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.

Workers Control in the Coal Industry

Thirty years after the heroic miners strike there is an enormous contradiction in UK energy policy. Despite everything last year coal remained the main source of power generation producing 41% of all output, requiring us to import around 50 million tonnes of coal.

Yet last month the Government announced they would contribute to the costs of closing two of the very last three deep coal mines in the country (you cannot make this up). This weeks Turkish mine disaster shows the true cost of imported coal.

I would be happy to give up coal for a green alternative but UK coal is being replaced by Russian, Columbian or American coal. It is also not a question of cost does anyone think nuclear is cheaper?

UK energy policy is crazy and so is the structure of the coal industry. It is interesting that the last deep mine in England, Hatfield, and the last deep mine in Wales, Tower, are both employee owned.

I remember the heated debates we had back in the late 1970’s about workers control and the coal industry. There is a seminal pamphlet by Arthur Scargill and Peggy Kahn, “The Myth of Workers Control”, published in 1980. Arthur makes the case against workers control in favour of collective bargaining. He argues that the relationship between capital and labour is fundamentally one of conflict and that workers control under capitalism is a contradiction in terms.

He is not against the increase in the influence of workers on the work process through their unions. The process of class conflict requires unions to exercise both their industrial and political power. In these circumstances therefore workers control is a dangerous myth that diverts and weakens the class struggle.

I understand this argument but still I wonder.

There is a history of bitter struggle between the colliery owners and the miners. In the early days there was deep suspicious of co-operative ownership. When in 1865 Henry Briggs and Son after a decade of bitter industrial relations decided to turn their pit into a co-op one worker is reported to have said, “ All coal masters is devils and Briggs is the prince of devils, (this co-op system) it was instituted in order to destroy the union.”

The following decade saw numerous examples of co-op coal mines being successful, at least for a while, mining is always subject to geology, and individual pits where vulnerable to the coal owners rigging the market.

In 1873 the Northumberland Miners Association set about forming a Co-operative Mining Society. The prospectus said, “To give the miner the fruit of his skill, economy and care in production is nothing more than the barest justice…To this end the miners of Northumberland and Durham have resolved to have collieries of their own.”

Their aim was not just to own the pit but also the pit villages too. Their first pit was Monkwood near Chesterfield, a bit of a way from Northumberland, which they purchased for £68,000. Sadly things did not go well the miners at Monkswood where less than keen on being member/owners of the pit and despite reassurances it only had a couple of years of economic life in it.

Nevertheless co-operative pits sprang up as far apart as Ayrshire and Lancashire. When one pit near Bolton got into financial trouble it ended up being owned by the Bolton Retail Co-operative Society. 

The ownership question was central to that incredible out burst of industrial militancy that produced in 1912, The Miners Next Step. The South Wales miners argued that nationalisation of the mines does not lead to workers control but “simply makes a national trust with all the force of government behind it”.

Industrial democracy was the objective, “Today owners and shareholders rule the coalfields. They own and rule them mainly through paid officials. The men who work in the mine are surely as competent to elect these as shareholders who may never have seen a colliery.”

In the 1984-5 dispute the NUM certainly took on an NCB with “all the force of government behind it”.

That defeat led to the deliberate destruction of the industry. Yet the last deep mine in Wales was the miner owned Tower Colliery which was successfully mined for 13 years. Today with deep coal mined out the site is in the process of regeneration and is still producing benefits for miners and the local community via the “Tower Fund”.

The very last deep coal mine in Britain is also owned by miners in the form of the Hatfield Colliery Partnership. Saving 400 desperately needed highly skilled jobs in South Yorkshire the Doncaster pit was bought by an employee benefit trust in December last year.

The economic history of the industry is full of wasted opportunities now the bankers who funded the privatisation and could not get out of coal production and into property development fast enough have left millions of tonnes of accessible coal trapped underground.

Couterfactual history maybe but what would have happened to the UK coal industry if it had gone into worker ownership in 1947?

Would we have more than one pit left today?

Friday, 9 May 2014

Saving the Co-op

The great Brendan Behan, the drinker with a writing problem coined the phrase, “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” The experience we co-operators have had over the past year proves this is not true. A week has not gone by without some further dreadful exposure of the Co-op Group’s failings.

The most recent are the Groups financial statements. They are truly shocking showing an unbelievably badly run business which has squandered its assets and is now deeply in hock to a consortium of banks.

There has been much activity on social media and in several conferences amongst co-op activists to discus what is to be done about the Co-op Group. Sadly the situation is so bad that what ever we now do we have to do it very quickly. Control is slipping away from members and directors to external financiers.

Those financiers quite understandably want to know their money is safe and they want to see the management and board are getting a grip on the situation. The Co-op movement is not famous for quick decisions or for making them under so gaze of so much public scrutiny.

