Tuesday, 22 September 2015

A New Platform for Co-operative Ownership

At last weekends Co-op Party conference there was much discussion about Jeremy Corbyns first week as labour leader. The Co-op party historically has been firmly on the moderate wing of the Labour Party loyally supporting whoever is the leader. There is no doubt however that Corbynism in terms at least of opening up Labours policy process to new thinking has been warmly received by co-operators.

One example of that new thinking that was welcomed at conference was his advocacy of a Peoples Railway. As far back as 2011 Co-operatives UK published a pamphlet by the recent London Mayoral candidate and all round railway buff Christian Wolmar advocating co-operative ownership for Britain’s railways.

The model is what is called in co-op circles multi-stakeholder meaning that unlike a consumer or a worker co-op there are different groups represented in the ownership structure. In the case of the railways the key stakeholders are the government – representing the national interest in such a crucial piece of infrastructure, railway workers, who keep it moving and provide the essential service and the rail users those who depend on and contribute to the service through their fares and season tickets.

It would be superfluous to argue yet again how the present system is confusing, over complicated and creates unnecessary competition between providers, thereby driving up costs and fares to extortionate levels. The question is how we change it and that is clearly the stage that  the Jeremy Corbyn proposals have now rreached.

The scope for a people’s railway is huge for example the Welsh Government are seriously discussing how to bid for the Wales and Borders franchise to turn it into a not for profit business integrated into a regulated national Welsh bus service thereby providing an effective Wales wide public transport system. 

A proposal for Rail Cymru, supported by Aslef, the Co-op party and the Socialist Environment Association written by Professor Paul Salverson was published in 2012. The irony is of course that the current Wales and the Borders franchise run by Arriva trains is owned by the Deutsches Bundesbahn which in turn is owned by the Federal Republic of Germany. So the take over of this franchise by a not for profit co-op would be a form of privatisation!

This is the Alice in Wonderland world of rail franchising the so called radical Scottish Nats  gave the Scot Rail franchise to Abellio or Nederlandse Spoorwegen the Dutch national rail company! So clearly they are not against nationalisation as long is its not our nation doing the nationalising!

One of the exciting things about a co-operative model is the potential for very local micro-franchises working with Passenger Transport Authorities and local rail partnerships to create new services.   This model would immediately stop the £200million of public subsidy leaking out of the railways in profits for shareholders.

Some estimates are that over a quarter of the total £4billion in public subsidy are the “fragmentation” costs the transfer payments and duplication costs between the train operating companies, the rolling stock companies and network rail.

There are also huge knock on benefits in public procurement and line improvements by having a more unified approach. More rational planning in electrification programs and rolling stick procurement could bring substantial cost savings. No wonder bringing the railways back into public ownership has over 60% popular support a figure that has increasing over time.

Furthermore the example of the London North eastern franchise shows that they can be bought back into public ownership at almost no cost. The Tory commitment to a privatised railway is a triumph of ideology over common sense.

Anyone who thinks these ideas are extreme needs to get out more. Christian Wolmars original ideas where endorsed by the hardly left Andrew, now Lord, Adonis. There is no doubt in my mind that the original Herbert Morrison model of public ownership did not give the public or the workers in the state industries any meaningful say in their operations making privatisation that much easier.

The Tory critics to Jeremy Corbyn’s peoples railway idea are in fact right it is indeed ideological and it will certainly be a joy to ride! . 

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Patriotic Karaoke

As a secular republican I have deep sympathy for Jeremy Corbyn’s position at the recent service for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. What the furore about his not singing along to our so called ‘National Anthem’ shows is the deeply undemocratic nature of our country.

It reminded me of my school days when once during assembly the Head stopped the hymn singing because we where demonstrating a complete lack of gusto. He said if we did not make a greater effort he would have us back after school, “and we would enjoy it.”

Even as I child I was able to work out that forcing someone to enjoy something was not an easy task. Setting aside the sound of the right wing press, whose owners’ patriotism does not extend to being British for tax purposes, baying for craven support for our monarch what is going on here?

