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.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Bye Bye Ed

As Lady Bracknell may have put it, “To lose one Ed is unfortunate, to lose two is downright careless.” It was disappointing to see a happy smiling Ed Miliband on the front of the Sunday papers looking happy and relived to be out of a job. Few of those threatened by the Tory nightmare are smiling.

After the last election Labour ran a dull leadership election that dragged on for months whilst the Tories spun the lie that the economic crisis was all Labours fault. They say a lie is around the world before the truth gets its shoes and socks on and that was certainly true in this case.

Ed should have stayed until the party Conference when a short leadership election should take placec. Now he should be leading the attack on the Tories and shaping the debate on what went wrong. Not leaving the space for his enemies and those on the Labour right with access to the media to set a false trail.

I always expected the Tories to get a small majority. But I did underestimate the scale of the defeat in Scotland. How Jim Murphy could try and hang on there is beyond me. It was obvious he did not have a clue about Scottish politics when he dragged Blairite-ultra, John McTernan in as his chief-of-staff.

I was cheered by the election campaign. Like most people I was misled by the opinion polls. The result reminds me of a line from the John Cleese film, Clockwise, “It's not the despair. I can take the despair. It's the hope I can't stand.”

Since Donald Dewer died Scottish labour has not put a foot right. The first thing they should do now is establish the Scottish Labour Party as a completely separate independent party so that it can then elect its own leader.

They have no need of Douglas Alexander’s neo-liberal foreign policy, or the confrontational style of Jim Murphy, after a defeat like this a bit of humility is in order.

Despite appearances Labour did not do as badly in England, increasing their share of the vote by 3.6%, despite having nothing like a coherent economic policy symbolised, by the decapitation of Ed Balls.

The distribution of the vote however was unhelpful. The collapsing Liberal vote went mostly to the Tories and the UKIP vote split with the working class sticking with Nigel whilst the more affluent ones switched to the Tories creating a double whammy for Labour in suburban constituencies.

Labour has a problem in both personnel and ideology. The SNP has produced two of Britain’s best politicians in Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmon. Labour seems to have lost the ability to produce leaders with the basic political skills - simple things like being able to connect with people or to talk to them in a language they can understand.

The gene pool the party is drawing upon is just too narrow. One of the reasons why they misunderstood the UKIP threat is they simply do not understand the social and economic dislocation of globalisation.

For the well educated middle class the world is your oyster for the rest it brings fear and potential impoverishment. When it comes to migration there is a problem.

That problem is that neither government nor employers have been prepared to pay the real social costs of migration in health, education and most of all housing. This is compounded by the Labour Party no longer understanding that a larger public sector could protect many working class people from the worst aspects of a globalised economy.

John Cruddas, the dilettante who spent the pre-election policy review flirting with “Blue Labour”, now leader of the review into what went wrong things could easily go from bad to worse.

This year Verso published a superb collection by Ralph Miliband entitled Class-War Conservatism and other Essays. It is great pity it has gone unread by his son. In the title essay Ralph points out that the Tories, “are seeking a drastic weakening of the labour movement because their view of the good society requires it; and the good society in which they believe is a class society in which the subordination of the many to the few, on the basis of property and privilege, is the dominant principle. Labour has long lacked the capacity to project a radically different view, and therefore to turn it into a major theme in political life. Until it regains that capacity, it will be fighting on Mrs Thatchers ground rather than its own.”

If people say this cannot be done point them at the Scots Nats if they say labour must return to the middle ground point them to the Lib Dems. And if they want to know what Class War Conservatism is just tell them to watch and wait.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Ownership Matters: The Conservatives and Housing: First as tragedy Second Time as farce.

I always thought that Mrs Thatcher was a crude Marxist. She had a base and superstructure view of society the idea that the economic base determines the social, cultural and ultimately political shape of a society.  Her simply view was if you turned people into individual house owners they would become Tories.

The privatisation of publicly owned homes, the largest privatisation of all, had in some cases that desired effect. It didn’t with my parents they bought their council house, a brand new house when they moved into it for about a third of its value, but they never stopped voting Labour.

When you are on a modest income, however principled you are, it is hard to turndown a large gift of tens of thousands of pounds.  Of course the Tories never really wanted us to own our homes. If the Miners back in 84 had “owned their own homes” they would still be on strike now.

No they wanted us in hock to banks and building societies. Large debts make it more difficult for workers to take industrial action. Psychologically however it would be wrong to say this was not a vote winner for the Tories.

The long term effect has been a tragedy. Effectively they replaced a reasonably well regulated public social housing sector with an unregulated private rented sector causing a huge increase in rents and in the subsidy for private landlords in the form of housing benefit.

The data is interesting the peak for social renting was 1981 with 31.7% of households and about 11% private rented. However by 2013 social renting was down to 17% and private renting had overtaken it at 18%.

