Preserving the past for the future

I wrote back in 2014 and again more recently here of the moves being made to identify and properly preserve key records from the workers’ co-operative movement of the later twentieth century. I need to declare an interest as one of the small advisory group that has been working with the Co-operative Heritage Trust on the project Working Together: recording and preserving the heritage of the workers’ co-operative movement.

The project has already received support from co-operatives and individuals in the movement. I’m pleased to say that the project plan and budget was yesterday submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund, who we hope will also endorse and help fund the initiative.  I’ll let you know how we get on.

International Co-operatives Day 2016

It’s the UN’s International Co-operatives Day tomorrow, so let me get my greetings in in good time.

Here, in the town where I live, we will be celebrating tomorrow both the past and present of co-operation. We will be laying some flowers on the graves of two eminent nineteenth century co-operative leaders, both of whom are buried locally. Then we shall be foregathering in the meeting room of a local housing co-op, where the growing number of local co-ops will be sharing news of what they’re up to.  And finally we’ll adjourn for a drink – in our local co-operatively run pub. How’s that for a tempting timetable of events?

Making your savings work positively for good

Since the pioneering days of the nineteenth century the co-operative movement has had an interest in the way that investment capital can be used differently,  not just to make as much money as possible. That interest is still there: co-operative capital is one of the five key areas being focused on in the International Co-operative Alliance’s current strategic plan.

My personal and professional interest in this area doesn’t go back quite to the nineteenth century, but I’ve written over quite a number of years journalistically on some of the major initiatives for what has at various times been called ‘ethical investment’, ‘socially responsible investment’, ‘alternative investment’ and now, it seems, ‘positive investment’.

So I’m interested to see that the ethical share trading platform Ethex is at present supporting a major academic research study into the attitudes of ‘positive investors’ (ie people who make savings and investment decisions on more than simply the rate of return on offer). You may like to support this project by completing their online survey, which is to be found here.

Some news about the (Co-operative) News

As a journalist I naturally want to see a thriving press. As someone with a strong interest in the co-operative sector, I want to see Co-operative News do well. It has after all been serving the movement since September 2nd 1871.

It’s of some concern, therefore, that Co-operative Press (the co-operative society which publishes Co-operative News) reported a £67,000 loss for the last financial year. Those of us at the society’s AGM on Friday heard that, as a consequence, the budget had been revised and the News’ strategy tweaked.  Editor Anthony Murray suggested that the magazine could soon be published monthly rather than fortnightly, with a shift towards the News’ website and digital offer.

A change in the Co-operative Press’s membership structure was also agreed on Friday, so that in future all subscribers to the News will automatically become members of the co-op. This makes eminent sense, and should help to build a wider, and perhaps more committed, membership base. The News needs all the friends it can find.

British movement plans its co-operative strategy

I haven’t yet offered any sort of reportage on the Co-operative Congress on Friday and Saturday, and I guess I need to rectify this omission.

Friday was, to be honest, a lack-lustre affair, with the formal AGM of Co-operatives UK somehow failing to engage the bulk of the audience. Votes, such as were needed, were taken on a show of hands and overwhelmingly carried, and there was never any question of needing to resort to card votes (probably a good thing, because the Co-operative Group would have had at its disposal 9576 votes while most Co-operatives UK members would have wielded 1 or 3 votes). AGMs are not always exciting occasions and consensus is great but, still, it would be good to see a little more energy expended in discussing the performance of the British co-operative apex organisation.

But things perked up on Saturday, helped it has to be said by a classic rallying cry from Pauline Green, former President of the International Co-operative Alliance and now able to give all her attention to the British movement.  Pauline was heavily engaged in the work three years ago which led to the development of the ICA’s strategic plan, the Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade, and now she was calling for something similar to be produced for the movement in Britain.

Co-operatives UK has already selected the task group to work on this ‘national Co-operative Development Strategy’, which Pauline will chair. The task group is a welcome mix of old hands and younger people, and is also not too bad in terms of gender balance. It’s come up with the three key themes for the strategy: the need to encourage Co-operative Excellence, to practise co-operation among co-operatives, and to be open to innovation. These are, I think, well chosen and helpful themes.

What is encouraging is that there is clearly a desire that the strategy emerges in part from a bottom-up debate within the movement rather than by dictat from on high. So for much of Saturday Congress delegates were encouraged to work in small groups to identify the issues the strategy needed to address and to begin to work towards priorities and solutions. I sometimes weary of exercises with endless flipchart sheets and post-it notes, but this was a gallant attempt to engage delegates in starting what will be an important discussion.

Co-operative Congresses have taken place annually since 1869 but this was the first time that Wakefield was the host city. Congresses in the past were major affairs, with huge numbers of delegates. This was a smaller affair but, you know what, probsbly a lot more participative than the Victorian events ever were. A worthwhile way to spend half a weekend.

Flipcharts and post-it notes to the rescue…

20160618_151327

Co-operative solidarity

I was asked at the Co-operative Congress whether I was a member of the National Guild of Co-operators, to which I had to answer no. Rightly or maybe wrongly I have tended to see the Guild (first set up in 1926) as something of a relic of a previous period of British co-operation and one with only a limited role to play today. (In fairness to the Guild, they have a website here where you can find out more.)

The question was asked in the broader context of whether we need an effective organisation of individuals who identify with the co-operative movement (Co-operatives UK – quite rightly – being a member organisation of co-operatives rather than of individuals).  This was a question which also began to be posed last year, in the context of the Ways Forward initiative hosted by Co-operative Business Consultants.

I tend to think that this would be a useful step forward (although what such an organisation or network would seek to achieve with its members’ contributions is of course a wide open question). In the meantime, there is SOLIDFUND, the solidarity fund originally established by the workers’ co-operative movement which is increasingly attracting a wider range of supporters and now has around 500 participants. It’s worth checking out, if you haven’t already signed up.

Yes, Unity does work

On Friday afternoon and yesterday the British co-op movement met together for the annual Co-operative Congress, held this year in Wakefield.

I’ll post some comments here in due course about the event itself, but my first blog has to be about the venue. The conference was held in the recently restored Unity Works, once upon a time the main department store for Wakefield Co-operative Society (built with proper co-operative pride early in the twentieth century), later a venue for punk and heavy metal bands, but more recently run down and – for more than a decade – boarded up and derelict.

unity-corner

The effort to bring this listed building back into life – as a combination of conference centre, music venue and workspace for creative businesses – is a fantastic achievement, undertaken by a specially formed community benefit society and helped on its way by a successful community shares issue. The end result lifts an area of central Wakefield which was previously economically depressed.

Personally I’d have liked delegates at the Congress to have been given a short account of this initiative from the platform (Unity Works is, after all, a Co-operatives UK member organisation) but unless I missed it no such opportunity was taken. I noticed the name of Chris Hill, who was the development director for the project, on the delegates list but didn’t have the chance to congratulate him and his colleagues in person. I’m doing it here instead.