Is the edifice of the British state so fragile that not singing the praises of Her Majesty is enough to bring it down? No wonder the nationalisms of Scotland and Wales are so powerful they have much better songs. As do many other nations as we will find at the Rugby World Cup!

We have this dreadful uninspiring dirge. It was not an uninspiring dirge when it was first song. Like much of the British constitutional settlement it was not adopted by Royal Proclamation or my Act of Parliament but by custom and practice.

It became popular on the London stage in about 1744-45 and was taken up as a response to the landing of Charles Edward Stuart, (Bonny Prince Charlie – as Billy Connolly points out the only leader to be named after three sheep dogs).
The first performance was in support of George II after his defeat at the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745. The anti-Jacobite nature of the song was shown in a verse expressing support for Field Marshall George Wade who was then assembling an army at Newcastle:
Lord, grant that Marshal Wade,
May by thy mighty aid,
Victory bring.
May he sedition hush,
and like a torrent rush,
Rebellious Scots to crush,
God save the King.

No wonder the modern Scots prefer, ‘Scotland the Brave’ or ‘Flower of Scotland’.  My dictionary says that a National Anthem is a “nation’s patriotic song”. This song then is not a song of our nation, there is nothing in it about the place or its people, and its only role is to put a dampener on national sporting and other events by reminding us of our embarrassing Imperial legacy.

On a more sinister level however it is part of the pseudo democratic rituals of our institutions.  Like for example the oath of allegiance that every MP has to make before they can take their parliamentary seat.

Is this allegiance to uphold the law or to the people who elected them. No it says "I...do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors according to law".

How can this make any sense it is either a piece of theatrical nonsense or it is a way of subverting the rights of the citizen. Allegiance is being pledged to the yet unborn - to Royal sperm!

Then comes all the nonsense about being Her Majesty’s Government and Opposition topped off with the ruritanian Privy Council which originated from the French prive meaning the private advisors to the Monarch, not as my Dad once told me because they met in the outside toilet.

This is a gloriously ambiguous situation appointed by the Prime Minister under the fiction of loyalty to whoever the monarch happens to be. This is the pinnacle of the secret state. The Privy Council Oath was not revealed until 1989 following a written parliamentary question:

You do swear by Almighty God to be a true and faithful Servant unto the Queen's Majesty, as one of Her Majesty's Privy Council. You will not know or understand of any manner of thing to be attempted, done, or spoken against Her Majesty's Person, Honour, Crown, or Dignity Royal, but you will lett and withstand the same to the uttermost of your Power, and either cause it to be revealed to Her Majesty Herself, or to such of Her Privy Council as shall advertise Her Majesty of the same. You will, in all things to be moved, treated, and debated in Council, faithfully and truly declare your Mind and Opinion, according to your Heart and Conscience; and will keep secret all Matters committed and revealed unto you, or that shall be treated of secretly in Council. And if any of the said Treaties or Counsels shall touch any of the Counsellors, you will not reveal it unto him, but will keep the same until such time as, by the Consent of Her Majesty, or of the Council, Publication shall be made thereof. You will to your uttermost bear Faith and Allegiance unto the Queen's Majesty; and will assist and defend all Jurisdictions, Pre-eminences, and Authorities, granted to Her Majesty, and annexed to the Crown by Acts of Parliament, or otherwise, against all Foreign Princes, Persons, Prelates, States, or Potentates. And generally in all things you will do as a faithful and true Servant ought to do to Her Majesty. So help you God.”

Does this matter?  Well yes in one direct way Orders-in-Council take the form of secondary legislation and are used to make government regulations and appointments. And secondly in an indirect way this is the very centre of our state stuffed with appointees and serving a monarch. Yet we continue to pretend to live in a democracy.

Jeremy Corbyns crusade to democratise the Labour Party is the beginning of a wider crusade that is to finally democratise our country!

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Not Just the Young Gripped by Corbymania!

You know something is happening when people like my mum and dad (78 and 80 respectively and no longer in their young socialist phase) sign up as Labour Supporters so they can vote for Jeremy Corbyn. My Mum had been a party member but drifted away and Dad had been active in his union the GPMU. Living in Shropshire they had almost given up hope of hearing a labour voice they could support.

