Thursday, 25 September 2008

Energy and the Question of Ownership

In just one day - the most right wing US administration in living memory calls on Congress for billions of dollars to bail out the US financial system, the Portuguese launch the world’s first wave power plant and British Energy becomes French.

So we no longer have any ownership of our energy infrastructure. There are a lot of clichés we hear everyday from politicians these days. Three of my favourites are, “we will learn the lessons”, “the family have been informed” and “ownership does not matter”.

The last one we is a catchphrase of Business Secretary John Hutton. We never heard it when they were talking about housing of course. Forcing people to buy houses they could not afford is the main source of the current mess.

Mind it’s not a phrase you hear from people who actually own things like Warren Buffet or Lakshi Mittel or from the French for that matter. They will now have a constant stream of profits from their UK energy business. Every time we turn on the lights cash will stream across the channel.

The business secretary says this is good for Britain. I suppose from where we are it is. He has persuaded a foreign firm with some intellectual property to take over and run yet another dead British industry. So now we will get four new French nuclear power stations.

Today the UK economy is a bit like Wimbledon. We never win, but we put on a good show. All the prize money goes overseas but if we are lucky we get to stand on the hill watching it go on the big screen.

In this Alice in Wonderland world we are the winners. The stupid French have cheaper energy than us because they foolishly failed to embrace the market and invested in their energy industry for the long term. Now they have a product they can export across the world and reap the reward. Just how silly is that!

Meanwhile the global energy giants we have put our faith in are refusing to invest in UK renewables because as private firms they see more lucrative investments in existing energy sources elsewhere. To most observers the UK is facing a looming energy gap. But because of our obsession with not bucking the market we stand a good chance of being bucked by it.

Portugal has no indigenous carbon energy sources and yet has managed to obtain over half its energy from renewables. Locked into free-market dogma progress in the UK has been pitiful. We can begin to turn this around in October when the Energy Bill comes back to the commons. MP’s can give renewables the support they need with some preferential feed in tariffs to give them the certainty they need to invest.

But we need to go much further. The current global crisis in the banking sector shows the limits of regulation. When oil was discovered in the North Sea, we soon realised that it was going to be a long term and risky business bringing it to shore, we established a public sector business to undertake this challenge -The British National Oil Corporation. If we are to take on the challenge of developing a serious renewables industry particularly in the capital intensive wave and tide power arena we will need a similar public sector champion.

We need a British National Renewables Corporation.

Unlike the wind you can set your watch by the tides around Britain’s coast and if the Portuguese can harness wave power so can we. With a global shortage of credit we cannot wait for the private sector to come to the rescue.

The banks are being saved by ‘nationalisation’ in the USA and now our nuclear industry is being ‘nationalised’ by the French. If we want a significant renewables sector its early stage of development will require a large scale public sector solution believe me it will be a better long term investment than Northern Rock.

And this time we will have to do it ourselves.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Cuba, Co-op's and Hurricanes

Each day I enjoy a co-operative and fair-trade breakfast of coffee, muesli and banana and raise a glass to Cuba. Not because new Labour has driven me to drink - my toast is not with rum but with Cuban orange juice.

In the 1980’s Cuba was the world’s largest citrus fruit exporter. The end of the USSR took away their main market and put them in direct competition with two of the big citrus fruit exporters the USA and Israel.

Today Cuba is the world’s laboratory for sustainable farming and food sovereignty – the World Bank has described it as “almost the anti-model”- pursuing an approach that links ecology with the decentralisation of the control of farms. Co-operatives are playing a key part in these developments.

The US blockade makes market access crucial. In 2000, Traidcraft, the Christian based fair trade organisation stepped in to help seven co-operatives in and around Ciego de Avila find new markets and help them to win Fair-trade status. Working alongside Gerber foods they are bringing first class Cuban fruit juices to European consumers and in developing the Fruit Passion brand aim to do for fruit juice what Café Direct has done for fair-trade coffee.

Modern consumers are increasingly concerned about the provenance of what they buy from the developing world and thanks to the Fairtrade Foundation there has been a huge increase in quality making the fair trade an easier choice to make. Fair-trade is not socialism but the Fair-trade mark does guarantee farmers a minimum price and an additional 'premium' payment. In Cuba the premium is used for projects that benefit the co-operatives - better machinery, vehicles, irrigation systems etc. or to finance other activities including cultural and recreational facilities.
The Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) representing the interests of co-operatives and individual farmers are also working to increase the involvement of women in the farms and their decision making processes.

