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.

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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.