This shows that Jeremy’s reach is way beyond what the Westminster chattering class would have us believe. What is fascinating about this Labour leadership election is the way that the more publicity and the louder attacks on him the more people stop and listen to what he actually has to say and the more they like it.

Then and this is the key thing they are then able to express that support through the ballot box. It is interesting also that over the last few years some of the Tories and New Labour’s democratic fix’s have come back to bite them on the bum!

The Tories believed that giving the Unions back to their members that greater democracy would make them more moderate. Yet what actually happened was that they won every ballot for a political fund and then started to elect real left wing leaders.

Described as the awkward squad they began to change the terms of debate in the Labour Party. Now the reforms that Ed Miliband agreed to get the unions to give up their collective voice in the party have opened the doors in ways that are a nightmare for the Labour right.

The truth is that there has always been an appetite for the views that Jeremy Corbyn expresses but they have been squeezed out by electoral manipulation. Now they are out there and being clearly expressed the true level of support for them can be seen.

I remember going to Tony Benn’s ‘shows’ after he left parliament to devote himself to politics and seeing the huge numbers of all ages and class backgrounds who turned up and broadly agreed with him.

What most people on the broad left feel I think is why are Labour so spineless? Why have they surrendered so much ground to the Tories without a fight?

For me this goes back to the Philip Gould effect within the Labour Party. Find out what the public want and give it to them. Reflect the publics opinions back at them. Don’t try to shape or lead public opinion but follow it. 

This is the complete abdication of any form of leadership. It also leaves that public opinion to be shaped by others. One thing that is interesting at Jeremy Corbyn rallies is that often he asks how many people read a daily paper.  The response is often a very small number. This means that amongst the young and the less affluent the right wing press has less and less influence.

Of course this does not stop the BBC giving it undue prominence but it does mean that with social media this campaign is the first one for the Labour leadership that has truly exploited the power of the internet. This is what has enabled huge crowds to turn out for Jeremy’s meetings at incredibly short notice and for his message to be heard unmediated by the mainstream media thought police.

Not everyone who hears Jeremy Corbyn agrees with every word but I do not think that anybody finds his views outlandish or in any way extreme. This is why the hysterical reaction of the Labour right is so laughable.

He is also remarkably unspun, completely authentic, kind, generous and lacking in ego. Whilst he is asking you to vote for him his message is one of join me, come with me, we can change things if we do it together.  He is not just building a party he is building a community.

Listening to some shadow cabinet members criticise Jeremy’s economic ideas just demonstrates their economic illiteracy and exposes how far they have swallowed the Tory big lie on the necessity of austerity.

One thing is certain the genie is out of the bottle. Now we have to build the biggest possible vote for Jeremy over the coming days and weeks. And when he is elected we need to build that support as broad and wide as possible.

The Tories have a tiny majority. We need to build the campaign into next years mayoral election in London and the local elections across the country. And before those elections we need to do what Barak Obama did and actually build the electorate with registration drives!

The Tories where elected by around a quarter of the electorate people who voted against Human Rights and for the bedroom tax. To win a general election we do not need any of their votes we need the votes of the other three quarters.

The people who need a message of hope. All across Europe people are asking for the same thing we are not alone. At last there is an alternative!

