I’m interested in co-operative solutions (of all kinds) to Britain’s housing crisis and try in my own neighbourhood to help by being a trustee of our local Community Land Trust.
Britain is behind other countries. Here’s a moving video on self-build housing co-operatives in Uruguay, the link to which has arrived in my email account by a roundabout route. Let me pass on the link.
I have a series of opened envelopes on my desk in front of me, all from building societies telling me that it’s time to cast my votes to approve their accounts, approve the directors’ remuneration and elect my directors.
It’s pretty frustrating. I am pleased that we still have mutually owned building societies after the demutualisation madness twenty years ago. I support the idea of the societies being member-owned. I want to use my votes.
And yet democracy is not on the agenda. Not one of the building societies offers me a contested election for the board. The days when there were candidates for building society boards – particularly at the Nationwide – who were unendorsed by the existing board (and who were generally put up by the grassroots Building Societies Members Association) have passed. The BSMA now seems a very small little affair, unfortunately.
Of course, building societies are complex financial institutions and we need competent directors. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the only suitable board members are those initiated into the magic circle of non-exec directorships and who hold accountancy qualifications or have spent their lives in banking or finance. It’s frustrating how few directors mention in their election addresses that they support mutuality, for example.
On the other hand, my relationship with the societies of which I am a member is also pretty much solely a transactional one. Although I do try to save with some of the smaller societies, I am fickle in my favours, tending to look above all at the interest rates being paid and nothing much else.
So I will vote, but I will vote without enthusiasm. And I will vote will no clear sense of how mutual organisations such as building societies can at this late stage in their development ever really be once again genuinely member-owned and member-responsive.
I said in my last blog that I wanted to return to the question of what the British co-op movement (and, hopefully, a future co-operatively-minded Labour government) can learn from recent developments in France, where workers’ coops (SCOPs: Sociétés coopératives et participatives) have been growing in numbers in recent years.
There are currently around 2300 SCOPs. They include start-ups, employee buy-outs of existing companies (for example, when the owner wants to sell up), and employee rescues of failing businesses (always the hardest option of the three). In the last category, I mentioned here the worker-led rescue of the daily Nice-Matin newspaper chain at the time the co-op was being established. I’ve also mentioned several times the Sea France ferry co-op, now unfortunately no longer trading.
I got talking to Eleonore Perrin Massebiaux at the Ways Forward conference in Manchester last month, and afterwards she kindly gave me the link to a recent article she’s written which provides a very good introduction to what is happening n France. Elly also sent me a link to a useful publication Beyond the Crisis from the European worker co-op federation CECOP, which somehow I missed when it came out a few years ago. CECOP’s report gives detailed information on what’s happening in France, Spain and Italy. (The version online claims to be a draft, but since no final text appears to have been published we won’t worry too much about that).
“Co-operatives are a successful business model, innovative, resilient and effective in both the short and long term, capable of working at both small and large scale, appropriate for all sectors of economic activity, and the generator of millions of jobs worldwide.”
Indeed yes, although these are not my own words. This is my best effort at translating some of the text on the website of the Cooperatives de Treball de Catalunya (the Catalan Federation of Workers Co-ops), which I’ve been browsing through with interest. There are around 4000 co-ops in Catalunya, just under three-quarters of these being workers’ co-ops. And Cooperatives de Treball de Catalunya has reported an upsurge in interest in the co-op business model recently, with 2016 being the best year for co-operative growth for twenty years.
The Labour Party is making welcome noises about strong support for co-operative business when it is returned to power. We will need to ensure that this latent support is converted into real long-term achievement (learning the lessons of both the Tony Benn ‘phoenix’ co-ops of the 1970s and the work of co-operative development agencies in the 1980s). My view is that there is much in mainland Europe to help us. As well as looking at developments in Catalunya I’ve also been looking into what’s been happening in France – a subject for another blog shortly, I think.
There are, I know, people who struggle to know how to pronounce the West Yorkshire town of Mytholmroyd.
The poet Ted Hughes was born there, and when Hollywood made the biopic of Hughes’ life with Sylvia Plath the actor playing the poet at one stage mentioned that he came from (deep breath) mith- om – m – royd. Cue the sound of tittering at every cinema showing in West Yorkshire.
It’s migh- zhum –royd, with the emphasis on the first and third syllables.
Why am I telling you this? Because I will be giving a talk at the Mytholmroyd Community Centre this Friday on Joseph Greenwood and the Hebden Bridge Fustian Manufacturing Co-operative Society, in my opinion one of the most important co-operatives in Britain during the later years of the nineteenth century. The talk is hosted by the Mytholmroyd Historical Society. I am sure they would not turn away visitors.
The Community Right to Bid (part of the 2010-2015 coalition government’s enthusiasm for localism) is on the statute book. It allows communities to nominate buildings or land for listing as assets of community value. If these assets subsequently are put up for sale, communities are given six months to find the funding to purchase them.
Our businesses are assets of public value, too. We need an equivalent Right to Bid for employees. If a take-over bid is made for a firm, workers there should have the first option of acquiring the business and converting to a co-operative.
Radical? Only if you think it is. What a pity, for example, that Cadbury’s ended up part of Kraft Foods when for the last six years we could have been welcoming representatives of the Cadbury’s Workers’ Co-operative at UK co-op events.
Know your history.
I’ve been going on here about the importance of ensuring the experiences and lessons of the ‘new wave’ of co-ops established in the 1970s are not forgotten, so I’ve been pleased to read a history of one very successful wholefood co-operative, founded in 1974 and still going strong today.
Ah, there is twist. The book (Co-opportunity, The Rise of a Community Owned Market) tells the story not of a British co-op but of the co-operative business Co-opportunity based in Santa Monica, southern California. But, to be honest, it could so easily be a British co-op being described. Here are the same tales of early triumphs against the odds, of the development of decision making structures, of difficulties and disputes and of how they were resolved, and of how the spirit of improvisation could sometimes save the day. As in this entertaining extract:
“While building the new addition, we wondered how to provide space for meetings…. With ground floor retail at a premium, we came up with the idea of building a loft above the cold storage coolers. A couple of our members who were carpenters built the contraption. You got there by climbing a ladder and then sat under the wide strips of silver-backed insulation and the unfinished roof. There were no windows; it was very warm in summer…”
The book is written by David J Thompson, a Lancastrian by birth (Blackpool, to be precise) who has lived in the US for all his adult life. David was one of the founder members of Co-opportunity and is a lifelong co-operative activist. It was good to see David at the recent Ways Forward conference in Manchester when I was able to buy the book off him. I’m not sure how it’s distributed normally but I am sure David himself would tell you: his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.