Interestingly there was as a result of the Tory policy an increase in home ownership from 57% in 1981 up to a peak of 71% in 2003. The decade since has seen the first generation of privatised council houses coming back into the market many have been snapped up by buy to let landlords and the ownership numbers shrunk back to 65% by 2013 and the falling trend seems set to continue despite government programs promoting home ownership.

Now we have the farce. Today the largest social rented sector is Housing Associations partly driven by organic growth and partly by large scale council house stock transfers.

Now the Tories want to destroy this sector too. It is worth noting that around 800,000 housing association tenants already have “the right to acquire” but at considerably lower subsidies than for Council tenants.  The long term implications of Associations being forced to sell property at a loss would be devastating.

The Tories seem to have forgotten that these are private organisations and secondly who is going to lend them money to develop new property if they have to sell it before recovering the cost?

As for accelerating the sale of Council homes, the trouble with privatisation is you cannot sell things twice.

Don’t think that because this policy, in terms of improving Britain’s chronic housing situation, is bonkers means that it does not make sense.

This policy is part of a wider pattern of unlocking assets that are held collectively. That is what George Osborne’s pension reforms are about, that is really what the original Council house privatisation was about; when you know that this is what is going on the pattern is clear.

With low economic growth capital needs to open up new assets that are owned collectively and bring them onto the market. This process began with an attack on state owned assets then it moved onto other collectively owned assets like the Building Societies and now Housing Associations.

This is ultimately about the transfer of assets from the poor to the rich.  Ultra low interest rates mean that investors are looking for more diversified returns. Look at the way they have moved into the private rented sector in London. Those same low interest rates mean however that the rich can borrow to buy assets cheaply whereas someone on a zero hour contract cannot even afford to save let alone get a mortgage.

Then they service the debt by kindly allowing us to rent the things we once owned back from them. Railways, energy, water, our homes, post and telecoms, higher education, next they will come for healthcare and schools.

James Meek’s detailed account of the disaster that is privatisation, Private Island, (Why Britain Now Belongs to Someone Else, Verso, 2014) is a well written book by someone previously known for fiction has now been shortlisted for the Orwell prize.

 Some of the things he uncovers sound like fiction like the fact that when Enron collapsed it owned Wessex water!

His key point however is one we should all remember in this coming election that tax can be kept low because as our national assets are sold, these private businesses become effectively tax gatherers. As we the ordinary citizens are handed over to these private tax-gatherers, the greatest burden of taxes shifts onto the poorest.

As Meek points out, “The essential public good that Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and now Cameron sell is not power stations, or trains, or hospitals. It’s the public itself. it’s us.”  No wonder we see income inequality reverting to the pattern before the First World War as the pattern of ownership in the economy heads that way too.


Monday, 30 March 2015

Co-op Docs Next Chapter in Island Story

After a recent at meeting at Co-ops UK we where chatting about who should be co-op of the year. I said my nomination would go to the Channel Islands Co-operative (CIC) Society.  Founded in Jersey in 1919 having survived the occupation it is a credit to the movement and shows how co-ops can genuinely support the communities which they serve.

With 34 percent market share the CIC is the biggest retailer in the islands. That dominance has to be won everyday and it has never rested on its laurels. With a finite customer base it has always sought out new ways in which it can bring value to its members.

In some ways the people of the Channel Islands (population 165,000) and the CIC (membership 120,000) are one and the same as almost the entire adult population are members of the society. That relationship has been consolidated in the last three years as it has paid out over £8 million per year in dividends to its members.

Clearly there are limits to growth in any one business in such an enclosed economy so CIC has an amazing breadth. Its £160 million turnover came from food, furnishings and leisure retailing, travel services to both individuals and businesses, the provision of financial services to its Members, the sale of petrol, Post Office services, funerals and pharmacy.

So pretty much every consumer service you would need is provided by in twenty seven different stores across the islands. Apart from the quality of service and the tremendous member dividend, it is integral to island life, employing a thousand people, spending over £11m on local produce each year and £200,000 supporting local good causes.

It has not all been plain sailing whilst the type of competition they face is different to the mainland there is still stiff competition particularly in food but also on other products. They are not immune to the arrival of internet shopping. So they have had to take some tough calls on reducing costs in wharehousing.

Making the decision to end their local wharehousing facility and rely on the mainland proved to be real test of their democracy. With over seven hundred people packing the egm to discus the issue before it was finally agreed

Their latest move to support members however is quite extraordinary. This is their move into medical services. In the Channel Islands there is a patchwork medical service a mixture of subsidy from the different islands, Jersey and Guernsey Governments and private insurance schemes. Basically you are charged every time you visit your GP and as doctors practices are private businesses the fees charged vary tremendously with them being free to charge what they wish.

Colin Mcleod CEO of CIC says, “I have been asked about the rationale behind our decision to offer a new, more affordable GP service and the answer is really very simple: we have listened to our members. They would like their healthcare to be more affordable, transparent and easily accessible. A survey conducted by the Jersey Consumer Council showed us that a lot of islanders felt the same way.”

