Learning lessons from European co-op development

“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.

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Who are the wealth creators?

Last Friday’s Ways Forward conference in Manchester, organised by Co-operative Business Consultants (or to be accurate, organised more or less singlehandedly by CBC’s hard-working Jo Bird) was the sixth such event in what is becoming a regular feature in the co-operative activist’s diary.

Two speakers particularly impressed.  Both reminded their audience of all that’s wrong with the present economic system – and why, as at least one way forward, co-operative business models need to be nurtured. Molly Scott Cato (the Green Party’s MEP for the South West) stood in as a speaker at short notice and offered a robustly radical appraisal of the issues facing us, while leaving us at the end of her contribution with a sense of hope.

Rebecca Long Bailey, Labour’s shadow Treasury spokesperson, is an articulate and passionate political speaker who is becoming a regular at the Ways Forward events. She was in fine form on Friday. The text of her speech has come through to me, and I will offer here just one short extract:

“Our co-operatives embody a forgotten truth about the world: wealth is created collectively, not by some small minority group but by workers, the community. Sadly when we talk about wealth creators however we don’t mean those people who created the wealth in the first instance, it usually means the wealth controllers and the wealth owners. But we know the reality is that the resources of our world are created collectively and we want that to be reflected in the way our wealth is owned and managed, and that is why we are dedicated to expanding the co-op sector and making sure that in the future we all feel that we have a real stake in our economic future.”

Unlevel playing fields (and other cliches)

I have complained before both here and in my journalistic writings of the disparity between the costs of running a business registered under the Companies Act and one registered under the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act.

I’ve received this morning the invoice for the annual cost of keeping a community benefit society registered: it’s £60.  And the cost of completing the annual return for a similar sized company?  £13.

Guest blog: Ruth Holtom reports from Argentina

Normally what you get on this blog are my own thoughts and comments. Occasionally, though, it feels right to make the space available for guest blogs. This report, from Ruth Holtom (who when she isn’t in Argentina works at the Co-operative College in Manchester), deserves a wider audience I think. – Andrew Bibby

In the north eastern province of Santa Fe in Argentina, surrounded by flat fertile fields and nothing much in between, there is a small town of around 25,000 people that on the surface looks like any other. But in fact, Sunchales is a town with a remarkable history and a deep co-operative spirit, which merits a visit from any co-operator who is lucky enough to find themselves in the beautiful country of Argentina.

I had the opportunity to visit the official co-operative capital of Argentina as part of my travels around South America, and in the space of three days the amount that I learnt and the warmth of the welcome I received there was overwhelming. A short while before arriving in Argentina, I had contacted Raul Colombetti, the vice president of the insurance co-operative Sancor Seguros, (based in Sunchales ever since it was established in 1945), to see if I could perhaps visit a few co-operatives there. Before I knew it, he had arranged a full intensive three-day programme for me, which included visits to eight schools, a dairy co-operative, a drinking water co-operative and many others. True co-operative generosity in action! I could spend hours recounting all of the inspirational organisations and people that I met there, but for now here is an insight into the co-operative activities in the schools of Sunchales, from which I believe we can learn a lot about co-operative education and youth engagement.

´Cooperativas escolares´: putting the 5th principle into practice

There are 16 schools in Sunchales, including two special schools and two rural schools several kilometres from the town. Every single one has a ´cooperativa escolar´, or a school co-operative. Almost all the students of the school are members of these co-operatives, and between them they are engaged in an impressive range of activities, both at primary and secondary level: from creating their own school radio stations and tuck shops; to producing handmade soap and jewellery; to designing leaflets, bags or T-shirts.

Every year the co-operatives hold elections where all the members vote students onto the ´consejos´ (committees), and students take on roles such as chair, treasurer and secretary. These committees take care of the administration and practical organisation of the co-operative, learning from a young age how to make collective decisions and work together as a team. But in reality, the students told me that all the members are incredibly active in the co-operative, not just the committee members, and it was clear that in all the schools the co-operative had a large presence in the school. The co-operative values and principles and co-operative symbols were painted in rainbow colours across the walls of many schools, and one primary school was even called ´Escuela de los pioneros de Rochdale´ after the 28 textile workers that opened the first successful co-operative in the world, thousands of kilometres from this small school in an Argentinian town.

rholtom

I was also struck by the way all the schools are united through the ´Federacion de Cooperativas Escolares Sunchales´. Every school votes for two representatives from their co-operative to be part of the federation. With the support of the Fundación Grupo Sancor Seguros (the educational and development arm of the insurance co-operative), both financial and otherwise, the youth-led federation unites the schools by organising local social events, as well as international youth exchanges where students from Sunchales meet young co-operators from other countries such as Brazil, Italy and Spain. The fact that the federation is completely run by the town´s students of all ages, is an impressive example of co-operative learning in practice, and the young people involved are clearly deeply motivated to create a thriving and united youth co-operative movement in the town.