Ferry Co-op Fight Goes On

I sometimes think that the 21 miles that separate England from France are the longest 21 miles anywhere in the world. The lack of attention to what is going on there is quite staggering.
There has been a great deal of coverage of the fall out from the industrial dispute involving the formerly co-operatively owned MyFerryLink. Particularly the plight of migrants desperately trying to enter the UK on trucks and trains headed I our direction. There has been far less coverage of the dispute itself.
The co-op at the centre of the dispute emerged out of the collapse of the formerly SNCF owned cross channel operator Sea France. Eurotunnel bought the ships from the French Government and the Syndicat Martime Nord lead by the charismatic Eric Vercoutre persuaded 600 Sea France workers to put their redundancy money into a workers co-operative to enable them to operate three former Sea France ships.
All seemed to be going well they had captured 12% of the cross-channel traffic and it was reputed that the crews worked much more efficiently as a co-operative than under the previous owners. The future of the co-op based in Calais, is now to say the least highly uncertain.
Whilst the ferries are actually owned by Eurotunnel they had contracted the management of the service to the co-operative. The dispute began when Eurotunnel withdrew from the agreement at the beginning of June with the inevitable effect, if nothing changes, of the co-op having to go into administration.
The reasons for this are rather complex, but here goes, it seems to have begun when the UK Competition and Markets Authority had ruled that Eurotunnel was breaking competition law by owning the ferries as well as the Channel Tunnel.
This decision lead in January to Eurotunnel putting the ferries up for sale. In response the co-op joined together with a broader social enterprise venture so that it could make a formal bid for the whole business, one of several Eurotunnel received.
Whilst all this was going however the case was grinding on through the courts in Britain to the British Supreme Court. Then last month came a major surprise: the court ruled that Eurotunnel was not, in fact, in breach of competition law.
Despite there no longer being any reason for the sale Eurotunnel say that it is going ahead – and that their previous decision to terminate the deal with MyFerryLink will not be revoked. Two ferries are to be sold to DFDS and one to a freight operator.
This is all rather odd as Eurotunnel and MyFerry Link had been involved in a long legal battle together to keep the new service going against P&O the biggest cross channel ferry operator and the British competition authorities who had fought them all the way objecting to Eurotunnel owning a ferry company.
Then just as the legal battle was won Eurotunnel scuttled its own ships leaving six hundred workers high, dry and very angry. The suspicion is that they see this as an opportunity to break Mr Vercoutre and his militant union.
As I write with a migrant getting killed attempting to make the crossing at Calais, ferry workers are continuing their occupation of the two MyFerryLink vessels that where formerly worked by the co-operative and are now leased to DFDS by Eurotunnel. DFDS has complained to French Transport minister Alain Vidalies at the situation at Calais. As one Ferry Company - P&O – are able to operate normally whilst DFDS cannot.
DFDS’ vessels have now been ‘barred’ from Calais for a week and the financial implications could be significant. But this is part of a wider pattern going back to the famous trade unions and the ferries cases of Viking and Laval.
The late lamented RMT general secretary Bob Crow said that collective bargaining rights were being hollowed out by EU diktat and EU court rulings which encourage social dumping and severely weakens trade union powers to defend workers.
“ECJ decisions in the Viking, Laval, Ruffert and Luxemburg ECJ cases take us back over 100 years to the Taff Vale judgment when any trade union activity was perceived by the bosses to be ‘in restraint of trade.”
The legal framework now around secondary action means that this small co-op of unionised workers has to struggle alone as any secondary industrial action is pretty much impossible. At this stage one has to admire their tenacity in furthering this dispute against overwhelming odds.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Drawing Inspiration from Co-op Congress

I hope those of you who attended the AGM of Co-operatives UK and Congress got as much out of it as I did. Meeting so many passionate, engaged, innovative co-operators has made a huge contribution to re-charging my batteries.

I feel a renewed commitment to the cause. That inspiration does not just come from the energy on show in Birmingham Town Hall but from a co-operator who died in 1964.  That co-operator was William Hazell, the subject a splendid new book, ‘William Hazell’s Gleaming Vision’ (Y Lolfa 2014) by Alun Burge.

The title comes from the history of the Ynysybwl Industrial Co-operative Society Hazell wrote in 1954. Alun Burge’s book really is a stunning piece of scholarship. It brings back to life a whole world of co-operative enterprise and all its interlocking social and political connectivity’s that existed in South Wales from the First World War to the 1960’s. Our guide on this thoroughly delightful journey is William Hazell himself. 

Hazel is what Gramsci would have called an ‘organic intellectual’ not a utopian but a very practical man with huge ambition who set about creating a new world. The story begins in the relatively isolated pit village of Ynysybwl.  Yet as a result of Hazell’s and his fellow ordinary members’ creativity this, ‘one co-operative society expanded from a single village shop to become a large business undertaking with a million-pound turnover that stretched across and beyond the valleys towards Cardiff ’.

