Wednesday, 18 May 2016

I am a European


Umberto Eco the great Italian semioticist died in the same week as Terry Wogan. Terry, bless him, taught us to laugh at the Eurovision song contest that overblown camp extravaganza in all its glorious absurdity. If we had been listening to Umberto he could have taught us something far more important, he could have helped us to decipher the absurd language around the current debate on our membership of the European Union.

 

Umberto’s last book of essays has the title, Inventing the Enemy, he implies that every country, every people need an external enemy to unite them and given them a sense of who they are by defining who they are not.

 

For me this is particularly relevant to the EU which for some people is the omnipotent other that controls their lives from afar. To which we can attribute everything we do not like about our lives. This is a fantasy possible because the real problem with the EU is its weakness not its strength.

 

Most people give up trying to understand what it actually does and how it actually works because of the EU’s secret weapon. It is boring!

 

First let me make a confession I am actually enjoying the current debate I love the mixture of absurd posturing and claim and counter claim about our future in or outside the EU. When I was younger I worked for five years as a research assistant for a Euro-MP. I sadly understand all the institutions and most of the treaties and know my way around the European infrastructure.

 

If I had back in those days had to describe my own position on the whole European adventure I would have described myself as a pro-euro-sceptic.  Meaning that I am in favour of an ever closer Europe indeed of a fully federal union what I am sceptical of of is that the current confederal structure with what is called in the euro-jargon flexible geometry going to get us there anytime soon.

 

As the Clash once put it back on Combat Rock the current question is Should I Stay or Should I GO? There is no doubt that the EU has many flaws. The most important of course being its anti-democratic nature and a structure which enables multi-national capital to run rings around both democratic governments and that which is probably driving the split in the Tory party domestic or national capital.

 

For me any conceivable position outside the EU is worse than the one we currently occupy. The Norway and Swiss options leave us in the Single Market and in Schengan with no voice on any of those rules and regulations. Michael Gove has advocated the Albanian option. One it seems even the Albanians do not want to occupy.

 

In some ways the EU has been a modernising force in British politics, bringing us regulations and directives that have had a direct impact upon the free movement of workers and inequality between men and women. The main benefit of these measures is that they can combat certain forms of discrimination – whilst of course trying to make the labour market as competitive as possible.

 

I want to stand up for migrant workers. I have been one. Without whom Britain would currently have no economic growth at all. I am against discriminating against workers in the UK on the basis of their passports! The Tory demand to have discriminatory benefits depending on where you come from should have no truck from any socialist.

 

The European tragedy however is the overall economic policy which has greatly contributed to its current malaise. That neo-liberal policy which of course is replicated in spades here in the UK.

 

For me the economics makes little difference in or out without a significant change in economic policy. The issue then comes down to politics. There is no doubt for me that Brexit leads to Boris Johnson as Prime Minister and his vision of a deregulated free market UK and a triumph for Nigel Farage on a tidal wave of xenophobia.

 

At a time when all my friends in Europe want us to stay and work with them to reform the economics of Europe and help tackle the devastating crisis of migration, which I feel the UK is partly responsible, leaving feels like an act of betrayal.

 

That is why I am joining John McDonnell, and his demand for a Europe of solidarity, workers rights, and environmental justice, and in supporting Another Europe is Possible.  

 

Utopian? Possibly, but less unattractive than the alternative, of blaming the EU for all our problems when we are the EU! Of blaming them when we should be blaming us! Often for things that our own government have supported but have not told us.

 

The real challenge for us remainers however is to admit the future we seek is a federal democratic Europe one which allows small nations to flourish, welcome Scotland and Catalonia and sees an end to the fantasy of London as an imperial capital.

 

I reject the binary choice of Brussels business as usual or a retreat into nationalism. We need to bring transparency to the EU’s current institutions and to build towards a new constitution creating a genuine European democracy with a sovereign parliament.

 

I am a European.

Corruption


One thing about working in a Business School is that you see the disconnect between business in theory and business as it is actually practiced. Something that is rarely mentioned when it comes to the British economy is the issue of corruption.

I was thinking about this whilst reading the excellent CLASS/IER pamphlet by David Whyte called the Mythology of Business.  David is a Professor at Liverpool University and one of his previous books is called ‘How Corrupt is Britain?’

