Sunday, 12 October 2014

Co-operative Folk Lament World War One



I had a fabulous time at the Derby Folk Festival. At one point it did not look like it would go ahead, after a fire at the Assembly Rooms, however a large marquee in the market place saved the day.  Bill toppers included Steeleye Span, Show of Hands and Kate Rusby. Lower down the bill however there where some real showstoppers including an outstanding performance from the wonderful Martin Simpson and a lovely laid back slot from Americans Dana and Susan Robinson.

The most moving performance by a long way however was that of In Flanders Fields by vocal trio, Barry Coope, Jim Boyes and Lester Simpson. They have been stalwarts of the festival for a long time and one of my personal favourites. That is not just because they release their music on the co-operative No Masters Voice label their vocal harmony singing is sublime and they combine a mastery of the genre with tremendous wit and biting social commentary.

The folk world generally has produced some of the best musical offerings to mark the centenary of the First World War and as you would expect from folk artists generally from the bottom up. Rob Johnsons with Gentle Men his family history of the war to end all wars is very good indeed so is Show of Hands Centenary a mixture of song and poetry from the period.

Coope ,Boyes & Simpson’s is a very substantial piece of work it is both moving and funny and  marks a twenty year collaboration not only with the history but the place of Flanders itself. Piet Chielens, Co-ordinator of the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres argues that they have been at the forefront of the commemoration in the West Flemish Front Region for twenty years. Their body of work on the war can be seen as a “lieu de mémoire”.  Indeed in Flanders, he says, no artistic initiative seems to have been more successfully involved with the theme than that of this trio.

In their show they bring together eye-witness accounts, contemporary poetry and songs specially commissioned for the town of Passchendaele’s Peace Concerts. The albums title, In Flanders Fields takes its name from the poem written by John McCrae who was killed on the Western Front in the First World War. Ironically the poem was used in army recruitment and its references to poppies made them an important part of later commemoration. 

In the live shows the pieces between the songs are as well chosen as the songs themselves quips from contemporary music hall song, to extracts from the Ypres Times, the satirical paper produced by the soldiers in the trenches, as well as poetry and letters home.

They give voice to the poor bloody infantry and their contempt for the sergeant majors and officers. Never afraid to prick the bubble of the pompous they create a rounded image of the war that is deeply moving.

Visiting Belgium for twenty years changed the life of Jim Boyes in particular who now lives there. Going over regularly since the 70s, but by becoming involved in Peace Concerts Passchendaele, he got to know a lot of people in Belgium and it soon became his second home.
His involvement with the Flemish folk scene began when he had released a solo album called Out The Blue, it was the first thing he had done on the co-operative No Masters label which he had set up with John Tams.
Piet Chielens who wrote for the Flemish folk magazine called Gandalf had known of Jim since his time in Swan Arcade. He reviewed the album which contained a song Down On The Dugout Floor that he had written after a visit to play the Dranouter Folk Festival, near Ypres.
When Piet started the Peace concerts he invited Jim to go over and play with some Flemish musicians. Once there he was asked if there was anyone else that Jim would like to involve. He had just started working with Barry and Lester eventually they took part in five different Peace Concert productions in Belgium and England, performing on former battlefields like Hill 60, among the memorials at Tyne Cot and at the request of the town of Passendale for their eightieth anniversary commemoration of the battle.  Many of these performances are now contained on In Flanders Field also working with Piet there is also an impressive book to go with the two CD’s.
At Derby they mocked the Guardian’s description of their work as post-modern folk. More like ‘post-mortem’ they said. Sadly there is nothing post about this work, as we embark on another war, it is strikingly contemporary.
This work is beautiful, funny, passionate and angry and a terrific antidote to much of the jingoism that marks the centenary. They argue that, “the more we learn about war, the more important it becomes to sing about peace.” Get to see them perform if you can and lets hope that’s what everyone who hears them learns too.







Onward and Upward



I was enjoying reading Britain’s Communists the Untold Story by John Green where he seeks to correct the malign mainstream account of the contribution that Communists have made to British life.  At one point he talks about how authors who where members of the party are now remembered despite their party affiliation or because of their subsequent anti-communism.

In the latter category he places Edward Upward. Now Edward was a member of the party for sixteen years from 1932 until 1948 but left because he felt it no longer to be a Marxist Party and irretrievably reformist.

You may disagree with Edwards’s assessment but this does not make him an anti-communist. Edward was a very distinguished author who mingles surrealism with realism to create incredibly vibrant novels and short-stories.