The good news is that the Group Board are finally waking up to the scale of the debacle.  £2.5 billion in losses does tend to concentrate the mind. The bulk of those losses are from the Bank failure, however the Somerfield acquisition was also disastrous, and the accounts also reveal the huge size of the pension liabilities.

There is no getting away from the fact that this is an enormous failure of governance.
The board have drafted a resolution for the annual meeting on May 17th to begin the process of governance reform. Whilst far from perfect it is a resolution that everyone who cares about the Group needs to get behind. The resolution makes four key points.

Firstly that a reformed Group needs to have a Board of Directors elected by members that is totally qualified to lead an organisation of the size` and complexity o of the Co-op Group.  

Secondly; that there needs to be a structure that empowers the members enabling them to hold the board to account both for the performance of the business and for the adherence to Co-operative values and principles.

Thirdly there has to be a move to one member one vote in the election of Directors.

Lastly and very importantly there have to be the necessary provisions in the rules to protect the Group from demutualisation.

This is a sensible resolution that will enable the Group to swiftly get on with working with all the members to prepare the necessary rule changes that can hopefully be put to members by the autumn.

Reforming the governance has to be done however whilst still running the business, this is a bit like fixing a puncture whilst still riding the bike. Impending governance change does not excuse current directors from doing some deeply unpalatable things including staff cuts and asset sales.

The Co-op Group could have gone bankrupt last year, it is a failing society. The type that at one time would have been recued by the Co-op Group. But this time there is no lifeboat.

The business within it will almost certainly be much smaller and a great deal leaner and some of the actions now required to save it will be very brutal. We must not delay as every day that passes debts increase and more control is seeded to the banks.

I may sound like a pessimist but I am not. All is not lost. We can recover. We began from a much smaller position than we are now in. We can rebuild the Co-op retail sector in the UK. It is going to be tough but can be done if we stick together.

We have to be honest with ourselves about what has gone wrong. We have to regain control of our own destiny and the confidence of our members and customers and those of us who chuntered behind our hands about past foolish decisions need to be more vocal in future. Not wanting to “rock the boat” almost led to its sinking.

Om May 17th I urge every elected member of the Co-op Group to get behind this resolution and then to fully engage in the process that follows to ensure we save what can be saved from the Co-operative Group. We must begin rebuilding a vibrant Co-operative retail business that gets all of its publicity in future for the right reasons.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Tony Benn and Workers Control

In all the memorials to Tony Benn one period of his career seems to have been missed. The 12 years he was associated with the Institute for Workers Control. He first encountered them in 1971 when he visited the Upper Clyde Shipyards.

That contact was initially a bit circumspect, as Ken Coates said, “He was not rated very highly, although he would be given credit for having done some good things on the Clyde. He was felt to be too dodgy a customer by far. They thought he was a careerist, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, that he got his position in the Labour party because of his father. I bought them round to see that he represented a better left then the more conventional left, more adventurous, more dynamic, more liable to do things that we believed in.”

The IWC had been formed in 1968 by Ken Coates and Tony Topham it had the support of Hugh Scanlon of the Engineering Union and Jack Jones of the Transport and General Workers.

Their conferences where lively, well attended events they debated a broad range of proposals to introduce industrial democracy challenging management’s right to manage. In the first pamphlet by the IWC by Hugh Scanlon he reclaimed the radical history of British Trade Unionism from before World War One,

“The whole question of workers' control is once again becoming an important issue in the British Labour Movement. In some ways, today is analogous to that before the First World War.  Expansion of industry, coupled with inflation, up to 1914, provided the basis for aggressive union action and the growth of ideas concerning workers control, culminating in an historic pamphlet, ‘The Miners Next Step’. It provided the impetus of the growth of the shop stewards movement which arose during the war years itself.”

Benn became deeply involved in these discussions and contributed to over a dozen pamphlets for the IWC or Spokesman’s press many of which are still available and well worth reading.

In 1975 he called for the “Labour movement to intensify its discussion about industrial democracy,” but he not only made the case he offered support to. Many now look on the experiences of the Fisher-Bendix on Merseyside; or of the Scottish Daily News; or of the Triumph Meriden motor-cycle co-op as heroic failures, which in a way they where, of itself workers control cannot make a bad business good.

The Rochdale Pioneers are famous because their co-op model worked and set the scene for retail co-ops for 150 years. But before them there where hundreds that did not survive before the pioneers got it right. These experiments which will always be associated with Tony Benn are just as important in the realm of worker co-operation.
Like in many of his ideas Benn was way ahead of his time. His thoughts on Technology and Democracy where also important as he said in a pamphlet published in 1978,

“The general case for political democracy applies with equal force to industrial life. Industrial democracy, workers self-management, must develop to permit the sharing of power and responsibility at the national level and at all places of work in industry – including technological work places, and those in academic institutions.”