Well the answer is very.  In the past it was only addressed when doing business with “Johnny Foreigner” now it is an integral part of how our economy works. Most studies of corruption readily identify that it is not a question of wickedness but a question of opportunity.

In a country like Britain with well-developed legal and accountancy systems that opportunity is rare at the lower levels.  Foer example it is still rare for a police officer or a planning officer to take a bribe because the risks out way the benefits.

The opportunity almost always accrues to the better off none of the corrupt practices you read about, from MPs expenses’, phone tapping in the media, price-fixing by the utility companies, LIBOR rate-fixing in the banking sector; and falsification of evidence by the police at the Hillsborough enquiry are committed by the less well off.

Today the scale of corruption in Britain is vast yet the perception is the opposite this is partly due to the way corrupt practices are presented. Take the way the fraudulent selling of payment protection insurance by financial services companies was called ‘miss-selling’.

As if a systematic £24billion fraud could be committed by the slip of a pen.

The other issue is that not only are they are presented as crimes without victims but also as crimes without perpetrators.  You may have heard of the Libor scandal, in which perhaps as many as 16 of those too-big-to-fail banks, have been manipulating global interest rates.

This meant altering the valuation of up to US$500 trillion (yes trillion) worth of financial instruments. MIT professor Andrew Lo says it "dwarfs by orders of magnitude any financial scam in the history of markets."  The fines levied on the banks for this are also colossal so far six banks have agreed to pay US$5.8billion (including US$2.5billion from Barclays and US$669million from RBS).

So far only UBS trader Thomas Alexander William Hayes has been convicted as if he could do all this by himself!

Not only do we not take fraud seriously we actually facilitate it. Corrupt oligarchs from around the world need somewhere safe to store their ill-gotten gains.  One of the safest is right here in what has become known as the buy-to-leave market.

At a time when people across London are desperate for a place to live there are some 36,000 empty properties in this category across the city. Transparency International the NGO that specialises in corruption issues estimates that around a tenth of the properties in Westminster alone are now owned offshore and anonymously.

The great scandal of our age is this Buy to Leave market, where new homes are developed, sold, then left empty by their owners for years on end. Why do they do it? If you buy property for, say £1 million and the value increases by 10% each year, after 5 years you can sell it making a pre-tax profit of £500,000 a better return and more secure than other investments – and you don’t have to worry about pesky tenants. Whole streets and apartment blocks across the country are lying empty.

Billions of pounds of corruptly gained money is being laundered by criminals buying upmarket properties through anonymous offshore front companies turning London into the world capital of money laundering.

Even arch advocates of globalisation are beginning to see the problem, Leonard McCarthy, of the World Economic Forum, asks, “Has Globalization Made Corruption Worse”?

When the collapse of a bridge or building leads to preventable deaths, it’s worth digging around to see if bribes were paid. We see a consistent pattern, of companies cutting corners on safety and quality in order to recoup the cost of the bribes they pay government officials to win contracts. Even something as mundane as waste removal, which does indeed have an impact on the environment, can be distorted by corruption. The problem with fraud and corruption is that they prevent good solutions and sound policies from reaching their full potential.”

What is more McCarthy suggest that, globalization can be held responsible for this increase.

However, many also cautioned that while increased international attention has helped move the anti-corruption agenda forward, globalization is responsible for an increasingly sophisticated form of corruption. We have to ask whether corruption-fighting solutions have kept pace with the integration of financial systems, global supply chains and multi-jurisdictional entities.”

These complex frauds are not committed by small back street crooks but by large multi-national organisations. Desperate for profits at a time of low global growth efforts to minimise tax liability easily slip over into totally fraudulent activity.

When the Government stops the fraud trial against BAe systems  over the  Al Yamamah contract with Saudi Arabia on the grounds that to proceed is against the national interest we can see that not only is corruption endemic  in business it runs right to the heart of the state.

Whilst the trial was stopped in the UK proceedings continued in the US.  Under a plea bargain with the US Department of Justice BAE was sentenced to pay a US$400 million fine.