He had an extraordinarily long life living until he was 105. In his youth he began a life long friendship with Christopher Isherwood knew Auden and Virginia Wolf with his early work being published by the Hogarth Press.

In 2009 that “drink soaked former Trotskyist popinjay” (according to George Galloway anyway), Christopher Hitchens went in search of Edward who was hiding in plain sight on the Isle of Wight after his retirement as a school teacher. During his teaching life he remained politically engaged undertaking editorial work for Ploughshare, the journal of the Teachers' Anti-War Movement.

The encounter between Edward and Hitchens was published in Atlantic Monthly on appropriately the 1st May, 2009.

In a vicarage-style house not far from the railway station in the small town of Sandown, Upward received me and led me to a side room. He explained without loss of time that the main rooms of the little home were out of bounds because his wife, Hilda, was in the process of dying there. “I shall miss Hilda,” he said with the brisk matter-of-factness of the materialist, “but I have promised her that I shall go on writing.” Attired in gray flannel trousers, a corduroy jacket, and a V-neck jersey, he reminded me of something so obvious that I didn’t immediately recognize it. On a table lay the Morning Star, the daily newspaper of the Stalinist rump organization that survived the British Communist Party’s decision to dissolve itself after the implosion of the Soviet Union. It is entirely possible that Upward was the paper’s sole subscriber on this islet of thatched cottages and stained glass and theme-park rural Englishness. Seeing me notice the old rag, he said, rather defensively, “Yes I still take it, though there doesn’t seem much hope these days.” When I asked him if there was anyone on the left he still admired, he cited Arthur Scargill, the coal miners’ thuggish leader, who was known to connoisseurs as the most ouvriériste and sectarian and demagogic of the anti-Blair forces in the Labour movement. Yet to this alarming opinion he appended the shy and disarming news that the last review he had had in the Morning Star had been a good one, precisely because it stressed that not all his work was strictly political. “It particularly mentioned my story ‘The White-Pinafored Black Cat.’” I inquired if he was working on a story at that moment. “Yes I am.” “And may one know the title?” “It’s to be called ‘The World Revolution.’” At this point and in this context, I began to find the word surreal recurring to my mind.”

I think Edward comes out of this encounter rather well whilst Hitchens confirms George Galloway’s assessment. Edward does not sound anything like an anti-communist although Hitchins most certainly does and one wonders what the true purpose of his journey was.

In recent years Edwards work has been published by Enitharmon press who have issued a series of critically acclaimed stories as well as memoirs of Isherwood and Auden.

Probably his greatest work was the trilogy, The Spiral Ascent, (In the Thirties, The Rotten Elements and No Home But the Struggle) described by the Guardian as, “without doubt Upward's central work; unfortunately it is also the most misunderstood, and today it languishes out of print.” It is a indeed a remarkable work and fortunately it is relatively easy to get second hand copies.

One of his characters in the short story, A Ship in the Sky (from the Unmentionable Man, Enitharmon, 1994) has an encounter with a fellow passenger on a ship,
“And why do you think you are lucky to meet me?”
“Because my closest friends and I have always admired you as one of the very few left-wing imaginative writers of literary ability who have not betrayed their principles.”

Sounds like the perfect epitaph to me.

Little Co-op Vesus the Evil Empire



One of my favourite co-ops is Revolver based in Wolverhampton. Paul Birch the inspiration behind it has had a long career in the music business and came to fair trade sourcing fair trade cotton for bands T-shirts.

Paul felt that the new found desire for provenance in coffee played to the fair trade agenda in a new way. The need to identify the region or even estate the coffee had come from meant you could ensure higher quality and have a real relationship with the producers.

His second idea was that fair trade was not fair enough. If Nestle or Wal-Mart could get the fair trade logo on their products it was far too easy!

So what was to be done? Well if you formed a co-op with membership available to both producers and consumers you could make the connection that the original idea of fair trade was meant to be all about.

So far so good. The business was growing steadily in a very competitive market place when the chance arose to include Cuban coffee to the range.

It was crystal mountain coffee grown by some two hundred farmers around the Sopapo-Mayare plateau in the Cuatro Vientos region, nestled in the valleys of the Sierra del Escambray Mountains frequent rain produces a perfect mico-climate. The soil rich in mica and quartz crystal deposits gives the coffee its name.

The coffee cherries are handpicked and naturally sundried before being bought to Cumanayagua for processing it has a highly intense aroma with an elegant and delicate sweetness.

