Monday, 3 August 2009

The Co-op Making the News

Like many of its readers I have shares in the Society that publishes the Morning Star. I also have a share in, according to Bonner’s history of British Co-operation, the ‘oldest working class and democratically owned newspaper in existence.’

That paper, first published on September 2nd 1871, is the Co-operative News. Its early days marked with “turmoil and agitation” saw it constantly in debt to its printers, the Co-operative Printing Society, the first of its type (if you will excuse the pun) formed of printers mainly from what was the Manchester Guardian.

Despite its difficult early life it won some influential readers, the Cambridge economist, Alfred Marshall, described it as, “the best pennyworth of news in the United Kingdom”.

The News, has been one of the few constants in the Co-operative movement charting all its ups and downs. All specialist titles face a constant fight for revenue and readers yet, like the Morning Star, it has adapted to the modern age with a strong presence on the web.

Today Co-operative Press shareholders include consumer co-operative societies, trade unions and since July 2004 (for just a tenner) individuals. It made a small surplus in the year ended February 2009.

Bob Bowman the current managing editor is determined to ensure that the fortnightly Co-op News remains essential reading for those interested in the sector. Like Co-operatives UK, the umbrella body of the Co-op movement, he has widened the breath of its contributors from across the co-operative, mutual and social enterprise sectors.

It is important that there is a space for the movement to talk to itself, about new opportunities and challenges and to celebrate the co-operative and mutual advantage to a wider world.

With the Co-op movement having an estimated turnover of £29billion there is plenty of business for the News to talk about. Despite being the ‘industry’ paper it does not avoid the big co-op issues. In a recent editorial Bob took on two of the most controversial issues facing the movement, that of whether there should be a single co-op retail society and the question of whether the best way for the co-op movement to have political influence is by running its own political party.

To hear some co-operators talk of the need for single co-op retail society is like listening to Francis Fukuyama talk of the ‘end of history’. In a healthy co-operative economy new co-op’s will be formed and ones that no longer serve their customers will be die. The important thing is for the rate of creation to exceed the rate of extinction so that the sector grows. Even if we had a single retail society it would not be the end of ‘history’ merely the beginning of a new phase.

Some of today’s fastest growing and innovative co-op’s are in sectors we could not have imagined a few years ago way beyond traditional co-op activities like food retailing. They are in renewable energy and telecoms, organic foodstuffs and even in cycle retailing! A single co-op retail society could only ever be a proportion of co-op retailing and the beginning of a whole new set of co-operative relationships.

When it comes to co-op politics, at its September conference, the Co-op Party will have to show there is life after New Labour. As the obvious weaknesses and contradictions in shareholder capitalism have become apparent the Co-op movement has had a new lease of life resulting in it being courted by the Liberals and the Tories.

Ideological renewal is vital as deregulated capital takes New Labour down with it. In a booming economy New Labour could both satisfy the rich and redistribute a modest amount to the poor. But as an ideological formation it can now be seen as a child of the boom. Now we face the inevitable bust the Co-op Party must show it has the ideological resources to survive as an independent force?

With the co-op sector in robust health these questions and more will be debated in Co-op News. Let us hope that as back in 1883 when the Co-op Woman’s Guild, grew from a column (Alice Ackland’s ‘The Women’s Corner’) in the paper, new activities and opportunities will grow from the voices, ideas and arguments within its pages for many years to come.

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