US District Judge John Bates said the company's conduct involved "deception, duplicity and knowing violations of law, I think it's fair to say, on an enormous scale".  Thanks to the plea bargain BAe was not convicted of bribery, and was therefore not blacklisted from future contracts.  So as long as the US received their cut it was business as usual.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Hillsborough




So the verdict is in, “unlawful killing”. As a passive observer of the processes of the inquest I was completely wrung out by the time we reached the verdict how the families must feel goodness only knows.

Now the world knows what happened on the afternoon of the 15th April 1989 when Liverpool met Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough home of Sheffield Wednesday in the Semi-final of the FA Cup.

That sunny afternoon 96 people died 766 others where injured and despite the best efforts of Kelvin McKenzie and the Sun in collusion with the Tories and the police what happened was not the fault of the Liverpool fans drunken or otherwise.

96 people crushed to death and hundreds more injured was caused by an astonishing array of incompetence at every level and an almost callous disregard for pubic safety by those whose primary responsibility was to protect the public.

As a consequence of this second inquest the term ‘compression asphyxia’ the cause of death of all but one of the victims has entered our language.

My personal interest with this case goes back a long way. As a fan of Wolverhampton Wanderers I had attended the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough between Wolves and Spurs back in 1981. That day too the Leppings Lane enclosure was overcrowded and 38 Spurs fans where injured and many more spilled onto the pitch. A warning of what dangerous overcrowding could do in a confined space that was ignored by everyone in authority.

I had watched this unfold, fortunately for me, from the other end of the ground. Prior to this I had already developed something of a phobia when going to away games of entering what where called pens. Indeed as far back as 1976 I was thrown out of Old Trafford before the kick off of an FA Cup game for refusing to enter one.

These steel pens where an accident waiting to happen designed to stop you getting out onto the pitch no matter what happened. Of themselves however they where not enough to turn an accident into a disaster what was also needed was the public vilification and demonization of all football fans so that as less than human they could be treated like cattle.  

That job had been done by Mrs Thatcher with a supportive press. She did not like football or those who watched it, indeed she had no feeling for sport generally, and as far as she was concerned everyone who watched football was a potential hooligan.

There was one other ingredient and that was a politicised police force that saw football supporters as part of the ‘enemy within’. No force in the country was more politicised that that of South Yorkshire.

Of course what had happened between 1981 and 1989 was the miners strike when the South Yorkshire Police force developed a pattern of behaviour that would culminate at Hillsborough. That pattern was a culture of brutality and cover up.  

Nothing could symbolise this more than what happened at Orgreve. The official report stated that during the confrontation 93 arrests were made, with 51 pickets and 72 policemen injured. Of course now we look at official reports with a pinch of salt.
In 1987 after 95 pickets had been charged with riot, unlawful assembly and similar offences, a trial took place.
The trial collapsed, all charges were dropped and a number of lawsuits were brought against the police for assault, unlawful arrest and malicious prosecution from that other sunny day at Orgreave when miners out numbered by police where delivered up for a beating.
The first part of the plan worked well but over confidence and a sloppy effort at collusion meant that South Yorkshire Police ended up paying £425,000 compensation and £100,000 in legal costs to 39 pickets in an out of court settlement. Meanwhile however, no officers have been disciplined and as they settled out of court no apology ever given.
Michael Mansfield QC described the evidence given by South Yorkshire Police as "the biggest frame-up ever". He said that the force had a culture of fabricating evidence a well developed skill which we now know was fully utilised by the time they got to Hillsborough.
After the 2012 report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, NUM leader Chris Kitchen called for the investigation into the force's practices to be widened to cover Orgreave. Now we must make that demand again.
Now the Hillsborough families have the truth I hope they will press on to ensure those responsible are made accountable for their actions. What with the Shrewsbury pickets, collusion in Northern Ireland and now this Claude Cockburn’s dictum that ‘You should never believe anything until it is officially denied’, has never been truer.
For the Hillsborough families this is a tremendous victory against the whole of the states machinery but we should not rest until the full story of the role of the police in this period is bought out into the open. This is the only way to ensure that this corrupt policing will not be repeated.

