Thoughts of a Co-op Group customer

I’m back from a quick dash to my local Co-operative Group supermarket, which happens to be conveniently just about fifty metres from my front door. A few essentials have been bought for tonight’s evening meal (baked potatoes, since you ask).

I’ve used this store for the best part of thirty years, much longer than the Co-op Group itself has been around in the form it’s in today. So I know the store well. And I’ve seen it change.

There was a time when everyone locally had their favourite stories about the awfulness of the management and the bizarre nature of the store’s stocking policy. The joke was that if a new line sold very well, you could guarantee it wouldn’t be stocked again (too much work involved in putting in the necessary reorders).  And back in the days when my supermarket was part of a regional co-operative society, there were some blatantly bad goings-on, including health and safety breaches and brazen theft. (Once I asked for a membership form to join the society, and one was only tracked down in the manager’s office with very great difficulty – the staff thought I must be wanting to apply for a job).

We can still grumble about things, and not all the management and HR issues seem to me sorted yet. But do you know?  I really think the Co-op is better run now than it has been for a very long time. I’m old enough to remember when anti-apartheid campaigners tried to persuade the co-op to boycott South African oranges – only to be told that the co-op couldn’t possibly stop its customers having the choice of buying Outspan. Now the Co-op Group takes a lead on fair trade and there is a definite (if still slightly inchoate) sense of a business trying to be run ethically.  Not everything is right yet, but we’re seeing progress.

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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!

An errant diarist returns

What use, you may ask, is a blogger who never blogs?

Several months have passed since my last posting here, when I announced with a great deal of pleasure that funding had come through for the workers’ co-operative archive project which a few of us had for several years been nursing into health. I’m delighted to say that a project worker has now been appointed by the Co-operative Heritage Trust to start the hard work of making the initiative a success.

Since the Spring I’ve been busy, too busy or so it seemed at the time, to blog or tweet.  I’ve been finalising the text and undertaking proofing of a new book of mine Back Roads through Middle England which will be coming out next month from Gritstone Publishing Co-operative, the authors’ marketing co-operative of which I’m a proud founder member.

The book will probably be filed by bookshops as a ‘travel’ title, or perhaps in larger bookshops with other books in the growing genre of landscape writing.  It will, I hope, interest my friends in the co-operative movement (there are accounts of a village shop co-operative in Lincolnshire, a rural community land trust in Dorset, and a co-operative market garden outside Bath), although my aims with the book are rather more general.

Here’s how the press release which Gritstone has drawn up begins, to give you an idea.

At a time when Englishness and English identity is increasingly an uncertain affair, are there clues in both the past and the present state of the English countryside to help us understand the state we’re in?

Landscape writer Andrew Bibby delves deep into ‘middle England’ in his search for answers. In his forthcoming book Back Roads through Middle England he uses the device of a journey by bicycle from Dorset to the Humber along the Jurassic limestone belt (the so-called ‘cotswoldstone’) to try to capture the essence of this much-loved landscape – but also to explore the issues he feels are relevant to England today.

Maybe I’ll say more about the book here, in the run-up to publication next month.

Workers’ co-op records to be saved

Well, success!

Over the last few years I’ve been stressing the importance of ensuring that key archives from the co-operative movement are identified and preserved.  In particular I’ve mentioned several times the initiative some of us have been engaged in to focus on workers’ co-op records from the 1970s-1990s.

We’ve had several generous offers of financial support from current workers’ co-ops, from co-operative organisations and from individuals, but we needed the Heritage Lottery Fund to come in and support the project as well.

I’m delighted to say that HLF have indeed now agreed to contribute £43,000 towards the project – so green light to go!

To crib a little text from the press release which has just gone out: “The project, called Working Together: recording and preserving the heritage of the workers’ co-operative movement, aims to identify and make accessible for the first time records from some of the major workers’ co-operatives of the time, together with co-operative support organisations. A trained archivist will be employed for a twelve month period to undertake the work of finding the material, and then in ensuring that where possible it is deposited either at the National Co-operative Archive or in the relevant local county record office or public archive. An oral history element to the project will mean that recordings of the memories of some of those most involved in co-operatives during this period will be made.”

I hope you share my satisfaction that a little part of our history will now be more easily understood by co-operators of the future.

Three books for World Book Day

World Book Day today.   Co-operative News asked me a few weeks back to come up with three books I thought CN readers (and others in the co-operative movement) might find interesting, and they’ve taken the opportunity to publish my response online today. You’ll find it on their website here. Presumably it will also be coming shortly in the print edition

The news about the News

I’ve been meaning for a while to mention here the February issue of Co-operative News (and not because it includes a nice little feature on Gritstone Publishing, the new authors’ co-operative of which I am a founder member – although that would of course be worth the mention!)

Co-operative News has been serving the movement since September 2 1871, and it remains a valuable tool. The decision has been taken – correctly, I think – to move from fortnightly to monthly publication, and the February issue is the first one in this new extended format. It works. The design is significantly better than previously and there’s a good range of news and features (the challenge now, of course, is to maintain this breadth of coverage).

Co-operative News is also undergoing a legal change and will very shortly be opening up membership of Co-operative Press Ltd, which produces the magazine, to its supporters and members. This also seems to me to be a valuable step forward. I’ll be becoming a member. We need CN.

Remembering our past

I was invited yesterday evening to Halifax, to talk to the local history society there. (I should give it its proper name, the Halifax Antiquarian Society, a venerable local institution first established in 1901).  I was discussing the story of perhaps the best known of the later nineteenth century productive cooperatives, the fustian manufacturing coop in Hebden Bridge (also the subject of my 2015 book All Our Own Work).

There were about seventy people there on a cold and cheerless February evening, including the grandson of Thomas Morgan, one of the cooperative’s committee-men, who had made the journey from Morecambe to attend. I must say that it’s very heartening that British cooperative history can still attract this level of interest.