Out of the attic, into the archives: ensuring yesterday’s (and today’s) coop records are saved

One welcome side-effect of the Co-operative Group’s move into its new Manchester head office, I understand, is that a spring clean has been going on in the office accommodation which it has vacated and as a consequence a large number of old archive boxes have been making their way to the nearby National Co-operative Archive.

The Archive has a unique collection of material from the early days of Britain’s cooperative movement.  It’s a resource which I have been using on a number of occasions in recent months for research purposes and I commend its helpful and knowledgeable staff.

Using an archive brings home the importance of ensuring that more recent records from the cooperative movement are not lost to future historians.  I’ve been concerned for some time that material from the wave of workers’ cooperatives started in the 1970s and 1980s may be being lost.  I recently ensured that the records of a cooperative I worked in in the early 1980s in Milton Keynes are now secure in the Buckinghamshire County Records Office and I’d encourage others with boxes of similar material from that period to get them to an appropriate professional archive. Ideally I’d like to see these held centrally in Manchester, but frankly any record office is better than a skip.

That applies to today’s material too.  Sometime in the future, somebody will be looking high and low for adequate information about what we’re all up to today.


Governance and democracy in the Co-operative Group

Friday’s conference in Manchester, Ways forward for the Co-op Movement, was well attended and valuable, I thought.  I have just filed a piece about it for the Guardian’s Social Enterprise pages, and will draw your attention to it when it appears.  Well done to Co-operative Business Consultants for organising the day.

There was much discussion at Manchester of ways to improve the Co-operative Group’s governance and internal democracy including a number of quite radical ideas. It’s perhaps worth mentioning, therefore, that last Thursday (the day before the conference) saw the terms of reference published for the corporate governance enquiry which the Group itself has commissioned,  chaired by Lord Myners. You’ll find the press statement here.

Myners will be looking first at the Board structure, before moving on to consider ways to strengthen links with members.  Some people at Manchester thought that this is a back-to-front way of doing things:  shouldn’t you begin with member democracy, they asked?  So Myners’ eventual recommendations may well be contested territory.

My prediction on what is likely to emerge from Myners includes (a) a smaller Group Board (generally considered a good idea) and (b) much more use of non-elected non-executive directors, an altogether more controversial proposal.

I have argued before that,  following the Bank crisis last year, we’ve seen a growing attack (led by some MPs and some newspapers) on the very idea of cooperatives as member-controlled businesses.  Potentially the coop movement could be at risk of losing not just its Bank but the very core of its being.  The  Myners enquiry is as important as that.

Coops left out in the Alpine cold

The world’s most powerful people – well, quite a lot of them anyway – will be jetting off to the Alps this week for the annual Davos shindig.   Davos brings together businessmen (OK, business-people, but you can bet that most of them are men) and politicians.  Even the occasional trade unionist is there too. It is an important forum for taking stock of the issues facing the world and its leaders.

The International Co-operative Alliance has contacted me to invite me to write about what the ICA would like to contribute to the Davos debates (the two particular topics they’ve identified are the need for decent jobs, and the role of cooperatives in the delivery of social services).  But I think the real story is that the cooperative business world, despite contributing over two trillion US dollars to the world economy, is not being invited to join the Davos party.  With the possible exception of the Korean agricultural cooperative NACF (the ICA isn’t sure whether they will be there or not), coops are not represented at Davos this year.

Co-op Bank to shed its Unity Trust link

I’ve mentioned previously that the Co-operative Bank has been a minority shareholder in Unity Trust, the trade union bank which it helped set up thirty years ago this year.

Another part of the fall-out from the Co-op Bank debacle is that this 26.7% stake in Unity is now to be sold.  Unity put out a short press statement on Tuesday about this:  “Discussions are at an early stage and any decision on a changed ownership structure would be subject to regulatory approval,” it says. Unions have the option to acquire the Co-op’s shares in Unity first, before they are disposed of more publicly.

Unity does not provide retail banking for individuals but it does a useful job as bankers not only for unions but also for a wide range of charities, local authorities and community organisations.  My experience of them has generally been positive: helpfully, they were early adopters of an electronic equivalent to the standard ‘two signature’ rule for cheque signing, so that charities and other organisations with this rule in force can make payments on-line.

Ways forward for Britain’s coop movement

I’m pleased to hear that around 140 people have booked in for this Friday’s conference, called by Co-operative Business Consultants following last year’s Co-op Bank debacle to discuss – as CBC puts it –  “Ways Forward for the Co-operative Movement”.   This is a potentially important initiative, and the high level of attendance suggests that there are plenty of activists determined to prove that there’s life in the old coop dog yet.

I’ve been working this morning on the short presentation I’ll be making to the workshop looking at member capital.  Co-operative capital is, as you’ll know if you’ve been following my blog, one of the issues I consider most important for the coop movement to address, and I just hope that people don’t see the word ‘capital’ in the programme and feel that this session is not for them.

The conference is in Manchester, the city which has over the past century and a half hosted many of the most significant events in the UK coop movement’s history.  This could be another one.

I’ll be contributing a report to The Guardian’s social enterprise hub afterwards and will post a link here.

New “News” for a new year

I have been spending the holiday period in the nineteenth century.  Not literally of course, although the festive decorations in my home town do seem a little Dickensian. No,  I’ve been immersed in the eight hundred pages of the book Co-operative Production, written by Benjamin Jones and published in 1894, as part of some research I’m undertaking into early producer cooperatives in the UK.

Around page 600 – more precisely, on September 2nd 1871 – we reach an account of the launch of Co-operative News, which announced itself in its first issue (a modest eight pages) as the commencement of “a new era in co-operation, an era of journalism”.

In the years since then, Co-operative News has had highs and lows but it’s hard to deny that it’s been an absolutely invaluable resource for the cooperative movement.  The magazine has just relaunched itself ready for 2014 in a new format and with the promise of lots of new features, and although I should probably declare an interest since I sometimes contribute to it, I do think the Co-operative News’ new initiative is an important step forward and one deserving of support.