The challenges he and his colleagues faced in this endeavour are well documented thanks to the hundreds of articles he wrote for the myriad of co-operative publications at the time and Burge deserves great credit for tracking them down. Many of the issues he grapples with from the balance between members and management, local versus national control and the role of women are perennial issues and Hazell’s voice is remarkably contemporary.

Despite some of the massive challenges they faced from the general strike, the depression and war he is always on hand to offer sound advice and practical support.

As Burge says, “Hazell’s view of the potential of the movement at times appeared to have no limit. Throughout his life, his writings displayed an absence of cynicism and a freedom from disillusion or despair. He was a proselytiser who called for those who had become cynical or disillusioned to ‘Start again now’.

Alun Burge has done a great job in bringing an entire world to life in his other writings he makes a small linguistic point that gave me much to think about in how we make co-operative ownership meaningful. It is that Welsh speakers referred to their Societies as ‘siop ni’ (our shop) rather than ‘the co-op’.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in retail co-operation and those of you who are avoiding Amazon can get it online from the Welsh publishers at: www.ylolfa.com

Burge is now working on a history of the Co-operative Movement in South Wales we must not distract him if this book is anything to go by it will be a classic. Hazell did not live to see the Co-operative Commonwealth the baton has been passed onto our generation. So it is our turn to, ‘Start again now’!

Midcounties triumph in Co-op of the Year

It was great to see one of the shortlisted candidates for Co-op of the Year given the full page treatment in the Morning Star. Following a process where nominations where generated by Co-operatives UK members, nine Co-op’s where shortlisted for the accolade.

They included, and real footie fans will be delighted that the Northern Premier League Champions, F.C. United of Manchester are included on that shortlist, as well as The Channel Islands Co-operative, East of England Co-operative, the Foster Care Co-operative, Jamboree, the Midcounties Co-operative, Oikocredit UK, the Phone Co-op and Unicorn Grocery.

This year we opened up the process to member nominations and received 65 of a very high standard from all parts of the co-operative economy making the short listing process really difficult.  We have had some fantastic nominations supported by some very passionate members.

When we got to the business end we opened it up to an online poll and there where thousands of votes cast. With such a large number of votes cast whoever came out on top, must have tremendous popular support.

Last years winners where Suma Wholefoods, Secretary General of Co-ops UK ED Mayo when he presented them with their award last year said, “Suma, as a leading worker co-operative, shows what the power of true employee ownership can be, lifting the bar on business innovation and performance.”

There where some real stars on this years shortlist and it will was hard to choose between them. I nominated the Channel Islands Co-op as I felt their move into healthcare was an important innovation for the Channel Islands Community and there all round co-op performance is pretty impressive too.

East of England Retail Co-operative is distinctive for its commitment to local sourcing and providing their customers with the best in regional produce. Many of us believe that social care co-ops are the coming thing and the Foster Care Co-operative shows the potential for this type of co-op it has been recruiting and expertly training foster carers for the last fifteen years, which has provided vulnerable children with safe, caring and loving homes throughout England and Wales.

Jamboree is a very special co-op owned and operated by adults with learning disabilities commissioning their own support and running CafeH2O at the Key IQ visitor centre on the Malvern Hills. It is a great example of how co-operation can work for everyone. They are a great team and if you are in that part of the world they produce great teas!

Another candidate Oikocredit International is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year it is a worldwide co-operative and social investor, providing funding to the microfinance sector, fair trade organizations, cooperatives and small to medium enterprises. They were ethically investing before it was fashionable.

The Phone Co-op have had another great year giving great service (and a dividend) to their members and what a year they have had retailing the Fairphone the first smartphone that puts social values first, built with conflict-free minerals and made in a factory with a worker-controlled welfare fund.

Then there was Unicorn Grocery a worker co-operative, the shop is controlled, directed and owned by its workforce. Even as they approach 60 members, they all get the same flat pay, everything is decided in fortnightly meetings with consensus decision-making, and they share manual and administrative tasks. The harnessing of this talent and energy generates a turnover of over £5million from a single shop!