Following meetings with the Cubans and a visit to Cuban this soon became their best seller. Unsurprisingly when you taste its rich, strong and rounded flavour with very low acidity - perfect for after dinner by ensuring that the coffee was lightly roasted as much of this magnificent flavour as possible was preserved.

Demand for this magnificent coffee had been growing steadily. Like many small businesses internet trading has been a real boon. Then a customer trying to pay for some Cuban Coffee online through paypal received an email it began, “Paypal’s Compliance Department has reviewed your account and identified activity that is in violation of United States regulations administered by the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).”


It went on: “It has come to our attention that you initiated a payment for the purchase of an item of Cuban origin. To ensure that future activity and transactions comply with current regulations, PayPal is requesting that you complete the following appeal step: Agree to no longer undertake activities in violation of laws, regulations and rules as outlined in PayPal's User Agreement .  Any further violations will result in the closure of your account. As a result of the violation, details of your account and the transaction have been reported to OFAC.”

Anyone who doesn’t know, as they didn’t at the time the, Office of Foreign Assets Control of the US Department of the Treasury enforces economic sanctions based on US foreign policy and national security goals against targeted foreign countries and regimes, terrorists, international narcotics traffickers, those engaged in activities related to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and other threats to the national security, foreign policy or economy of the United States.”

A British company being paid by a firm based in Luxembourg selling Cuban coffee is perfectly legal. But often bigger firms often give up at this point because they want to do other business in the US. These extraterritorial sanctions are holding Cuba back.  Then came their second set back. One of the companies which had been distributing their coffee to retailers in the midlands particularly to retail co-ops went bust owing them money and breaking the supply chain.

A less resilient group of people could given up. Finance frozen supply chain bust. This was a very serious setback. However they are made of sterner stuff.

They arranged to sell the coffee through the Cuba Solidarity website (where you can get the ground and beans). They spent months getting their pay pal account unfrozen and they are rebuilding their web site.

Now working with the Cubans they are looking at importing and marketing other commodities, including rum, honey and beer. There is no doubt that these issues have damaged the business but it is still standing and being a threat to the United States is a real honour. To grow and take support for Cuba to a new level they really need more member investors. Their experience has made them more determined to succeed than ever!

If you want to help break the embargo and get a great cup of coffee go to: www.Revolverworld.com and note members get free delivery!

Friday, 15 August 2014

The Forward March of the Co-op Halted?

2012 was a great year for the Co-operative Movement. The United Nations had designated it as the International Year of the Co-operatives, Dame Pauline Green President of the International Co-operative Alliance addressed the United Nations and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reminded the world that,  “Co-operatives are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility.”

Co-ops UK and the Co-op Group rose to the occasion with a major conference and Expo in Manchester called Co-ops United (apologies to City fans). Even David Cameron was swept along by big society rhetoric and agreed to support one of the objectives of the Year, governments’ consolidation of Co-op legislation through a new Co-operatives and Community Benefits Societies Act.

Corporate capitalism was on the ropes the co-operative and mutual sector had weathered the banking crisis and was growing. Entering 2013 Co-ops had never had a more favourable press in the publics eyes we where a ‘good thing’.