Last year I visited the region of Cuba where these co-ops are based and the extra income fair trade brings can make a real difference. One of the dreadful things about capitalism is the way the abstraction of the market separates consumers from producers.

Now Traidcraft are running meet the people tours to Cuba in November, February or March visiting the CPA and CCS Jose Marti Co-operatives in Ciego de Avila that produce the juice that is so welcome on our breakfast tables.

Writing in Granma, Fidel Castro, points out that the recent hurricanes have done between $3 and $4 billion dollars worth of damage to Cuba. Farmers have not escaped unscathed and to help their recovery the least we can do is buy some of their output. So why wait? You can find Fruit Passion in Co-op shops as well as in Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, also the Co-op’s own brand fair-trade orange juice includes Cuban product in the blend.

Of course the concept of fair trade is not new. Back in 1906 the first Labour MP’s cited John Ruskin as the author who had most shaped their thinking. Ruskin makes a plea for fair trade in ‘Unto This Last’ published in 1862.

“In all buying, consider first, what condition of existence you cause in the production of what you buy; secondly whether the sum you have paid is just to the producer and in due proportion, lodged in his hands.”

Given the present shenanigans in the PLP it would seem that today the minds of some Labour MP’s seem to be shaped by an older writer than Ruskin – evidenced from their detachment of political expediency from morality – one Niccoli Machiavelli.

For details of Traidcraft trips to Cuba see: Meet the People Tours at

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

The Search For Utopia - 150 Years of Robert Owen

This year marks a century and half since the death of Robert Owen in 1858. The 2008 Society for Co-op Studies Conference is to be held appropriately at the New Lanark Mill Hotel, part of the New Lanark World Heritage Site, from 11-14th September and is titled, New Views of Society: Robert Owen for the 21st Century.

It is hard to do justice to Owen, in 1880 Frederick Engels wrote in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, “Every social movement, every real advance in England on behalf of the workers links itself on to the name of Robert Owen. He forced through in 1819, after five years’ fighting, the first law limiting the hours of labour of women and children in factories. He was president of the first Congress at which all the Trade Unions of England united in a single great trade association. He introduced as transition measures to the complete communistic organisation of society on the one hand, co-operative societies for retail trade and production.”

Owens ideas took a radical turn from his experience of managing what was the largest cotton spinning factory in Europe. New Lanark is a world of its own, set deep in the spectacular Clyde valley, almost cut off from the outside world, the Clyde falls providing the power to drive the mills. A lack of enthusiasm for his ideas amongst his business partners was resolved when he formed a partnership with a group of mainly Quaker backers to buy the New Lanark Mills giving him a free hand.

He set about improving the factory workers lives with better housing, healthy food, education and better working conditions. He formed a sick fund and a savings bank as well as a company store that ploughed its profits back into the community. His rigid monitoring and control of the workforce together with the application of new technologies paid off with a substantial increase in productivity and profitability.

His big idea was that a person’s environment had an impact on the formation of their character. Education was the core of Owenite philosophy – the idea that through the education of future generations a better world could be created is essentially the underpinning idea of all modern education. The turning point in Owens thinking seems to have stemmed from his meeting anarchist political philosopher William Godwin. His thinking about how to apply the lessons from New Lanark to wider society developed with meetings with Godwin and radical Francis Place and political economist James Mill. It was Pace and Mill who edited his essay “A New View of Society” giving it a depth and clarity that is absent from his later writings.

To celebrate Owen’s 80th birthday in 1851, a public meeting was held in London. Owen urged his audience to continue their efforts to “well educate, well employ, well place and cordially unite the human race.” The thousand strong crowd included Karl Marx who wrote to Engels that, “in spite of fixed ideas the old man was loveable and ironical.”

Today whilst New Lanark Mill Hotel, in a converted mill, is one of the great places to stay, Owens combination of social control and paternalism seems rather autocratic. He was from a different time - a reformer but no democrat. Many of his ideas however, like labour exchanges, gave us a vision of a possible alternative future. Engels said he gave us the, “practical proof that the merchant and the manufacturer are socially quite unnecessary.”

Owen was a utopian thinker there are many flaws in his “new view of society” but we will always need those who have the vision to see that another world is possible. Unless we can imagine a different future we can not even begin to make it happen.

As Oscar Wilde pointed out, “A map of the world that does not include utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when it lands there, it looks out and seeing a better country, sets sail, Progress is the realization of Utopias.”

The Society for Co-operative Studies can be found at: