Lessons to be learned from Hastings

There is some very painful news from Hastings, where the community benefit society running Hastings Pier was forced some months ago to go into Administration.  Funds raised through the high-profile community share issue were lost.

That’s bad enough, but what’s really upsetting is what has just happened now. The community dusted itself down, rallied round, used crowdfunding, and came up with a very strong rescue package for the pier.  New hope for a really good end result, you’d think.  Yet what has transpired is that the Administrator has disregarded the community’s rescue proposal and has made a deal to dispose of the business to an entirely commercial operator. Administrators can, of course, do this.

I would strongly encourage you to read the moving blog which Jess Steele from Hastings has just posted. What I think is particularly important is Jess’s comments about the need for a different process of Administration for community benefit societies.  As she says, “It is wrong to use a commercial administration process for a civic/community asset, applying private property sector ‘solutions’ to a civic problem that the community is capable and willing to solve for itself given half a chance.”

She goes on to propose a Community Administration Act, for use where a community asset is at stake.  Supportive backbench MPs are being sought to try to bring this forward.

Here’s her final thought: “The two Battles for Hastings Pier (2006-13 and 2017-18) stand in deadly stark contrast to each other. In one a very active community was eventually empowered by public funds to achieve the renovation of a derelict structure. In the other, the fully-restored asset was removed secretly from 5,000 shareholder-owners and then subjected to a commercial process that led, unfathomably, to where we are now.”

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Co-operatives and common wealth

It’s the 50th birthday this year of the UK Society for Co-operative Studies and the organisation is gearing up for its main yearly event, the annual conference which is being held in Newcastle at the start of September.

The event seeks to bring forward the historic concept of the ‘Co-operative Commonwealth’ into our own times. Here’s how the organisers have put it: “The conference looks at the broad concept of ‘common wealth’, which requires re-thinking about ownership, control and management of ‘public’ goods and services. Can co-operatives and multi-stakeholder owned and managed enterprises continue to provide a ‘public’ alternative to the McDonaldization and Uber-ization of society?”

I’m planning to be there, and will be offering a workshop on the Saturday. I’m approaching the theme by looking back as well as forward, exploring the role which an early co-operative leader J.C. Gray played – at the start of the twentieth century –  in trying to encourage the British movement to seize the potential he believed it possessed. You may not have heard of Gray, but I’ll try to convince you that he’s a significant figure in our history and one with much to say that is still relevant today.

Here he is, dressed up for the studio photograph!

New research reports on co-operatives

I wasn’t able to get to the international Co-op Summit in Québec this year, but I have been following what’s been happening over there over the past few days with interest. Usefully, the Summit organisers (the financial co-operative Desjardins) have commissioned a number of studies and reports which have been launched during the event.  One of these is the latest edition of the co-operative equivalent of the Fortune 500 list, the World Co-operative Monitor which is becoming a very valuable annual publication.

My eye has also been drawn to the research findings on public perceptions of co-ops and a study on the effect of the new financial regulatory regime on financial co-ops.  The studies are all helpfully together on one web site, https://www.sommetinter.coop/en/2016-edition/2016-studies.

Cooperative and collective organising by the self-employed

What’s the answer for those people in the workforce who don’t have employment law protection because they are self-employed but who – far from enjoying the fruits of independent working – face social and economic insecurity?

Could the answer be to make it easier for the self-employed to organise together, perhaps through freelance cooperatives and/or through appropriate trade unions?

This is an issue which interests me a great deal, not just because I am self-employed and not just because I am a member of a trade union with a very sizeable (and very active) minority of members who are freelance.

I was involved some years back in a pioneering project with the global union UNI which brought together trade unions in Europe who were seeking to organise the unemployed, either (like my own union) directly in their own membership structures or through autonomous ‘new’ unions for self-employed members which they helped create. My report for UNI Global Union Opening the Doors Wide to the Self-Employed, although ten years old, is still available on my website, and you’ll also find there various articles I wrote at the time on the same theme.

Quite apart from this past professional interest, I also recall a pleasant day spent walking in the Peak District many years ago with a friend. She undertook similar work to me, also on a self-employed basis, and our walk had been arranged to give us time to ponder whether we could establish a cooperative structure for our businesses which would enable us to benefit among other things from joint marketing. We liked the idea – but the time just didn’t seem right to progress it.

So for all these reasons I am delighted that the British cooperative and trade union movements have collaborated on a new report which explores in detail some possible cooperative, mutual and union self-help solutions for what it describes as the self-employed precariat. The report Not Alone, just published and available on the Co-operatives UK website, identifies some innovative British examples of self-employed collective organising but also points out that other countries are far ahead of Britain in terms of good practice.

As the report puts it, “In the nineteenth century working class self-help organisations included craftsmen’s guilds, co-operatives, friendly societies and the first unions. Together they collaborated and proliferated to improve working conditions, to secure rights and status and to maintain standards of living for workers. In an age of economic insecurity and rapid changes in technology there is now the opportunity to reinvent democratic self-help for the twenty-first century in order to widen participation on a fair basis for all in work.”

There is indeed an opportunity here which needs to be grasped.

The cooperative world in 2014

The folk at the European Research Institute on Cooperative and Social Enterprise who each year labour to produce the World Co-operative Monitor have taken advantage of the Quebec coop summit to launch the 2014 edition there today.

The Monitor is best known for bringing together turnover data on the largest 300 coops and mutuals in the world, and the league tables at the back are likely to be the part of the report which most readers turn to. The Monitor also includes, as it did last year, a set of short profiles of a selection of coops from different parts of the world which help put some colour into what might otherwise be a dry document.

I wonder how many of the companies listed in the league tables might be embarrassed to find that they’re there – or in other words, how many businesses with cooperative or mutual structures there are who don’t identify at all with the cooperative movement.  Certainly the top twenty companies by turnover include quite a fair number of firms (including for example some mutual insurers and agricultural coops) who seem happy to hide their roots.

But maybe the loss is theirs, not ours.  Because it’s interesting how coops and mutuals are increasingly beginning to realise that the public might actually like the fact that they are not a standard plc.

 

The mutual that never was, part II

There’s a mucky little story about what is happening to one of the government’s so-called ‘mutuals’ in today’s Financial Times.

The privatisation of the Civil Service pension administration to a new ‘mutual joint venture’ known as MyCSP was always a controversial affair, as I reported back in 2011.

The deal gave the staff (most of whom didn’t want to be decanted from the civil service) just 25% of the new company, with the private firm Equiniti Group holding the largest (40%) stake.

Today’s announcement is that the government is to sell 11% of its own original 35% holding to Equiniti, which will now have 51% of the shares – or in other words a majority stake.

With an election looming, we need to guard against politicians who play fast and loose with talk of mutuals and cooperatives. Compelling public sector staff to become members of their own mutual, or ‘mutual’, goes against every principle in the book.