Then the sky caved in. May 9th 2013 was the day of reckoning. That day ratings agency Moody downgraded the Co-operative Bank’s debt rating to “junk” status. It said the bank was vulnerable to potential losses and warned it may need “external support” if it could not strengthen its balance sheet.
The Bank said it was “disappointed.” As the Banks chief executive, Barry Tootell, resigned and Project Verde, the bid to buy 631 branches from Lloyds, collapsed.
The enemy was inside the gates, US Hedge Funds, described as “vulture funds”, Silver Point Capital and Aurelius Capital Management now had significant stakes in the Bank, they had their chance to do to the Co-op what they usually did with the distressed assets of developing economies.
Moody’s, ever helpful in these matters, said that the Bank will be forced to “take the axe” to costs. For a bank this was not new. The rest of the banks have had to be recapitalised some even taken into public ownership. But the banking environment had dramatically worsened ultra low interest rates having destroyed the margins in retail banking.
Some of this crisis had of course been caused by the bankers themselves, by their ridiculous growth strategies, reckless lending and of their taking risks on products they did not understand, in a mad greed driven feeding frenzy.
That is not to offer an excuse. We where supposed to be different, we had encouraged people who had an ounce of ethics to “switch their money”.
Now thanks to the effective demutualization of the Bank and the exposure of the private life of its chair the ‘Crystal Methodist’ Paul Flowers that switching was going in the wrong direction.
As Professor Johnston Birchall has said, “when a conventional investor owned company fails people ask why it failed. When a co-operative fails, people ask whether co-operatives can ever be made to work.”[1]
This debacle created a new industry - an investigation industry. Externally, the Co-op Group is now subject to regulatory investigations by the Financial Conduct Authority, the Prudential Regulation Authority and the Financial Reporting Council. The failure of the Bank has also been the subject of Treasury Select Committee hearings, and then there is the independent review by Sir Christopher Kelly commissioned by the Group.
Before any of these bodies could report we found ourselves in the Alice in Wonderland position of, “verdict first, evidence later”.
Since the collapse of the bank and its recapitalisation there had been a clean sweep of the management following the retirement of Group CEO Peter Marks who was replaced by former Kingfisher plc Chief Operating Officer Euan Sutherland.
He quickly recruited a completely new management team who wasted no time in calling for a review of the organisations governance. In the process appealing over the heads of the board and elected members to individual members through a strange opinion poll run by You Gov asking customers and members to “Have your Say”. This was such a crude piece of polling that it was quickly seen through by pundits and activists alike.
Sutherlands view seemed to be there was no time to waste and the governance of the Group was at fault and had to be reformed.  Lord Myners was made a Senior Independent Director of the Group and asked to lead, “an independent review of the Group’s governance.”
Now this is not completely ridiculous as Myners had previously lead a review of the governance of life mutuals (to which incidentally the Co-operative Insurance Society had submitted evidence – pointing out, “The co-operative model of trading is particularly conducive to strong corporate governance in that it involves democratic participation by customers.”)
There is no doubt that governance in large organisations is a concept with several strands. Clearly there is the question of the structure of the organisation, is there something inherent in large scale co-operatives that makes them difficult to govern?
Was there a healthy culture at the Group ie was there an open and respectful relationship between those who represented the interests of the members and the professional management?
Finally what of the qualities of the key personnel, the senior executives of the Group and the Bank and the lay chairs of the Bank and the Co-op Group?
Seems odd that Myners should begin before Sir Christopher Kelly, former chair of the Committee for Standards in Public Life had concluded his report. As his job was to look at the trail of poor decisions that lead us to this situation “to look at the management structure and culture in which those decisions were taken; lines of accountability which governed those decisions; and the processes which led to them” and “To identify lessons which can be learnt to strengthen The Co-operative Bank and the wider Co‑operative Group, and the co-operative business model generally.”
Seems like cart before horse to me.

The year all this was going on the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) had celebrated its 150th birthday and the occasion was marked by a splendid book Building Co-operation[2]. The first business history of the Group is an impressive piece of scholarship as the CWS is one of the best documented businesses anywhere in the world.

In all that time there has never been anything quite as extraordinary as the current crisis. Yet like all long history if you look carefully, as Marx pointed out, it does tend to repeat itself.
The obvious precursor was the collapse of the Scottish Co-operative Bank in 1973.  The bank had been investing in what where called Sterling Certificates of Deposit without the full knowledge of the board of SCWS. When it was clear that it could not meet its obligations and no other bank would lend to it a quick marriage between the SCWS and the CWS was arranged and over 100 years of independent trading came to an end in just a few weeks.
Needless to say prior to the collapse of the Scottish Bank the SCWS marked its centenary with a new headquarters building opened in 1968 by Her Majesty the Queen. Today the building houses Glasgow Council Offices.
Many of us attending recent Co-op Group Annual and Half Yearly meetings had been watching the construction of 1, Angel Square, the Co-op Groups new palatial headquarters, with a degree of trepidation. Such aggrandisement was a sign of hubris by a Chief Executive and almost always spelled disaster.  Also to be opened by the Queen it became subject to a sale and lease back described by Lord Myners as an expensive addiction.  Yet even the most cynical of us could not imagine the disaster that was to come.
Today’s crisis is the biggest since 1997 when the Lancia Trust attempted to take-over and demutualise the CWS backed by such City luminaries as Hambros, Schroders and Nomura.

That time we fought them off and in so doing learned lessons that sparked a revival based on two things a common brand and a degree of consolidation. The branding was effective, meaning that travel, pharmacy, funerals, food, insurance and banking where all clearly part of the same business. The idea was to encourage cross selling and reduce marketing costs.

Consolidation was another story. If any one individual is associated with this drive it was the former CEO Peter Marks who argued for a single national co-operative society. His climb to the top was thanks to a series of society mergers rising from CEO of Yorkshire Society via a merger with United Co-operatives to CEO of the Group when United in turn merged with the CWS.