Next year let’s hope the Peoples Press Printing Society is doing well enough so it too gets a nomination. That would be a great way to end to the 85th year of the Morning star.

Well there could only be one winner and with a clear majority it was Midcounties Co-operative. They have been consistently innovative over the last few years doing the usual retail things, food, pharmacy, travel and funerals but also launching the fast growing Co-op Energy and also developing a significant presence in child care.

Midcounties first amongst equals.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Co-op Party Lives to Fight Another Day

There was a letter in the Morning Star recently asking what had happened to the Co-operative Party? Well at the recent Co-operative Group AGM they won a spectacular victory to maintain the Group’s subscription to the Party.

Given the size of the Group the loss of this subscription could have been catastrophic.

There is no doubt that the Party ran a very imaginative campaign in favour of keeping the link. Under the strap line Not Just Shoppers Pioneers it was simultaneously informative, entertaining and serious. It stood out compared with Labour’s limp general election campaign which ran at roughly the same time.

One former Labour and Co-operative member must wish that instead of the Co-op Party fighting for its life with the Co-operative Group membership it had been running the election campaign in Morley and Outwood.  One wonders what the skills and resources expanded on this campaign could have contributed to winning the just 422 votes needed to retain Ed Balls seat.

This result in the Co-op Group is a tremendous achievement for Co-op Party general secretary Karen Christiansen. She has made some bold decisions and the whole process has raised the profile and significance of the Party within the co-operative movement and in politics generally. She more than held her own when being quizzed by Andrew Neil on the Daily Politics.

The debate at the group AGM about political funding was quite interesting there is clearly a resistance to simply donating money to political parties. There was a lot of passionate support however for the link with the Co-op Party. Most of the serious criticism was not about whether the Co-operative movement should have a political voice but hat form it should take.

Given the contemporary political fragmentation the link with the Labour Party is clearly an issue. Particularly in Scotland where there exists a quite effective cross-party group supporting co-operative and mutual enterprise.

Some of the issues raised should really be raised at the Co-op Party’s own conference. When that takes place later this year it will surely be a lively event with a rich agenda. And most importantly the Co-operative Group now needs to play a full role ensuring that it gets out of that relationship what it needs both in support of co-operation generally and in the interests of its own businesses.

Something that stands out given the intellectual self-destruction of the Labour Party is for the Co-operative Party to have a more substantial input into how we develop the Co-operative message and take it into the UK Parliament, the other devolved administrations and into local government.

At Co-ops UK we have done some thinking about this message. When we looked at Co-operative identity in seeking an overarching narrative that won the support of our members and offered external audiences a persuasive argument for co-operatives by far the strongest element was ownership. Ownership rather than fairness, ethics, community, or even membership is seen as the USP for co-operatives.

Research shows us that we live in an economy over which people feel they have no control, they have little influence in their workplace, they think big businesses are out of control and they feel they have no influence over the economy.

Co-operatives as businesses run by the people who own them offer a way to regain some control over what is happening in their communities and workplaces, and to have a say in how they are treated by businesses and in the wider economy.

Clearly the promotion of collective or social ownership has been a long way from the Labour Party’s policy agenda in the last few years. What is more it will have to be backed up by a serious policy framework if it is to have any hope of success.

That framework must include a level playing field for enterprises using the Society legal form whilst looking for further improvements including an asset lock on bone fide co-ops. We also need to ensure an enabling regulatory framework that balances flexibility and innovation with protection of both the public interest and co-operative values and principles.

We also need a fair slice of the available business support so the co-op option is not overlooked. Finance is also a big issue so how we come up with public policy that enables co-op’s gain access to capital is critical.

Lastly the public understanding of co-ops is not as good as it should be and policy makers are no exception we need an ongoing dialogue with them to keep the co-op option on the table.

This is a substantial agenda which I hope the Co-op Party will consider. If we are to make a significant increase in the Co-op economy we will all have to work together to deliver on this agenda in the coming years.