Co-op conference in Sheffield next year

I mentioned a few weeks back that I was participating in this year’s conference of the Society for Co-operative Studies, held at the start of September in Newcastle. I though the event – which among other things celebrated the Society’s fiftieth anniversary – well worth the effort of breaking into the two week holiday which I was supposed to be having at the time on the south coast.  Lots of extra mileage, though.

I am always slightly surprised that anyone turns up for these events, since in my experience the Society is remarkably tardy in putting out the date and details. (I know, it’s all volunteer effort, I’m not really knocking anyone).  But just so you know, I can give you very early notice that the 2018 edition will be at Sheffield Hallam University, once again over the first weekend in September. There: no excuses for not knowing next time.

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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!

Coming very soon

I was asked a couple of weeks back if I could help publicise the forthcoming conference of the UK Society for Co-operative Studies, which is taking place at Northumbria University in Newcastle the first weekend in September. Of course, I said I’d be happy to do so. I enjoyed last year’s conference which was held in Leicester, and which pulled in perhaps fifty or so researchers and cooperative activists for a weekend of presentations and discussion.

If I haven’t mentioned the event until now it’s because I’ve been waiting for the conference organisers to make the programme for the event available. The website for weeks has been announcing that the programme is ‘coming soon’ and informal attempts by email to get more information to share with you haven’t yet elicited any details either. I know that UKSCS gets by on volunteer effort and very limited resources (and August is a holiday month) but, with only ten days to go before Newcastle, I think ‘coming soon’ is now getting a little close to the wire.  I’m sure the event will be valuable, but it would be nice to know what exactly is planned.

Back to the future

I’ve been working this morning on the presentation I’ll be giving in a couple of weeks at the Society for Co-operative Studies’ annual conference, being held in Leicester on September 5th and 6th.

I’ve titled my presentation Britain’s early productive cooperatives, why they were forgotten, and why they’re relevant today, although it’s fair to say that my focus will be mainly on one particular cooperative, the fustian mill in Hebden Bridge which was in its day considered one of the exemplars of manufacturing cooperation and which is the subject of my recently published book All Our Own Work.

I’ll be suggesting that the experiences of bottom-up worker self-management in those nineteenth century pioneering businesses could be worth re-examining.  (And, you know what, that this could be surprisingly relevant for those of us currently completing our Labour Party leadership ballot papers…)

What future(s) for Britain’s credit unions?

I’ve been looking at the HM Treasury document published last month as part of its public consultation on the future of credit unions in Britain.

The government is asking, among other things, about credit union legislation and the future of the common bond concept.  Or, in short, it’s asking what needs to be done to make credit unions more secure and more effective.

I do admit to the occasional worry about our credit unions.  I worry on the one hand that, as the trend grows for them to become bigger and more professional, they are heading off in exactly the same trajectory as our building societies, where member ownership became little more than a legalistic formality.  I worry about my credit union no longer feeling as though it is ‘mine’, or rather ‘ours’.  But then conversely I worry that strategic oversight by elected volunteer boards isn’t really up to the job of looking after its members’ money in a properly efficient way. A friend complained the other day that she’d been waiting a month for her (and my) credit union to sort out a problem with her account.  The letter she’d sent had brought no reply.

I suppose I have another worry, too, and that is ironically caused by the very enthusiasm with which the government recently has been embracing the credit union idea, as the answer to everything from loan sharks to small business finance needs. As coops around the world know very well, too much top-down influence (and funding) doesn’t always produce the most appropriate answers.

It’s interesting is to see what we can learn from countries where the credit union movement is more developed, so it’s fortuitous that the latest issue of the Journal from the Society for Co-operative Studies which has just arrived through the post has a useful piece by Paul Thompson on credit unions in the US.  What’s particularly interesting – and perhaps slightly depressing – is to see how closely the three challenges Paul identifies for the US movement mirror what I see as the issues here too.

The first, according to Paul, is the challenge of fostering credit union philosophy (he calls for credit unions to have a ‘philosophical compass’ to keep them on the right path of providing honest reliable service to members, and avoiding staff convenience and self-aggrandisement).

Secondly, he identifies a challenge of maintaining credit union democracy  as they grow in size and lose direct contact with members.  And thirdly he detects a governance challenge for management boards (“During the past 40 years, boards of directors have been playing catch-up in terms of understanding their credit union’s business”).

Back to the UK:  the government’s consultation period lasts until September 1st.