Further “In my submission, science can best flourish in a democratic society which shares power and responsibility more widely and in which the knowledge science has at its disposal is used to strengthen the people as a whole and allow them to harness this power to the advancement of mankind.”

Tony had more faith in us than sometimes we had in ourselves. “I had always thought it was a great pity that working people in Britain set their sights so low.” He said in a speech on Industrial Democracy in 1971.

Raising their sights the workers of Lucas Aerospace developed an astonishing plan for their business. As Bob Cryer MP said in the House of Commons in February 1979,

“I am grateful for the opportunity to raise what is one of the most important moral crusades that this country has seen in the twentieth century. I refer to the Lucas Aerospace combine shop stewards' committee, its corporate plan and the work it has done over the past three years. The shop stewards' imaginative method of tackling the question of providing jobs for peace and not for destruction is an important moral crusade of which the House and the nation must take note.”

The moral crusade for workers control is unfinished Tony Benn’s epitaph is that “he encouraged us!” Speaking in 1975 he said, “If I may finish with a tribute to the Institute for Workers Control, of which I am a member and have come to through my experience: the strange experience of being a Labour Minister makes me see in this organisation something that has real contribution to make to the debate within the movement as a whole and I would wish you luck in your future work.”

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Phone Co-op is Ringing the Changes

The annual Co-operatives West Midlands networking lunch saw co-operators from across the region come. There was much to talk about and we needed some good news.

Fortunately we got it from the key note speaker Vivian Woodell the chief executive of the Phone Co-op. What a great story as in 2013 they had declared record profits of £555,000.

"It has been a challenging year for both the co-operative movement and the telecommunications industry,” he said.  So they where delighted with their results, profits up, membership up, members investment in the business up to over £4m, and they had built reserves, to over £1 million.”
He added, “We see that consumer co-operatives, with their strong member-backing, can grow organically in a highly competitive marketplace. We are unique in our industry and this contributed to the improvement in our performance at a time when volumes and prices are falling."
Vivian himself is quite a deep thinker on the co-operative business model who as well as running an enterprising telecoms business also serves on the Boards of Midcounties Co-op and Co-operatives UK. A gifted social entrepreneur he came up with the idea of a phone co-op when he spent years working abroad being ripped off when he came to phone home.
Beginning the business in his back bedroom of his home it now has a turnover of over £10.5 million. This is amazing when you think how tough this industry is to break into. Much of the investment has come from its 10,000 members with the average having over £400 of shares.
They set aside a proportion of their surplus to invest in other co-op enterprises from their Co-operative and Social Economy Development Fund. Last year the Fund contributed £55,000 to businesses including: Drumlin Wind Energy Co-operative, Spirit of Lanarkshire Wind Energy Co-operative, Wedmore Community Power, Osney Lock Hydro Limited and the Bevendean Community Pub. 
As well 90% of business miles being made by public transport (not bad if you are based in Chipping Norton) they used energy from renewable sources, recycled 100% of its waste and offset all the carbon dioxide emissions that its activity generated, including that of its suppliers. As well as having installed 230 kilowatts at peak output of solar photovoltaic capacity since 2011.
It’s a wonder doing all this they have they have time to sell phone and broadband services but this year they have been particularly busy working with the Co-op Group to introduce the first Co-op Pay-As-You-Go SIM with very competitive rates.
It’s very easy to switch and you can keep your number and last year you got 2.5% dividend on all your telephone and broadband purchases from the co-op.  Considering their performance I do get annoyed when I see committed lefties using some very dodgy email and phone providers.
They do not like to pay to advertise in publications that they do approve so they have an affinity scheme where they offer a partnership with organisations which market or endorse their services to their supporters, members or clients. In return they pay a percentage of the call and internet spend of referred customers. There is a wide range of partners from CND to WWF.
Vivian first got involved with the movement through his local co-op shop in the early 80s in Oxford. “I was fascinated by the fact that there was this large operation that was different from other organisations. It was owned by ordinary people and was supposed to be run in their interest, but it actually seemed to be run by a small, fairly visionless clique.”
“They hadn’t done anything about member recruitment in years. There were few tangible member benefits and little desire to talk about what makes co-ops different. I felt that this was a business that had lost its way. When you went back to the root of it, these were such powerful ideas, but they hadn’t been updated. A few of us formed a group to push a different view, and we got elected.”
Working with new management, they started experimenting with ways of presenting the co-operative message in a modern way. I always felt that when you walked into a co-op it should feel different. We created a concept store promoting things like Fairtrade, supporting local producers, and the fact that it’s owned by the customers. Today that co-operative is the Midcounties Co-op the first £1billion pound regional co-operative.
At a time when the whole co-op idea has come under threat it is great to see the continued growth of a co-op like this in a new sector. The Phone Co-op shows with the right leadership and real member engagement co-operatives can not only be commercially successful but ethical and socially responsible to!