The news about the News

I’ve been meaning for a while to mention here the February issue of Co-operative News (and not because it includes a nice little feature on Gritstone Publishing, the new authors’ co-operative of which I am a founder member – although that would of course be worth the mention!)

Co-operative News has been serving the movement since September 2 1871, and it remains a valuable tool. The decision has been taken – correctly, I think – to move from fortnightly to monthly publication, and the February issue is the first one in this new extended format. It works. The design is significantly better than previously and there’s a good range of news and features (the challenge now, of course, is to maintain this breadth of coverage).

Co-operative News is also undergoing a legal change and will very shortly be opening up membership of Co-operative Press Ltd, which produces the magazine, to its supporters and members. This also seems to me to be a valuable step forward. I’ll be becoming a member. We need CN.

Remembering our past

I was invited yesterday evening to Halifax, to talk to the local history society there. (I should give it its proper name, the Halifax Antiquarian Society, a venerable local institution first established in 1901).  I was discussing the story of perhaps the best known of the later nineteenth century productive cooperatives, the fustian manufacturing coop in Hebden Bridge (also the subject of my 2015 book All Our Own Work).

There were about seventy people there on a cold and cheerless February evening, including the grandson of Thomas Morgan, one of the cooperative’s committee-men, who had made the journey from Morecambe to attend. I must say that it’s very heartening that British cooperative history can still attract this level of interest.

Housing provision, the community-led way

Today has been put aside in my diary for some voluntary work (and some final tweaks to a grant application) on behalf of my local Community Land Trust, for which I occupy the post of secretary.

CLTs are part of a growing movement for what is called ‘community-led housing’, the idea being that bottom-up community efforts can bring much-needed housing to meet local needs which the commercial property market is failing to tackle.  Given that today also sees the government’s Housing White Paper published, it seems very appropriate as a focus for my blog.

I can also use the opportunity to get in a plug for a new booklet from the Confederation of Co-operative Housing, which provides a useful introduction to the subject (CCH prefer to talk of ‘cooperative and community-led housing).  You’ll find their report, New Co-operative and Community-led Homes, here.

CCH is one of a number of national organisations engaged in this field (Locality, the Cohousing Network and the National Network of CLTs are among the others). It has to be said that there is a slight element of overkill here in terms of national support networks.  At some point, a little appropriate amalgamation might be in order.

How do we build a democratic economy?

Another useful Ways Forward conference yesterday in Manchester, the fifth that Co-operative Business Consultants have organised in a commendable attempt to stir things up in the British coop movement (or at least in some of it) and get debate and discussion going.

My impressions? A good turn-out and (given what was happening at the same time in Washington DC) a good spirit to the event. The majority of speakers in both the opening and closing plenaries were women (the only male speaking before the first coffee break was Vivian Woodell of the Phone Co-op, and I guess his name can confuse some, anyway), and there were younger people both on the platform and in the hall. Ieva Padagaité from Blake House Co-op, for example, reminded us of why she, and other young people, are looking to the co-op model as a collective response to low pay, job insecurity and the gig economy.

Molly Scott-Cato, Green MEP for the South-West, was here again as last year and – as last year – well worth listening to. She is right: capitalism has lost credibility in this country and we have to build a response to public fear and to anger at growing inequalities. She quoted a banner which had gone up in London on Trump’s inauguration day: “What happens next is up to us”. That’s the spirit we need.

So let’s take stock. How are we doing, a year on from the conference when both Molly Scott-Cato and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell were discussing an alternative way forward for the British economy?  In some way, and disappointingly, perhaps not so much has been achieved. The Labour leadership has not yet been able to get across its vision for an economy serving social need rather than shareholder greed, and I’m not sure the coop movement has really geared itself to the task it could be undertaking. Good ideas emerge in the workshops and plenaries at the Ways Forward events but there’s not really the mechanisms in place yet for the follow-through.

Ways Forward has become a valuable event in the cooperative calendar and Phil Frampton and his CBC colleagues deserve considerable thanks for their organising hard work. Their event needs supporting. But somehow we have to gain more momentum if the opportunities of the present are to be grasped.

 

Board elections at the Phone Co-op

I’ve been casting my vote in an election and it’s not been an easy matter. The election is for three members of the board of the Phone Co-op, and there are ten members of the co-op putting themselves forward, many of them clearly strong candidates.

Not easy to decide, but what a nice problem to have!  What a refreshing change from those fake elections for board places on building societies, for example. The Phone Co-op does not pay its non-exec directors particularly lavish fees (directors received just over £1200 a year, last time I looked), but nevertheless its elections are consistently contested and usually – as this time – attract a strong field of candidates.

Good corporate governance?  Give that co-op a tick.

Co-operatives and the gig economy

I’m back from a seminar today in Manchester’s Co-operative College which brought together people from both the co-operative and trade union movements, to discuss ways of helping self-employed workers and those suffering from the worst effects of the gig economy get themselves collectively organised.

Pat Conaty and Alex Bird, who together wrote the useful report Not Alone: co-operative and trade union solution for self-employed workers last year, were there as were representatives of some British unions which in different ways are trying to help their members who are not in traditional employment relationships (I was going to say, people who are in ‘atypical’ work, but these days I think what was once atypical is now regrettably becoming the norm).

There are, we agreed, no easy answers but there are lessons which we in Britain can learn from elsewhere. We heard accounts, for example, of the ‘union coops’ in the United States supported by both the Mondragon Corporation and several labor unions there, of efforts by the main Dutch trade union centre FNV to organise independent workers, and of steps being taken by those in the arts industry in Belgium to co-operate through a shared servicing agency. And we reminded ourselves of ventures further afield, including the inspiring story of refuse collectors in Pune, India, who have improved their condition of work and obtained greater work status through formalising themselves into a co-op.

The gig economy is in the news, and it’s encouraging that there are attempts to fight back against multinationals such as Uber and the major courier companies who are using allegedly ‘independent’ ‘contractors’. The co-op movement needs to get much more actively involved in these sorts of issues.

Congratulations to Cilla Ross at the Co-operative College for making the arrangements for the seminar.

At last! Cohousing initiative has the success it deserves

Enormously good news today from the Older Women’s Cohousing Group, which for years and years (and still yet more years) has been battling away to try to turn their vision of a self-managing housing community into reality. It has been a truly epic initiative, and – against what seemed so often to be heavily stacked odds – the story ends this week in success, as 26 women in the group, aged 50-87, take possession of a block of twenty-five newly built flats in Union Street, High Barnet, north London.

Cohousing is a growing movement, and one which I think has great potential for the baby-boomer generation as it tries to find housing solutions in older age which don’t involve the commercial imperatives of companies such as McCarthy and Stone. The Barnet cohousing community (based, it says here, on “shared values of neighbourliness and mutual support”) includes a mix of home-owners and social renters.  They add that they “want to act as a demonstration project to encourage other older people to plan their later lives and develop similar initiatives”.