The Guardian newspaper has frightened itself away from taking what could have been a radical and transformative step forward in British media ownership. It could have empowered its readers by giving them a formal voice in its ownership and management structures. There are a whole variety of different ways in which the Guardian’s parent Scott Trust could have been turned itself into a genuinely cooperative undertaking, in partnership with its readers.
It did, I understand, ponder this sort of step. Instead, it is now inviting its readers to become ‘members’. “If you read the Guardian, join the Guardian,” says Polly Toynbee in today’s paper.
You can for example become a Founding Patron (£540 a year) or Partner (£135) or just a Friend (for nothing). But what are you a member of? The answer unfortunately is that you are a member of nothing more than a glorified loyalty scheme: the right to priority booking and discounts for Guardian seminars and the like. Guardian ‘members’, when it comes down to it, are no different from Boots loyalty card members.
This is, dear Guardian, a missed opportunity.
I will be off on Friday to Manchester for the third of the Ways Forward co-operative conferences organised by Co-operative Business Consultants. I’ve been asked to chair the session on democracy in the Co-operative Group, which should make for a lively debate…
I’ll also be heading off to the workshop on co-operative housing, a topic which is increasingly engaging me because of an involvement I have locally in helping establish a community land trust.
The programme (and booking details for last-minute attendees) is at http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/ways-forward-3-a-new-era-for-co-operative-development-tickets-14243421457
Jo Bird and her colleagues at Co-operative Business Consultants did a good job in organising the two “Ways Forward” conferences for cooperative activists in Manchester this year, at a time when morale was low and the way(s) forward not at all clear. I’m pleased to see that CBC have now announced a third Ways Forward event, to be held on Friday 23 January, again in Manchester but this time out at the new stadium built by FC United of Manchester, the cooperative alternative to Manchester United. More details promised soon at http://www.cbc.coop.
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.
As the business press reported earlier this week, the government intends to make company data from Companies House free to access from next year. This is a welcome development, and will make it easier to get information on companies, their activities and who owns and runs them.
What about cooperatives? As I mentioned some time back, data on coops and mutuals are held separately, at the Mutuals Register run by the Financial Conduct Authority, and the fees (£12 for an electronic document, for example) are very significantly more than Companies House’s current equivalent fees.
We should be pressing for cooperative records to be free to search, too. Ed Mayo at Co-operatives UK tells me that his organisation has long called for equal and easier access to cooperative data and that they’re monitoring the current development. Time to get lobbying again, I think.
I mentioned in a blog a month or so ago the green electricity distribution coop EWS, based in the south German village of Schönau.
I want today to say a little more about energy cooperatives. Britain has, of course, a number of small-scale community-based cooperative generating enterprises, most notably the much-vaunted Baywind. We also have the national energy distributor Co-operative Energy (a subsidiary of Midcounties Co-operative Society), which is trying to provide a more ethical alternative to the big six commercial suppliers and generally I think making a pretty good fist of it. But in general, Britain is a long way behind many other countries. In the US, for example, cooperatives provide power generation and transmission for 42 million people in 47 states. Or another example: in Argentina, coops provide 10% of national energy production.
The lack of engagement by coops in Britain may because of history: early in the development of local government, gas and electricity generation and supply were usually taken into municipal ownership, later to be switched into national state ownership. But now power has been privatised, it’s clear that we need to be looking more closely at possible cooperative models.
The examples of the US and Argentina I mentioned above come from a recently published report from the International Labour Organization, Providing clean energy and energy access through cooperatives. It’s an interesting overview of what is happening worldwide with some useful case studies; it’s available here.
Why do I think that the Co-operative Group still has some significant management problems to overcome? Partly because it has so far failed to develop an effective corporate culture (let’s say, an effective cooperative culture) which reaches right down to all its employees, in all its stores.
Customers in Co-op Group stores are currently receiving with their till receipts an extra slip inviting them to participate in the Have Your Say survey. The last two times I’ve shopped in a Co-op Group store this slip hasn’t been proffered to me, just put to one side by the staff as if it will be of no interest.
There remains a fracture between what gets decided in Manchester, the Co-op Group’s head office, and what happens at shop level. You have only to contrast the difference between the Group and, say, John Lewis/Waitrose to draw the conclusion that the Group is still struggling to communicate its values and its strategy to those of its staff who meet its members on a day-to-day basis. To be honest, I think Sainsburys and Asda do staff engagement better than the Co-op.
It’s not easy to change a business culture, but it can be done. (If you want an example from the cooperative sector, I’d suggest you look at what the cooperative insurer NTUC Income has recently been up to in Singapore).
So there’s a challenge ahead for the Co-op Group. What would be an indicator of success? A sense that shopping in a coop store really was a significantly different, and significantly more rewarding, experience than shopping elsewhere.