Many people had misgivings in the way elected members had been persuaded to support these mergers with large pay-offs for loss of office. Grudgingly most commentators felt that at least the Co-op was at least back on the map. Mergers had bought some efficiency savings but Marks thought the Group was still too small to compete effectively with its rivals.

Building Co-operation has a section on Marks and the ‘Renaissance’ in retrospect the word is quite rightly hedged. Len Wardle became group chair in 2007 and Marks CEO in 2008. The authors argue that Wardle offered Marks ‘constructive criticism’.  It is hard now to see anything constructive about this partnership.

Absorbing retail co-op societies into the Group was one thing but now the target was non-co-op businesses. His predecessor, Martin Beaumont, had looked at the acquisition of the Somerfield Group (also an aggregation of other businesses including Kwik Save) and ruled it out as too difficult to absorb. Marks and Wardle had no such fears and in March 2009 they paid £1.57 billion to make the purchase.

Euan Sutherland before he left in huff after his exorbitant pay had been revealed told us that this year the Group will lose over £2billion. Mostly it would appear from ill judged acquisitions which according to Paul Myners are “breathtakingly value destructive” one of those was the purchase of Somerfield.

The biggest act of value destruction however was the Co-op Banks merger with the Britannia Building Society. The public pillorying of elected Paul Flowers has masked a key issue in that failure - the role of mangers and the Myners favoured independent non-executive directors (IPNED’s).
The Co-op Bank has never been a co-operative it began life as the Loan and Deposit Department of the CWS back in 1872 and ninety-nine years later it became a plc and a subsidiary of the Co-op Group.
The Directors had never been elected. They where appointed by the main Group board and to overcome any skills gaps in recent years they have included IPNED’s from the financial services and banking industry.
Of the appointments there was a minority of elected members. The annual report for 2012 states, “Of the 11 Non-Executive Directors four are elected members of the Co-operative Group Board, two are Co-operative Group Executives and five are independent and recruited for their specific financial services experience and expertise.”
All the key roles on the operational sub-committees of the board where taken by banking professionals of some standing. The Chair of the Risk Committee which had responsibility for “the management and control of all significant risks, including technical, operational, business model and external risks”, was Merlyn Lowther.  Her name maybe familiar you may have her signature in your wallet. As chief cashier of the Bank of England her signature was on our bank notes for four years.
Other Board members included Peter Harvey ex-chief executive of UK Business Banking at Barclays and William Hewitt ex-Group Finance Director of the RAC who was chair of the Audit Committee.
Then there are the external auditors KPMG who gave the Bank a clean audit including a review of their corporate governance statements by Andrew Walker an Audit and Transactions Services partner in KPMG’s Financial Services practice. 
The man who facilitated the merger with Britannia, was Tim Webb of J.P. Morgan Cazenove. Tim is an exceptional banker it says on their website. He represents “the stability of our management team and the depth of talent that allows us to maintain consistent service to clients year after year”.
That deal was a disaster. What ever political pressure there was it is clear now that something needed to be done about Britannia and the Nationwide could not swallow any more failing building societies. The Co-op Bank was a prudently run fairly boring bank indeed there was a time when the board had consisted solely of completely risk averse elected members.
Britannia was loaded with all sorts of toxic debts in both residential and commercial property. The new CEO of the combined business was Neville Richardson the former CEO of Britannia making it a sort of reverse takeover. Peter Marks the Co-op Group CEO determined to grow the business by acquisition at apparently any price.
With both the bank chair and the Group chair captured the stage was set for the step too far that finally bought the Group to its knees Project Verde. Collectively these bad deals have left the Group carrying far too much debt. The danger is the Group would no longer be owned by its members but by the banks or worse the same bond holders who prized open the Bank. Reducing the debt is the key challenge.

Academic’s attribute co-op failures to three key factors, “badly thought out business strategies, paying too much for acquisitions, and boards being out of their depth.”

They rarely point to the ‘over weaning CEO’ or non-co-operative managers. But that is what I think is the real problem here. Co-operative governance relies on mutual respect and understanding between professional managers and representatives of the members and a common set of values.

