How is an incoming Labour government – when it arrives – to restructure the British economy so that it is run as much as possible for the public good rather than to meet the short-term demands of private equity companies and shareholders?
It was an issue which was debated ardently at the end of the nineteenth century, when there seemed real hopes that the twentieth century would see an end to rampant capitalism and a move towards more social forms of business ownership. The co-op movement was of course actively involved in these debates, as were trade unions. To take one example, in the debates about the need for public control of the railways (then, as now, run by a host of private sector companies) all sorts of options were discussed, including quasi-cooperative solutions involving workers and users of the railways.
Plus ca change. We need to have some of these same debates today, because I’m convinced that the way forward is not simply to revert to the twentieth-century model of state-ownership through nationalisation. Other, broader, forms of public ownership need to be considered.
This is a lengthy way of getting to the point of this blog. I had an email yesterday from Jo Bird of Co-operative Business Consultants, one of the organisers of next month’s Ways Forward conference Co-operative Solidarity. She’s keen to get the word out about what will be the sixth such event organised by CBC. Labour’s shadow business secretary Rebecca Long Bailey is one of the speakers, and I hope she’ll be in listening mode too. There’s thinking going on in (parts of) the cooperative world which could potentially help Labour.
The International Co-operative Alliance has appointed Bruno Roelants as its new Secretary General. Bruno, who has been the Secretary General of ICA’s sectoral body for workers’ cooperatives CICOPA for many years, can be considered as something of an insider and he should know all about the challenges which are about to face him. The ICA, like other global bodies of its kind, has a diverse membership and, of course, never enough funding.
But the ICA is at least in a better state today than it was twenty years ago, when it was on the brink of collapse. I think Bruno Roelants will be well placed to build a much stronger office team in Brussels, where CICOPA is already based and where the ICA is also nominally based. Good luck to him.
If you were to name one English town which, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, led the way in terms of manufacturing co-operation (what we would now refer to as workers’ co-ops) it would probably be the Northamptonshire town of Kettering. The traditional boot and shoe production areas which included Northamptonshire as a whole as well as Leicester were the heartlands of productive co-operation.
Rather late in the day I’ve been told that the Kettering local museum The Manor House has a small temporary exhibition on the town’s links to co-operation. Late in the day, because the exhibition has been running since October and closes on Saturday. Still, who knows, you may have the chance to get to Kettering in the next 48 hours. Details here.
The ballot for elections to the Phone Co-op has just opened and – as usual, since this is a co-operative which has traditionally had strong member democracy – the election is not a foregone conclusion. No shoo-in here: there are seven candidates for two places.
But despite the Phone Co-op’s traditional democratic traditions I think there are questions which this year the Phone Co-op’s members need to ask their board when the AGM takes place in early February.
Some months back, members were advised that Vivian Woodell, who has been the co-op’s Chief Executive since the very beginning – and indeed whose idea the co-op was in the first place – is stepping down. For any business, the resignation of a key person is a moment of greater uncertainty and risk. If the Phone Co-op were a plc and not a co-op, institutional investors would by now have been interrogating the Board in detail to find out exactly what the strategy for the future would be – to see if really the Board knew what it was doing. In a co-op, those of us who are the members have to undertake this job ourselves.
In this context, therefore, I am just a little concerned to notice in the statement of one of the election candidates (a long-standing member of the Board) that the co-operative has a plan for growth which involves accepting “a slightly higher level of risk” in the future. Hmm. Utility businesses like phone providers probably do best when they are boring and cautious.
The news of Vivian Woodell stepping down, when it was given to members, was also couched in a somewhat curious way. We were advised that he was to take over the running of a new Foundation, established and funded by the Phone Co-op to promote co-operatives and co-operation – an excellent idea. But since then all has gone very quiet. There has been no further news of this proposed Foundation or what its endowment will be.
So what has been happening internally in a co-operative which for many years has been a beacon of hope for the British co-operative movement? Members need to know. And in the meantime they probably need to choose their Board candidates carefully.
It is enormously disappointing that Unity Works, the ambitious community co-operative which restored a prominent Victorian building in Wakefield (once home to the local retail co-operative society) to create a performance space and workspace, has failed.
Staff have lost their jobs and four hundred or so people who invested in the community share issue have lost their money.
I have held back from intruding into private grief but I do now, a few weeks on, want to make some comments.
Firstly, despite the Unity Works story, community share issues are still, clearly, a Good Thing. Millions of pounds of investment capital have been raised for a wide range of community ventures, from locally run village shops and pubs to small-scale wind turbines. My own community land trust will be asking our local community for investment capital in a new affordable homes development next year when we launch our own community share issue, so I have a direct interest in this whole subject.
But we need to remember that community shares investment can be risky. Some groups launch community share issues without adequate business plans or prospectuses, and some investors – carried away by commitment to the idea – fail to read the small print. The way forward here is to encourage best practice, and the community shares Standard Mark is an excellent initiative in this respect.
Secondly, we still need vision and enthusiasm. I’m sorry that the vision behind the Unity Works project turned out not to be enough to create a sustainable business venture, but let’s not be daunted. Let’s still be ambitious in what we try to achieve for our communities.
I mentioned a few weeks back that I was participating in this year’s conference of the Society for Co-operative Studies, held at the start of September in Newcastle. I though the event – which among other things celebrated the Society’s fiftieth anniversary – well worth the effort of breaking into the two week holiday which I was supposed to be having at the time on the south coast. Lots of extra mileage, though.
I am always slightly surprised that anyone turns up for these events, since in my experience the Society is remarkably tardy in putting out the date and details. (I know, it’s all volunteer effort, I’m not really knocking anyone). But just so you know, I can give you very early notice that the 2018 edition will be at Sheffield Hallam University, once again over the first weekend in September. There: no excuses for not knowing next time.
How can I fail to respond to the press release that has come through from the Manchester-based workers’ co-operative Unicorn Grocery?
The press release is advising me of some good news which, in fact, I had already heard elsewhere: that Unicorn has carried off the prize in the BBC Food and Farming awards as the best food retailer.
Unicorn, one of the country’s most successful workers’ co-ops and one which has contributed a great deal to the wider co-op movement, is 21 years old this year. It demonstrated the success of raising investment funds from within the community long before everyone else was talking of community shares, and it has already taken the BBC prize once before, in 2008.
One of the things I learned when I was researching the later nineteenth century co-operative movement a couple of years ago was the strength and importance of the co-operative flour mills in several northern towns, most notably the societies in Sowerby Bridge (which also had a mill in Hebden Bridge and was the largest in the country) and in Halifax. What we would now call food politics was an issue early co-operators understood, too. It’s good that co-ops like Unicorn continue the tradition.