Monday, 29 February 2016

Robin Cook at Seventy

On February 28th Robert (Robin) Finlayson Cook would have been seventy. As I have just reached the age at which he died in 2005 I realise how much life he had in front of him. His death was a great loss to our politics. I worked with him when he was Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary and I felt he would make a very good Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Sadly there where Blairites and Brownites but few Cookites not a one to tolerate fools, essential as Jeremy Corbyn has discovered in managing the Parliamentary Labour Party, he was poor at cultivating his supporters in the party

I suspect that today he is best remembered for departure from high office. Immortalised on You Tube, his 2003 resignation speech contains the most incisive demolition of the case against the War in Iraq that you will find from a man who had been foreign secretary from 1997 until 2001 and therefore knew what he was talking about. This was the very first speech ever to receive a standing ovation from members.

The loss of Cook to the government was indeed a great tragedy but the much greater tragedy was the fact that he was right. Amongst those who heard that speech who can forget the words;

Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term - namely a credible device capable of being delivered against a strategic city target.

It probably still has biological toxins and battlefield chemical munitions, but it has had them since the 1980s when US companies sold Saddam anthrax agents and the then British Government approved chemical and munitions factories.

Why is it now so urgent that we should take military action to disarm a military capacity that has been there for 20 years, and which we helped to create?”

That speech and the comment about British approved munitions factories took me back to the 15th February 1993 and Cook’s parliamentary demolition of Ian Lang the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry over the Scott Report.

To be precise it was the Report of the Inquiry into the Export of Defence Equipment and Dual-Use Goods to Iraq and Related Prosecutions, undertaken by Sir Richard Scott Lord Justice of Appeal. They must have thought he was a safe pair of hands.

I played a very small part in Cook’s preparation for that debate. Whilst ministers had eight days to read the report, all 2386 pages, it was only released to the opposition three hours before the debate. About eight of us who had been following the twists and turns of the inquiry took chunks of it and read them drawing anything we thought relevant to Cooks attention.

I remember at one point with a colleague just checking in the dictionary to see if “dissembling” meant what we thought it meant. It did, it is to conceal or disguise, to assume a false appearance of something in everyday language it is lying.

The way the Report was presented by the press you would think it was ambiguous that was not the case it was in fact clear and easy to read. Apart from the occasional double negative, its narrative was compelling and its conclusions plain as a pikestaff Scott was a very literate author. Some of his language like the use of words like dissembling was enough for the largely illiterate press to accuse him of obscurantism. This was of course what the government had wanted - a smoke screen!
When we think what has happened since the whole affair now seems amazing.  In the late 1980s, Coventry based machine tool firm Matrix Chruchill had been bought by the Iraqi government and was exporting machines used in arms manufacture to Iraq.
Such exports are subject to government approval, and Matrix Churchill had all the necessary paperwork, as in 1988 export controls had been relaxed. This relaxation however had never been announced – indeed, even when asked in parliament whether controls had been relaxed, Ministers said they had not.
HM Customs and Excise, unaware of the change in policy, where suspicious that Matrix Churchill where exporting arms components illegally in 1991 the directors were prosecuted for breach of export controls. The trial was a fiasco. The Government sought public interest immunity but this was overturned by the trial judge, forcing key documents to be handed over to the defence.
The trial collapsed when former minister Alan Clarke admitted with typical sangfroid that he had been 'economical with the actualit√©’ in answer to parliamentary questions about what he knew about export licenses to Iraq.
Cook’s demolition of the Government almost bought them down as they only won the vote 320 to 319! It turned out that one of the Directors of Matrix Churchill was working for the security services all along.
Before Scott the Government had been prepared to allow innocent people to go to prison - now the appeal court quashed a string of convictions - of Ali Daghir, managing director of Euromac, of Paul Grecian, managing director of Ordtec, and of Reginald Dunk, of the trading firm, Atlantic Commercial. Some of them won compensation Dunk received over £2m.  James Edmiston, managing director of the Sterling machine gun manufacturer took over 20years but won eventually £5m but no apology. Charged with Dunk but acquitted, the charges had forced him to sell the company and he was later declared bankrupt.
So why where the Government secretly arming Iraq? Well you have to go back to the Iran/Iraq war in 1980 when government policy was not to support either side but when Iraq looked like losing the USA and the British started covertly supporting Iraq
Cook did the nation a great service on that day as he did again in 2003 over the Iraq War. If only he had remained Foreign Secretary and there had been a Prime Minister who shared his ambition for an ethical foreign policy today the whole could would now be a better place.