Sir Graham Melmoth an earlier CEO of CWS publicly stated that, “Peter Marks would not know a co-operative principle if it crept up and hit him in the face.”
As a former President of the International Co-operative Alliance he was in a particularly strong position to make that statement. Whilst he was CEO he instigated a co-operative values and principles programme – developed and run by the Co-operative College – for all senior managers. Sadly that programme was allowed to lapse when leadership in the CWS changed.
Surely such training in co-operative identity should be mandatory for all in leadership positions – be they managers or elected representatives of the membership. This gap is perhaps one of the factors in the governance failure.

I would argue that there has indeed been a failure of governance at the Co-op Group but it is not as simple as the one put forward by Lord Myners. The failure is much more comprehensive and systemic.

It includes the whole purpose of the business, the relationship with members and their representatives and the management. There is a critical crisis of co-operative education which has failed to produce elected directors or managers with the qualities or of the quality to run a large scale co-operative business.
This argument has been best expressed by Peter Davis in his work on Co-operative Management.[3]  When the Co-operative Bank was under the leadership of Terry Thomas with his Inclusive Partnership plus Sustainability model of management he was offering us a model of a co-operative value based management.
His philosophy focused on membership as the key. He recognised the social mission at the heart of what being a Co-operative really means and demonstrated how with good market research it could be re-interpreted for the modern age. In so doing the banks advertising and branding did not simply reflect what members wanted and this is the key point - it enlarged what they wanted, it educated them. 
All the surveys that put the Co-op at the top of any ethics survey are the legacy of this period. Not only did this recreate the co-operative brand it generated record surpluses to the CWS/Group keeping the whole retail movement afloat at a critical time.
Once he went however the rot set in. The ethos faded. We had lost the Co-operative Bank long before the hedge funds got their talons into it.
This is the real tragedy. The Co-operative bank the only real post-war success the movement had has been wiped out by a mixture of charlatans and poorly educated idealists.
Is the situation recoverable? Mondragon which until recently was roughly the same size as the Co-op Group has its own University. Across Europe there are institutions delivering the new co-operators as far apart as Italy and Finland  
This year the Co-operative College will be incorporated and able to redevelop itself. The mission we have is to rebuild co-operative education, this will not be cheap but it is a vital investment, without the necessary skills, firmly rooted in co-operative values, we will be doomed to repeat this cycle. We have to do this, build a co-operative organisational culture ourselves as there is no one else to do it. Otherwise we will simply keep re-infecting ourselves with the same alien and fundamentally non-co-operative culture.
The last generation of co-op mangers to come from the old home of the College at Stanford Hall included Ursula Lidbetter of Lincolnshire Co-operative Society and current Group chair. Maybe that is a small glimmer of light.


[1] The governance of large co-operative Businesses, Johnston Birchall, Co-operatives UK, Manchester, 2014
[2] Building Co-operation, John F. Wilson, Anthony Webster & Rachel Vorberg-Rugh, OUP, Oxford, 2013.
[3] Co-operative Management, A Philosophy for Business,  Peter Davis & John Donaldson, New Harmony Press, Cheltenham, 1998.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

When Nottingham Co-op Commissioned a Symphony




Just before Britain’s greatest music festival begins this year has seen the release of the very first recording of a piece of music that was first performed at a Promenade (that gives the game away) concert in July 1945. If I tell you that it was composed by Alan Bush, a victim of the cultural cold war, it may help explain why Fantasia on Soviet Themes, Op24, has taken so long to be recorded and released.

Alan Bush had studied under Frederick Corder at the Royal Academy of Music and in the late 1920’s studied music and philosophy in Germany. He had joined the ILP in 1925 and the Communist Party in 1935. He is probably best known today as being a founder member of the Workers Music Association in 1936.

He wrote a succession of musical pageants in the 1930’s, including the Pageant of Labour in 1934, Towards - Tomorrow a Pageant for Co-operation in 1938 and a Festival of Music for the People in 1939. The Bush Fantasia on Soviet Themes was composed in 1942, orchestrated in 1944 and consists of a succession of Soviet songs, Gramophone describes it as, “a tuneful medley of no great consequence”. The BBC Music Magazine however gave it 4 stars.

I suspect context is all and misses the emotional connection a simple medley of Soviet Songs would have in 1945 showing just how grateful we where for the Soviet sacrifice in the war.

On the disc this piece is one of the book ends of Bush’s 2nd Symphony, the Nottingham. In 1949 the City of Nottingham held a week of celebrations marking 500 years since its Royal Charter. The musical centrepiece of the celebrations was the premiere of the Nottingham Symphony which had been commissioned by the Nottingham Co-operative Society. Its first performance was on June 27 in the city’s Albert Hall by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Dedicated to the people of Nottingham a bound copy of the score was presented to the Lord Mayor. It is a fascinating work; it was the first major orchestral work by Bush after attending the Second International Congress of Composers and Musicologists in Prague in May 1948.