After my three-day visit, I have seen that Sunchales truly is a town where co-operation is written into its DNA. Just as the pride and dedication of members of Sancor, the town´s dairy co-operative and the oldest co-operative in the town, established in 1929, demonstrated the richness of Sunchales´ co-operative history, so the co-operative spirit and passion from the young people that I met in the schools provides certainty that the town´s co-operative movement will only get stronger and will continue to inspire future generations of co-operators in Argentina and beyond.

The crisis facing the press – is there a cooperative solution?

The Financial Times runs an article today which calls into question the long-term future of one of Britain’s quality dailies, The Independent.

All journalists want to see as many newspapers thriving as possible, and the loss of the Indy would be serious indeed.  I have warm memories of the paper from the work it gave me when I was first starting in journalism more than 25 years ago. But my focus here today is on another quality daily, the Guardian (who incidentally have also over the years taken my work).

If I’m honest, I’d have to say that I’m cross with the Guardian. It is heavily promoting its Guardian Members scheme, inviting its readers to pay between £49 and £599 a year to support its work. ‘Members’ receive a range of incentives, including discounts on Guardian events. But the scheme has been established in such a way that these members – a group who by definition have identified themselves as committed supporters of the newspaper – are given no role in its governance or management.

I know that the Guardian did toy with an alternative plan, a cooperative one, which would have given reader-supporters a real stake in the business – one where membership actually meant something. But the Guardian chickened out. What a pity.

The press in Britain, both national and local, is in a serious plight and this should be of concern to us all. One way forward may very well be to explore cooperative ways to bring in readers (and their money). But such a way forward needs papers to give genuine power and responsibility – albeit shared with other stakeholders – to their readers.

John McDonnell and Labour’s ‘new economics’

OK, so let’s have a proper scrutiny of John McDonnell’s speech in Manchester yesterday. You’ll find it on the Labour Party website. It’s available here.

Let’s start with the section a few minutes in.  McDonnell said: “We’ve depended too long on a strategy that looked only to the state as a vehicle for change. The argument that came to dominate the left, from at least the 1930s, was a simple one. First take the state. Then use the state to change society.”

“This simple proposition achieved an extraordinary amount,” McDonnell said.  But he went on: “deeper questions of ownership, control and democracy were left to one side…. Deeper questions about the economy were left unasked by the mainstream of Labour.”

This is, I think, a welcome analysis. It doesn’t dismiss the achievements of twentieth century state ownership through nationalisation, but it does suggest that we need new tools for the future.

And that leads to a second section of McDonnell’s speech I want to highlight:

“There is a long labour movement tradition of decentralisation and grass-roots organisation. But it has been somewhat hidden… This radical tradition has deep roots in our collective history. From RH Tawney, GDH Cole and the guild socialists, back to the Rochdale Pioneers, the Society of Weavers in Fenwick, Ayrshire, and even further back to the radicals of the English Civil War. With the stress on self-organisation and on-the-ground-solutions to problems, this tradition stressed the need to organise not just to win the state.”

This is an encouraging approach, and it provides a potential space for those of us who stress worker and community self-organising and cooperative solutions to engage with Labour as it looks again at its economic policy for the future.

McDonnell finished his set speech with:  “In an uncertain world where a laissez faire market approach continues to fail, cooperation is an idea whose time has come again”. On the one hand this is the sort of pat-on-the-back to the coop movement which, given the audience, you’d have expected a politician to offer. But it’s useful nonetheless to have it said.

I mentioned earlier today that McDonnell himself read his speech without a great deal of apparent enthusiasm, but I’m prepared to give him at this stage the benefit of the doubt. Certainly there is more opportunity now than for many years for the labour, union and coop movements to engage in dialogue with each other. The window of opportunity may close very soon, however.  Get stuck in!

Finding ways forward in Manchester

Phil Frampton and his colleagues at Co-operative Business Consultants can be very pleased at the way their Ways Forward conference in Manchester went off yesterday.

The star catch was, of course, the shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. McDonnell’s speech was heartening for those of us wanting to engage with Labour in finding new (more co-operative) models for public and social ownership of business. After a somewhat lack-lustre delivery of the prepared text McDonnell came to life at the end when he went off-copy briefly (I plan to comment on his speech in another blog shortly). Molly Scott Cato, who I last bumped into at a Robert Owen commemoration at New Lanark and who is now a Green MEP, also made a very inspiring intervention in the opening plenary.

I was privileged to be asked to contribute to the final plenary and to one of the workshops, and one of my presentations (together with those from some of the other speakers) are available on the CBC website.

Apparently, when I reported on the first Ways Forward conference for the Guardian more than two years ago I described the venue (the Methodist Central Hall in Manchester) as ‘shabby’, something Phil Frampton obviously remembered and berated me about yesterday.  Shabby venue, maybe, but nothing shabby about the politics.