The conspicuous absentee at Cook’s funeral was Tony Blair perhaps that shows us that despite appearances he does have some shame. 

It’s a God Awful Small Affair.


Noel Coward in Private Lives points out that it is, “Strange how potent cheap music is.” I thought about this as I was listening to the discussion about the musical legacy of David Jones from south London better known as international superstar David Bowie.
His potent music has the ability to evoke over decades time and place for millions of people. The charge is that the response to his death was disproportionate to his talent. This may well be true only time will tell. The response could be a function of the fact that his death was unexpected; happening just releasing a new album signalling to most people that he was very much alive. It could be a function of the age and life experiences of many of the news editors and presenters losing someone who had provided a part of the soundtrack to their own lives.
All modern pop music is cannibalistic often eating itself and other less popular musical forms and making them palatable for a wider public. Some say this is like the process of turning wholemeal into white bread in the process refining out all the goodness! It is very rare for a true original to reach a mass audience.  An obvious example from the birth of the modern pop music industry is the way British blues bands took the great blues from the original artists and made their music palatable for white suburban kids to listen to in their bedrooms.
Many of the early blues greats died in abject poverty yet it would have been hard to conceive of the Rolling Stones, Cream or even Led Zeppelin without Robert Johnson.
The Stones have had a long career from this process. Are they as good as Bod Diddley or Chuck Berry, no of course not, still touring they put on a good show even though today they seem to have morphed into their own tribute band.
Other bands of course pillage both folk and classical music with the occasional pillaging of music from the wider world. Where Bowie was interesting with his art school background was his pillaging of music from the avant-garde. He was not the first to do this; Mark Bolan probably beat him to it, but sadly did not live to evolve the way Bowie did.
After almost packing it in for the musical-theatre it is well known that he created his first successful persona from his reading of the Velvet Underground and MC5 adding beat poetry and a degree of sexual ambiguity to the mix later repaying the compliment by producing Lou Reed’s most commercial album Transformer.
There is a debate about where the quote, “good artists copy, great artists steal,” comes from, some say Picasso some T.S. Eliot. The point however is that there is never anyone who is truly original which is something that makes the present copyright laws so irrational.  The point is to take an idea or inspiration one receives from others and add to it.
There is no doubt in my mind that Bowie did this on more than one occasion. Bowie would have been the first to admit he was no great musician or singer but he did have a feel for the zeitgeist and there is skill jumping successfully onto a moving musical bandwagon and not looking a mere copyist.
If he had only done this once it would have been remarkable but he did it again and again.  He did it with Nile Rodgers and funk for the Thin White Duke, Young Americans period.
The period I liked best was his so called Berlin phase. He managed to escape from the rock god hedonism of Los Angles which could have been terminal to engage with of all things German expressionism.
What was called Krautrock in a disparaging way by the British the music press involving bands like Amon Duul, Tangerine Dream, and one I followed around University campuses at the time Can  (Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay of the band had actually studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen), Faust and probably the best known Kraftwerk.
They had been picked upon by people in the States like Frank Zappa who always had an ear for contemporary classical music and there was an overlap with the so called Canterbury Scene in England which included Soft Machine and Caravan.
With the help of Brian Eno and later King Crimsons Robert Fripp and producer Tony Visconti his music did a hand break turn with albums, Low, Heroes and Lodger. Taking this German sound and making it something different. The restless chameleon however soon moved on with the development of the new romantic style and the revival of the character Major Tom who we found out was junky!
A new way of getting to your audience arrived with MTV and the music video which seemed to have been made for Bowie. As well as establishing a compelling visual image by now Bowie could do pretty much anything he wanted and to his credit he always surrounded himself with the very best musicians and producers.
There were other interesting episodes and in many ways the best at least commercially was yet to come.  Through a career when his music had been both potent and strange he had ploughed his own furrow. He even has some credit along with Eric Clapton, even if for the wrong reasons, for the formation of Rock against Racism.
It is unlikely that someone like Bowie could achieve mainstream success today as digitalisation has destroyed the value in many large scale record labels making them risk averse. The kind of just on the edge style of a David Bowie would be unlikely to be promoted. The music he poached from Black Soul music, to German Expressionism to the avante-garde however is still going on under the mainstream radar you just have to go out look for it!



Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Jeremy Corbyn: History Man.



What a difference a year makes. This time last year I felt such a degree of despair about Labour I felt the party was incapable of renewing itself and was just going to slide into the dustbin of history.

Maybe it was time to think of creating a new party? Labour had lost the ability to think, to develop policies to address now rather than the situation it faced in 1992. It was in 1992 that Labour failed to win what looked like a certain victory against John Major. Blair and even more so Brown had been scared by this defeat and had like old generals had been fighting the same battle ever since.

The old adage that it is the winners who get to write the history seems to be true unless the “wrong” person wins the Labour Leadership. Since Jeremy Corbyn had the temerity not just to be a good chap and prove his unpopularity but to actually win the fight has not been about the future but about the past.

In the History Boys, Alan Bennett puts this into the mouth of Irwin the history teacher, “But this is History. Distance yourselves. Our perspective on the past alters. Looking back, immediately in front of us is dead ground. We don't see it, and because we don't see it this means that there is no period so remote as the recent past.”

The Observer ran a series of essays about Labour over the new year in his contribution, Peter Hyman, former Blair apparatchik, tripped headlong into this dead ground. It was his interpretation of the history of the Blair/Brown years that gave Corbyn his huge majority.

Hyman rightly dates the failure of New Labour from its second term in office.

Firstly what was New Labour - essentially it was a marketing tool. How do you sell someone who has risen without trace, has little life experience, none of high office or indeed any obvious qualifications for the job? Let us call them “New”. A new product has no past. This is the Year Zero Pol Pot School of politics.

The simple fact is that in 1997 Blair inherited a broadly social democratic policy platform from John Smith. Despite the New Labour rhetoric around the manifesto the core policies, the minimum wage, trade union recognition, signing up for the Social Chapter, Regional Economic Development, Devolution for Wales and Scotland, Lords reform, and the Human Rights Act, had come from Smith.

It was the second term that the problems began because once Blair and Brown where making the policy it was in an over centralised un-tested way free they where free ignore conference and members alike. Remember the clapathons after the leader’s speeches? What they said however absurd went.

Policies where shaped by their Atlanticist politics. They imported neo-conservative foreign policy ideas and neo-liberal economic ideas into British politics. Blair floated off into neo-con foreign policy land with his liberal interventionism and Brown began a love affair with Alan Greenspan - even seeing to it that Greenspan would receive an honorary knighthood!

Most of the things we campaign against now - they started, light touch city regulation, privatisation of education and health, their failure to invest in infrastructure particularly, green energy and broad band, the lack of new social housing and crazy PFI schemes.

Remember the way they where in thrall to the rich, their inability to tackle foot and mouth, the way they announced things as if they had actually DONE something and the bloody millennium dome!

This is what people remember it may not yet be in the history books but we know this is what happened because we where there!

Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past,” says George Orwell in 1984. The establishment and the corporate media have always understood this.

From the true history of World War One, in which Britain was as much to blame as Germany, to the false history of the collapse of the Callaghan Government, to the Falklands war, from the Shrewsbury Pickets to Orgreave, from our role in Northern Ireland to the Iraq war.

The left have always understood the importance of understanding what really happened in the past and after a golden period when left historians where helping to put the record straight the right has made a comeback with celebrity TV historians. Now however the ability of the mainstream media to shape our understanding of our own history has been eroded by the internet.

I do not mean the crazies who think 9-11 was done by Mossad but by intelligent alternative voices to the mainstream narrative. Reading the mainstream press about Corbyn he is projected as being a throwback to a previous age but this only works if you can make people believe just how awful that age was.

In reality of course far from being hard left his policies are broadly social democratic ones that John Smith would recognise. Yet without the internet Jeremy Corbyn could not have been elected. Discovering that what you saw and felt was real and others felt the same way was so important in creating the campaigns momentum, in building the crowds for rallies and just letting people hear un mediated what he was actually saying!

We must not let up in this battle they will not stop trying to crush our hopes and real aspirations. Sadly even this great paper does not yet have the reach to get to hundreds of thousands of Labour members and supporters.  Let us make that our New Year resolution to build our reach using all the tools the internet has bought us including our e-edition  It is voices like the Star and its journalists writing that first draft of history that are so important in building that alternative future.