There he met with other Marxist composers and signed the document later to be known as the Prague Manifesto. He subsequently claimed that the conference had a significant affect on his approach to composition. The Nottingham Symphony was clearly influenced by the socialist realist principles that underlay the Manifesto.
In the symphony Bush adopts a direct musical language, clearly does not shy away from politics, and draws on an English national style rejecting avant-garde musical techniques. This all point to the impact of the Prague Manifesto on his work. The symphony opens with evocations of an Arcadian past in Sherwood Forest and ends with visions of a Utopian future in the Goose Fair.

It seems a long way from the war yet marks two moments in British cultural life: a time when the labour movement made a serious attempt to make musical culture available to all, and the convergence in Britain of international socialist realism and English national music.

Two years later this convergence was underlined by another Bush work, Wat Tyler. An opera described as a work of “English socialist realism.” It was a prize-winner in an open, competition to write a national opera for the Festival of Britain.

Clearly there was some disappointment that he had won as unlike the Nottingham he had to wait until 1974 for a public performance of Wat Tyler in Britain

Before the symphony on this splendid disc released by Dutton Epoch with pianist Peter Donohoe and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Martin Yates is Africa. This is a Symphonic Movement for Piano and Orchestra, Op73, written in 1972. It was inspired by a UN resolution of that year and contains in one movement an Evocation of Sharpeville. Needless to say in Britain it has hardly been heard or performed.

Does music and politics mix?  Of course it does - this is a terrific disc and it is not too late to hear these impressive pieces for yourself and clebrate a time when the Co-op had the confidence to commission a Symphony! 

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Co-op Congress 2014



Co-op Congress last weekend in Birmingham could have been a very miserable gathering given the events around the Co-operative Group. Ironically if it had not been for that crisis around our biggest member this would have been one of our best ever years.

There are over 15 million memberships in the over six thousand co-ops in the UK and despite the travails at the Group turnover in the sector is up to £37 billion. I was particularly delighted that Yorkshire based Suma, the wholefoods distributer, was named as Co-operative of the Year. Suma is a worker co-operative with 140 owner/members, no hierarchy, no CEO and with a radical commitment to equal pay.

It turns over £34million a year and has doubled sales in the last decade. Last year it was able to pay a well deserved bonus of £4,750 to each and every owner/member.
To celebrate they are receiving a visit by current TUC President Mohammad Taj of Unite to mark Employee Ownership day on July 4th.

There where other bright spots at Congress too. On the Friday before we went down  the Pershore Road in Birmingham with ICA President Pauline Green to launch Britain’s first ever student housing co-op.

If any section of society has been shafted by austerity it is young people. The Students Co-operative Movement grew out of the ant-fees movement. They argue that students have been led up a cul de sac by student union politics as a training ground for new labour apparatchiks.

Rather than passing resolutions and waiting they decided to get on and do things for themselves. They began with student food co-ops and bike co-ops and now they are trying to challenge the dreadful blight of poor quality housing and exorbitant rents.

This new Housing Co-op has received substantial financial support from the PhoneCo-op and technical support from Birmingham Co-operative Housing Services, a very good example of Co-op Principle Six in action - Co-operation amongst Co-operatives.

Whilst there was no escaping the shadow of the Co-op Group there was a confidence and vibrancy at congress this year. Sensibly we had changed the format to make the whole event as participatory as possible under the theme of Co-operation How?

The debates focused on two main issues, How do we promote the co-operative message and secure our identity? Also; How do we take participation in co-operatives to the next level? The discussions being both wide ranging passionate and informed.

BBC business news reporter Steph Mcgovern, who acted as facilitator on Saturday, commented that it was the best conference format she had ever experienced. Hopefully we have begun the process of making Co-operatives UK an open, democratic, participatory learning organisation. Truly practicing what we preach.

The sponsor of this year’s congress was symbolic of a new deepening relationship between the co-operative and trade union movements. It was Unity Trust bank, itself a result of such a partnership, and now marketing itself as ‘Proud to Bank Co-operatives’.

Also involved where the Musicians Union who are working to develop worker co-operatives to protect both musicians who work in entertainment and in music education.

One of the best and most articulate contributions to the weekend’s discussions came from the Deputy General Secretary of the NAS/UWT Patrick Roach who spoke about the challenges in education and the opportunity that Co-operative Schools present at the annual meeting of the Co-op College.

