Just round the corner: 2016

This is the time of year when journalists fall on back on two familiar ploys in order to turn in the copy that their papers need.  Firstly, they look back over the past twelve months and cobble together some sort of review of the year.  Secondly they offer predictions to the year ahead. It’s pretty cheap journalism (in two senses of the word) but, hey, it’s Christmas.

I did ponder for a brief moment offering you selected highlights of my 2015 posts here, but frankly you can scroll back through the blog if you’re so inclined. But indulge me as I prove my journalistic credentials by offering you a quick look ahead to 2016.

Internationally, the ICA movement’s new President Monique Leroux will have one central date in her diary: the third of the Co-operative Summits in Québec city, which her own cooperative Desjardins hosts and which will be held from October 11th-13th.  The last two Summits have been useful occasions (if slightly overfull of business suits). Québec will be the only significant global cooperative event next year that I’m aware of.

Incidentally 2016 will also see changes at the top at Desjardins: Leroux’s two terms in office come to an end, so the powerful Canadian financial cooperative federation will be finding itself a new leader.

I’ll be following developments at Mondragon, where their new business strategy for the whole cooperative federation (drawn up in the aftermath of the failure of their white-goods cooperative Fagor Electrodomésticos) is due to be approved during the year.

The British movement has to hope for the gradual return to trading health of the Co-operative Group, and for its new democratic structures to begin to work more convincingly. On the wider political agenda, I do hope that there is space under Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership to explore alternatives to the highly centralised state ownership model of nationalisation we had in the last century – we need Labour to be promoting a model of public ownership which is more creative, more bottom-up, and more attuned with cooperative ideas. The Ways Forward conference in January which I have previously mentioned is a potentially important springboard for these discussions.

In my own diary for early next year will be work with the Co-operative Heritage Trust to discuss the proposed workers’ cooperatives archive project which I’m hoping will get the funding it needs in 2016. Late January sees another advisory board meeting for the Woodcraft Folk’s 90th birthday heritage project, where we will have to start planning ahead for the 100th birthday! Locally, I will be continuing to try to help bring cooperative housing solutions to my neighbourhood, through the work of our local Community Land Trust.

And professionally, I’ll be looking to continue to work with a range of cooperative organisations at home and abroad on their publications. Unlike 2015, I’ve no book coming out next year, but can I mention that my All Your Own Work on early productive coops in Britain continues to be on sale… (and in fact would make an ideal last-minute choice of Christmas present…)

My best wishes to you for 2016.

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Discussing the interface between coop and state ownership models

A phone call comes in today from Phil Frampton of Co-operative Business Consultants, who is one of the organisers of the conference next month entitled Ways Forward: Building an Economy to Serve People not Profit.

I mentioned this event on an earlier blog, but I’m pleased to see how the programme has come together since then. One very interesting session should be the one where John McDonnell MP debates the way forward as regards forms of public ownership with Molly Scott Cato, an old friend of the coop movement and now a Green MEP.

As Phil put it to me today, Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader is an opportunity for us to reopen old debates about the best way to ensure democratic forms of business ownership, including the possibilities of building a relationship between cooperative and state ownership models.  I’ll be contributing among other things some observations on how this same debate took place in the very early years of the Labour party in Britain.

Good to see a strong trade union input in the programme too, including a senior PCS official.

The conference is in central Manchester on Thursday Jan 21st. Details here.

Mondragon congress debates its future strategy

The Mondragon Corporation, the federal body of the autonomous cooperatives in the Mondragon family, held its annual congress last week in the Basque city of Donostia (San Sebastián). The federation’s President Javier Sotil gave an upbeat account of Mondragon’s progress, reporting that in 2015 the group had created 1,300 new posts. A new coop, engaged in the delivery of residential services, joined the federation.

The most interesting part of the event for those of us outside looking in was the discussion of the progress of Mondragon’s strategic review, launched after the failure of the white goods cooperative Fagor Electrodomésticos in 2013, a very painful experience for the cooperative group. The review, entitled Mondragon of the Future, was first discussed at the 2014 congress. As far as I’m aware documents are not yet public, but Mondragon has had task groups working on developing proposals in three areas and their proposals are now being discussed at individual cooperative level.

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The first issue being addressed relates to Mondragon’s cooperative values and principles, with the aim of reinforcing them and encouraging a culture of ‘self-reliance and responsibility, solidarity, social transformation and cooperation between cooperatives’. The second is concerned with Mondragon’s organizational structure and on ways in which the various Mondragon coops can improve their competitive trading position. The third part of the strategy looks at the way that the financial framework behind the Mondragon federation can be structured – or in other words how much the cooperatives themselves contribute to the central pot.

“We are now in the phase of consulting with the cooperatives. After that, with the feedback received, we will draw up the final reports, to be delivered, debated and agreed at the 2016 Congress,” Javier Sotil told the 650 delegates. Congress next year may be held during the Summer, he added.

Cooperative governance, and how it could be better

Pauline Green, who has just stepped down as President of the International Co-operative Alliance, gave me a moving and inspiring interview yesterday for a feature I am writing for one of my clients, the International Co-operative and Mutual Insurance Federation. Pauline mentioned in passing the dire straits in which the ICA found itself at the start of this century, starved of funds and losing members fast. The achievement of Pauline and her colleagues since those dark days not only in stabilising the ICA but in making it an increasingly powerful and respected voice globally deserves proper recognition.

One sign of the ICA’s renewed energy is the determination with which it is trying to implement its current strategy, the Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade. This is represented among other things by the publications emerging from within the ICA. I enthused last week about the new Guidance Notes on the Co-operative Principles. Today I want to mention a second useful publication, on cooperative Corporate Governance.

As Pauline Green puts it in the foreword, “Governance is a key component of the co-operative difference. The cooperative values and principles call for an open, voluntary and democratic process of decision-making, and cooperative governance is an essential tool in applying those values and principles.” But as I think we all know, cooperative governance is not always all it might be. In fact, it can be pretty appalling.

Rebuilding the cooperative movement means among other things encouraging better governance, appropriate to the size and purpose of each individual coop. This new publication aims to start a debate. Among other things there’s a thoughtful account by Johnston Birchall on governance in large coops, and a (perhaps deliberately) provocative chapter from Cliff Mills, who criticises the old approach in the Co-op Group and calls for adequate professional expertise to be harnessed. And there’s a delightful account from Bob Cannell on Suma’s egalitarian – and highly successful – approach to governance and management. You’ll find the report here.

Celebrating the 90th birthday of a special organisation

I’m looking forward to Friday when I am going to an event in London to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Woodcraft Folk.

The Woodcraft Folk, I perhaps should explain (particularly for those accessing this outside the UK) is often described in shorthand as Britain’s cooperative youth organisation. It began as a co-educational and anti-militarist alternative to the mainstream Scout movement in 1925 and has kept its cutting edge, encouraging cooperation rather than competition, international friendship and understanding, environmental awareness, equality and respect. You could say we need the Woodcraft Folk today more than ever.

Some of my most rewarding times came when I was an active adult member of the Woodies with my local group, and I was also involved nationally in planning for the 75th birthday. (Has fifteen years really passed since then?)

A photographic exhibition opens today in London’s City Hall (South Bank, near London Bridge) at the Greater London Authority building and can be visited until December 17th (8.30am-6pm Mon-Thur, 8.30am-5.30pm Fri). Not to be missed, I’d say.