Co-operative Medical Care, which consists of three GP practices, spread across Jersey, is focused on helping islanders pay less for high quality healthcare, particularly families with young children. A standard consultation fee is £30, and Society members will receive free healthcare for children under five and lower prices for children aged five to 18.

To form Co-operative Medical Care, CIC has bought two established GP practices. Four doctors, a practice nurse and eight existing surgery staff are now employed by the Society which plans to engage more healthcare professionals as demand for the service increases.

As Co-operative Medical Care is owned by Society members, rather than GP partners, profits will be shared by members in the form of and 4% dividend on healthcare services.  Since launching in November, Co-operative Medical Care has attracted almost 600 new patients with growth exceeding expectations. To support the strong uptake, two new doctors have joined the practice.
Phil Romeril, Head of Healthcare at CIC, said, ‘We are very pleased that there has been such a positive response to Co-operative Medical Care. It was always our intention to grow if the demand was there.”
It maybe surprising to get a divi from a visit to the doctors but this Co-op is taking primary care out of the private sector and bringing it into social ownership. This co-op has done something that Aneurin Bevan failed to do that is turn GP’s into employees instead of businesses. To say this has stirred up GP services on the island is an understatement.
The lesson from Jersey could be a look to the past or a pointer to the future maybe it is something we may need to do here on the mainland. What happens on May 7th could well be the decider in that.


El Sistema @ 40

I am lucky that I have easy access to two world class state supported arts institutions within easy reach of where I live, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
On leaving recent productions of Loves Labour’s Lost and War and Revolution in Stratford and Birmingham I was a better person my the experiences had added immeasurably to the quality of my life.
A lot of working class people are educated to believe this sort of art is not for the likes of them. As if Shakespeare had nothing to say to working class people or that the Shostakovich in the CBSO concert was just for toffs.

William Morris describes how the production of his art left him “ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich”. Here we are over a hundred years later and we are still at it with the working class pacified with a tidal wave of celebrity pap. And don’t get me started on Clarkson the cultural wing of UKIP.

As a precocious teenager I used to read the Listener (OK I was a bit pretentious) I read about classical music, theatre and poetry helping me to understand what I found on Radio 3. Like Robert Hughes I became, “an elitist in the cultural but emphatically not in the social sense.” I appreciated the great craft that went into producing great art and hated the fact that many talented people where denied the opportunity to develop that craft.

I thought that by the time I grew up, everyone would listen to Radio 3, read poetry and broad sheet newspapers and of course watch films with sub-titles. In stead we got the X-factor, Hollywood films with a reading age of eight, Damian Hurst and the Sun.

Then for a while half the adult population seemed to reading children’s books like Harry Potter and Neil Postman’s thesis that we where ‘amusing ourselves to death’ seemed to be coming true.

There are ways to hold back this cultural decay. We could take the best of what we know to everyone. That is what Jose Antonio Abreu did in 1975. At that time there where two professional symphony orchestras in Venezuela employing largely Eastern European musicians.

To day there are dozens full of local talent. A far cry from when Abreu gathered eleven youngsters in an underground car park and told them they where making history. The next rehearsal saw 25 turn up and the ball was rolling. Now 40 years later the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras, El Sistema, has hundreds of thousands of participants.
The basics of the Sistema are simple. Children as young as two are given daily instrumental tuition in return they are expected to join an ensemble. Public performance is an integral part of the program including family and community members in their progress.
Get them before any one tells them this kind thing is not for them. Now hundreds of thousands of youngsters the majority from poor homes are engaged in a process of human development. As Abreu says, “An Orchestra means, joy, motivation, teamwork, the aspiration to success. A big family dedicated to harmony.” 

“El Sistema gave our society two priceless gifts: the gift of appreciating beauty, and the gift of striving for artistic excellence,” says conductor Gustavo Dudamel just one of the great talents it has produced.

He features on the prestigious Deutsche Grammaophon CD, El Sistema 40, A Celebration a delightful compilation of recordings of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra. I whole heartedly recommend it but only as a starter. The vigour and attack by both the Orchestra and the String Quartet on these mostly live, recordings will I am sure leave you wanting more.
They deliver such gusto to the Latin American sounds of Revueltas and Ginastera but also show they can do Beethoven as well. One to savour for classical aficionados there is also their earlier recording of Mahlers Seventh.
Having discovered its self-confidence under the inspirational leadership of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela has reappeared on the radar of the ‘Empire’. Whilst preoccupied with events in the Middle East the USA disengaged from what was happening in its back yard becoming isolated from the rest of the Americas.
It has made a tactical shift with regard to Cuba but make no mistake the USA is trying to regain control over the lands south of the Rio Grande. In declaring Venezuela a threat to US security Obama is trying to turn the clock back. This throwback can not be allowed to stand clearly Obama has not read, the ‘Open veins of Latin America’ by Edwardo Galeano, presented to him by Hugo Chavez.  
Meanwhile you can show your solidarity by listening to the open heart of Venezuela and its unique musical community with EL Sistema 40!