The rate of Co-op Schools development has been incredible and we are now working on a proposal to get the law changed so that they can be formed as Co-ops on a proper legal basis.

Other success stories included the work done by Peter Couchman and the Plunkett Foundation, who have worked tirelessly to protect pubs for their communities. They have estimated that community ownership has helped to date to save 4,000 years of pub history.

Of course we could not have a party without an end of the pier show. Except rather than an end this was a new beginning, as Simon Opie explained how Community Ownership had raised some £600,000 to save Hastings Pier. He explained that the previous owners had not understood that the pier was vulnerable to the sea!! And they had been required to rescue the pier form the dead hand of private ownership.

Clearly the home of Robert Tressell still has some Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ working to make a better world. There is a lot of work to be done and we are not out of the woods with the Co-op Group yet but the whole event does give us some space for quiet optimism.

Nick Matthews is Chair of Co-operatives UK




Friday, 30 May 2014

The School of Eloquence



That great labour historian Edward Thompson in his finest work The Making of the English Working Class wrote, “In 1799 special legislation was introduced “utterly suppressing and prohibiting” by name the London Corresponding Society and the United Englishmen. Even the indefatigable conspirator, John Binns, felt that further national organisation was hopeless… When arrested he was in possession of a ticket which was one of the last ‘covers’ for the old LCS: Admit for the season to the School of Eloquence.

In the recent past we have lost some of the most eloquent voices on the left, from Stuart Hall to Bob Crowe and probably the greatest of them all Tony Benn. The current criticism of modern political leaders seems to me to be twofold firstly that they are all the same. I have some sympathy with this observation. I saw a photograph of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband last year at the Cenotaph in similar attire and all trying to look respectful. For a moment even an old political hack like me could not tell them apart.

The second and perhaps less well articulated point but even more damaging is that they are inauthentic. Political leadership has always had an element of theatre about it but modern politicians really are bad actors. They are incapable of “feeling our pain” and they speak in a carefully managed language that is completely meaningless. What’s more their experiences are so far away from ours they have no idea what we think or feel anyway. Encapsulated this last week when Ed Miliband had no idea how much his household spent on a weekly shop.

This means that most of us have simply stopped listening to them. Even people who are paid to listen to them like the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson have the ability to make a government announcement like the bedroom tax, sound like a minor kerfuffle in the Westminster tea shop, rather than the brutal attack on the poor that it really is.

Political discourse has to start with the articulation of representative experience. So when was the last time you heard a Labour leader talk about catching a bus? They just do not sound like normal people. In democratic systems there is a kind of decay. When a new party or movement breaks through it has a broad scope and is full of ideas and talent giving a voice to the previously unheard. Then over time it narrows.

This is understandable the threat to leaders comes from within their own parties so they seek to control who is chosen to represent the party. The gene pool the party draws from gets narrower and narrower and unless the party is truly democratic and has the ability to renew itself eventually it simply collapses.

This is the very dangerous position that Labour finds itself in. Its base is too narrow. The leader and its spokespeople are dull. They speak with out feeling or belief. They are inauthentic.

This is a deeper problem than just policy. Even if they adopted all the policies we would like to hear the wider public cannot hear them. So when an able political actor like Nigel Farage turns up he is like a breath of fresh air.

This is something hard to say - I feel sorry for Nick Clegg. Why? At least he took Farage on and did not just pretend he wasn’t there. In the authenticity stakes however he lost. He made the classic mistake of trying to fight the irrational rationally. You cannot fight emotion with logic.

Labour ought to have been able to capture the anger of those who voted for UKIP. They are not aliens from another planet they are people whose lives have been turned upside down by neo-liberalism and deregulation. They are seeking stability and security and looking for someone to blame for their plight and all they see from the three main parties is more of the same.

Labour however has been unable to break out of the ideological straight jacket that got us into this mess and therefore has no plausible explanation of how to change things. They have been unable to alter the Tories narrative of the recession being caused by excessive debt or that falling living standards are the fault of migrants. These explanations are now the conventional wisdom.

It has also been unable or unwilling to be critical of the past Labour Governments embrace of neo-liberalism.  Sadly in this regard Labour has become part of the problem not part of the solution. So we need new voices to harness this anger, to articulate this experience and turn it in a progressive direction that does not attribute the cause of austerity to its victims but attacks the real culprits and does so in a language that everyone can understand.

This may or may not require a new political party but it certainly requires a new School of Eloquence.