2015 The Co-op Year in Review



After a traumatic 2014 many of us in the Co-operative Movement where looking for the quiet life in 2015. Despite a year of steady progress we are still suffering the effects of the forced asset sales and the reputational damage the collapse of the Co-operative Bank precipitated.

Despite that set back, and whilst the Co-op Group is still of significant importance to the movement, there is new life and growth across the co-operative sector generating some considerable success.

There is a new confidence amongst the worker co-op’s who have established a solidarity fund to help support and develop new worker co-ops. Growth in individual co-op stores has been encouraging and it was great to see Beanies the Wholefoods the worker co-op from Sheffield receive the Observer award for independent retailer of the year.

In the agriculture sector it has been especially tough for milk producers and yet OMSCo (the Organic Milk Suppliers Co-op) won the prestigious Food Chain Marketing Award at the food and farming awards. OMSCo is a terrific co-op it manages over 250 million litres of organic milk, which accounts for 65% of the total organic milk
supply in the UK.

In consumer co-ops the incomparable Wine Society won the Decanter Retailer of the year award for the fifth year running. Meanwhile in the autumn the Co-operative Group was able to celebrate a return to profit and its first real increase in market share with a glass of its own prize winning champagne. Les Pioneers named after the Men of Rochdale and it is pretty good. I know call me a champagne socialist!

The Co-op Group was named ethical drinks retailer of the year whilst having only having ten per cent for the nation’s drinks market it sells over half of all the fair-trade wine consumed in the UK.

One of the Groups most successful partnerships is with the Argentinean Riojana Wine Co-operative. They had a special celebration because thanks Co-op customers and the fairtrade premium a village that before 2008 didn’t have clean drinking water now has a secondary school. Their wine is pretty good too. If you like a robust red their award winning Malbec is just the thing.
Talking of ethical products the phone co-op has been selling one you can talk on. They became the UK's only mobile provider to stock Fairphone the ethical smartphones, challenging the mobile industry over supply chain transparency. There is some nasty stuff in your mobile phone and at last here is a way to do the right thing.
This helped them to win an award at the social enterprise awards along side two other co-ops. Leading Lives, a worker co-op providing high quality social care support for adults with complex needs, who picked up the Health and Social Care Social Enterprise award and Zaytoun which supports Palestinian olive farming families by helping them to grow sales of their produce work that was recognised with the International Impact award.
Credit Unions have been having a good year too with adult membership reaching 1.1million in November and assets growing to £1.32billion with almost 400 people joining a credit union every working day it seems the message about loan sharks is finally getting through.
In Manchester just ten years after their formation fan owned FC United where being cheered on at their very own ground against of all teams Benfica it may sound like a fairy tale but it has been achieved with a great deal of passion and a lot of hard work.
For the first time this year we opened up the Co-op of the Year to a public vote. The winners where Midcounties Co-op they have had a roller coaster year. They had some real problems with their Co-op Energy business caused by a challenge all co-ops would love – it has been growing too fast!
Of course it would be foolish to pretend everything in the garden was rosy. It is not despite the Co-op bank putting £1 million into co-op development they have managed to alienate many long standing and supportive customers by closing their accounts over the heavy handed imposition of money laundering regulations.  
In recent times one of the fastest growing sectors has been community energy co-ops now that is threatened by the Governments lack of commitment to renewable energy and damage done has been done to the sector by tax changes.
There is a similar picture amongst housing co-ops the Government attacks on social housing and restrictions on housing benefit are causing considerable concern across the country.
It also took a real struggle at the Co-op Group AGM to secure the future of the Co-operative Party. Although we have faced some serious issues even the Peoples Press Printing Society is finishing the year in a better place than it started with real optimism for progress in the New Year.
Looking forward the 2016 Co-op Congress will be in Yorkshire at the magnificent Unity Works in Wakefield, formerly the home of Wakefield Co-op now in community co-operative ownership and leading the cultural renaissance of Wakefield
This last year has been tough commercially for all co-ops with very poor margins across all sectors. Despite talk of recovery and growth most co-op businesses focussed on the domestic market are just not seeing it. This has not stopped them making a real difference for their members, customers and the communities they serve in 2015. Let’s hope for another year of steady progress in the New Year.