Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Not Just the Young Gripped by Corbymania!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ferry Co-op Fight Goes On

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

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Drawing Inspiration from Co-op Congress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.