the Fustian society’s history, have recently been cleared of undergrowth and made much more accessible to visitors.  The Co-op News can be found here.

How The Guardian has not become a cooperative

The Guardian newspaper has frightened itself away from taking what could have been a radical and transformative step forward in British media ownership. It could have empowered its readers by giving them a formal voice in its ownership and management structures.   There are a whole variety of different ways in which the Guardian’s parent Scott Trust could have been turned itself into a genuinely cooperative undertaking, in partnership with its readers.

It did, I understand, ponder this sort of step. Instead, it is now inviting its readers to become ‘members’. “If you read the Guardian, join the Guardian,” says Polly Toynbee in today’s paper.

You can for example become a Founding Patron (£540 a year) or Partner (£135) or just a Friend (for nothing). But what are you a member of?  The answer unfortunately is that you are a member of nothing more than a glorified loyalty scheme: the right to priority booking and discounts for Guardian seminars and the like. Guardian ‘members’, when it comes down to it, are no different from Boots loyalty card members.

This is, dear Guardian, a missed opportunity.

Conference to debate the way forward for co-ops

I will be off on Friday to Manchester for the third of the Ways Forward co-operative conferences organised by Co-operative Business Consultants. I’ve been asked to chair the session on democracy in the Co-operative Group, which should make for a lively debate…

I’ll also be heading off to the workshop on co-operative housing, a topic which is increasingly engaging me because of an involvement I have locally in helping establish a community land trust.

The programme (and booking details for last-minute attendees) is at

Mondragon: be more cooperative, be more competitive

The annual Congress of the Mondragon family of cooperative businesses took place on Monday this week in San Sebastián – or, to give it its proper Basque name as we should, Donostia. 650 delegates were there, from across the whole range of cooperatives, to hear the incoming General Council president Javier Sotil call for Mondragon to reinforce its commitment to cooperative values but also to focus on running profitable and sustainable businesses.

The delegates welcomed Sareteknika, which provides after-sales servicing for domestic appliances, as a new member cooperative of the federation and approved the corporate budget for the coming year.  They also discussed “The Mondragon of the future”, a document which has been prepared over recent months partly in response to the collapse of Fagor Electrodomésticos a year ago, the first failure of a federated Mondragon cooperative. (My Guardian story covering that event is here.)

Introducing “The Mondragon of the future”, Sotil stressed the need to be both a ‘cooperative enterprise’ and a ‘competitive enterprise’, operating successfully throughout the world. The need he said is for strong solidarity mechanisms between Mondragon companies and better early-warning of trading difficulties.


“The Mondragon of the future” strategic document now goes to member cooperatives for further discussion, before being discussed again at the 2015 Congress.



A quick plug for my forthcoming book

I was down on Saturday at the excellent Bishopsgate Institute in London’s Spitalfields for an informal gathering of co-operative historians, arranged by the UK Society for Co-operative Studies. As well as being taken down to the archives store (Bishopsgate has a strong social history collection, including much from the co-operative movement), we had the opportunity during the day to talk to others who are working on aspects of co-op history.

My own research, as I have mentioned briefly here before, is for a new book which I’m entitling All Our Own Work. It’s the story (a little-known one, but a very interesting one, I think) of a textile mill which was run during the later nineteenth century by its workers. It became one of the most celebrated manufacturing co-ops of its time.

We tend to know (or think we know) about Rochdale and the history of co-operative stores; the early history of what we would now call workers’ co-ops has received much less attention.

All Our Own Work is due to be published next summer, by Merlin Press. Don’t be surprised if I mention it again before then. It’s currently taking much of my time.

On archives and attics…

To Bradford on Wednesday afternoon to have a drink with Bob Cannell of wholefoods distributor Suma and Co-operative Business Consultants. We talked among other things about the Workers’ Co-operatives Archive Project of which I’m one of the coordinators. If you remember I blogged about this idea a month or so back, but I think it’s time for another plug. The aim is to ensure that attics and spare rooms are raided to ensure that potentially valuable records from the wave of workers’ coops in the UK in the 1970s-1990s (and beyond) are not lost into skips and landfill sites. Much has probably gone already.

Co-op News has now picked up on the story, and you’ll find their news article on the Archive Project here. And let me mention again the main website of the Project: As you’ll see, we’ve already had a good initial response since the site went live a few weeks back.

What’s happening at the moment is a scoping exercise to see just has survived – the next stage will be to try to encourage the holders of key material to get it safely secured in a properly-equipped records office.

And by the way Suma, one of the great coop success stories from that era, still has its archives. That’s a good start.


Idealistic? Inappropriate? Member engagement in the Co-op Group

I perhaps need to draw to your attention the extended debate that’s going on in the comments section of my post earlier this week (bottom up: ‘cluster’ idea) on the Co-op Group and grassroots member engagement.

My own response is that pretty well the only thing that the Group has to separate itself from other supermarket chains is its members, and that this could be turned into a competitive advantage. For this to happen members need a way to engage. For example, there are a lot of things I could contribute to make my own Co-op Group store rather a lot better, and probably rather a lot more profitable, but I have at present no vehicle for communicating my comments.

This debate is, quite rightly, about member democracy. But it’s also about making the Co-op Group a better business, too.