Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Bradlaugh contra Marx

Book Review by Nick Matthews

Bradlaugh contra Marx, Radicalism versus Socialism in the First International.

Published by the Socialist History Society, Occasional Publication No 28.
86 pages £4.00

This is a short quite delightful monograph published by the Socialist History Society (the successor organisation to the Communist History Group) and written by playwright and society member Deborah Lavin. It is a well researched paper about the tussles between Karl Marx and Charles Bradlaugh in the workings of the International Working Mens Association. She seems to have discovered details of this interesting tussle whilst working on her biography of Dr Edward Aveling the partner of Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor.

The journey through the exile organisations of late nineteenth century politics are reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent or of in the case of Bradlaugh, who she virtually accuses of being an agent provocateur, G.K. Chesterton’s the Man who was Thursday.

In Lavin’s hands neither Marx nor Bradlaugh come out of this episode very well. Marx comes across as an arrogant, sectarian whilst Bradlaugh comes across as an opportunist, charlatan. In one critical episode, what she describes as the oaths question, she argues Bradlaughs battle over taking the Parliamentary oath, was not a matter of principal but merely a misunderstanding.

The six year struggle ending in the “Tories oaths Act of 1888 is generally credited as a Civil Rights victory for Bradlaugh, but as he only got entangled in the oaths question by accident, and the moment he was allowed, Bradluagh willingly swore allegiance to Queen Victoria on the Bible.”
She says that it is “quite erroneous to see Bradlaugh as playing the part of the heroic man of principle”. Equally to give Bradlaugh some credit, however, he was an extraordinarily good public speaker, something Marx could never be accused of, and was also an extremely tenacious campaigner.

Lavin is clearly more sympathetic to Marx and he was clearly successful in keeping the mere Liberal Bradlaugh out of the IWMA but ultimately he kept everyone else out of it too by moving its HQ to New York ostensibly to escape the anarchist Michael Bakunin.

Bradlaughs attempts to recreate a version of the IWMA under a new name the International Labour Union also failed. Bradlaughs effort to court the newly rising working class however does show their emerging importance in Liberal politics.

There is much in this wonderful monograph, very rich in references, that would repay careful reading but it does highlight two obvious things. Firstly there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. How any of the organisations portrayed in this paper could have lasted more than a second or had any lasting influence is astonishing. And secondly it does not pay to look too closely at ones heroes as their feet are undoubtedly made of clay as they too are mere flesh and blood and subject to the same vanities and needs as the rest of us.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Histories of Labour

Histories of Labour, National and International Perspectives, Edited by John McIlroy, Alan Campbell & Joan Allen, Merlin Press, 2010, ISBN 978085036677.

a review by Nick Matthews

I greatly enjoyed this book although I would not recommend reading it in a single sitting. There is a lot to take in and numerous changes in perspective to accommodate. When I was young I could never understand why people kept writing new books about the same period in history. Now I am a bit like the person in the Bob Dylan song who was “so much older then” but is “younger than that now”!

It requires perspective and some distance to understand the real significance of events and this collection of essays does that in spades. Interestingly the event it both commemorates and celebrates is the birth of the Society for the Study of Labour History. The editors say, “Histories of Labour, which documents the development of the subject in a variety of countries around the world, is published to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Society for the Study of Labour History (SSLH), its organised expression in Britain”.

In the introduction Eric Hobsbawm explains how this seminal event occurred and how the idea of the Society “came from the collective of friends formed in the Communist Party Historians’ Group.” At the height of the cold war even Hobsbawn was finding it hard to get published, difficult to believe now given his status as a ‘national treasure’ and the Order of Merit.

The man chosen to front this new Society was Asa Briggs then easily the most established academic historian with a record of work in the field. What exactly this field is over fifty years and numerous changes in historiography I found more difficult to pin down. The best definition occurs in the final essay of the book by Marcel van der Linden, Research Director of the International Institute of Social History and Professor of Social Movement History at the University of Amsterdam;

“The term ‘labour history’ has a dual meaning. Strictly speaking the concept refers to the history of the labour movement: parties, trade unions, cooperatives, strikes and related phenomena. More broadly interpreted, the concept denotes the history of the working classes: the development of labour relations, family life, mentalities, culture. This ambiguity seems characteristic of the term in English. In many other languages labour movement history and working-class history cannot be summed up in a single term.”

By the time I got to this final chapter having worried at this ambiguity throughout the book I was glad to see it confirmed. Van der Linden, continues that both this ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’ Labour History have their origins in the North Atlantic region so it is good to see the impact that this school of thought, if that is not too strong a term, has had internationally.

There are fascinating essays in this book from India and Japan, where both labour history and Labour History have taken significantly different turns. Although there appear to be two threads that echo across the world, the first is the enormous impact of Edward Thompsons the making of the English Working Class. Van der Linden again,

“In the 1960’s we see the beginnings of the so called ‘new labour history’, with E.P.Thomson’s The Making of the English Working Class as a landmark publication. This great book, by emphasizing culture and consciousness, integrated broad and narrow labour history, once its message was assimilated.”

Of course this transition can be exaggerated but I do not think it would be inaccurate to argue that almost all Labour History since has been a dialogue with this great work. Who, having read it, can forget that wonderful preface written in Halifax in 1962 and Thompsons hope that he was,

“seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott from the enormous condescension of posterity.”

He did something else too I think and that is break the almost Whiggish nature of much so called Marxist writing of Labour History which saw the continuous march of organised labour to state power as inevitable. Whilst nothing could have been more literally English about Thomson’s work it had a huge international impact which is reflected in this book.

In his essay, Organised Labour History in Britain, John McIlroy, points out that;

“It was said of Thompson that he ‘opened new ways of enquiring into the past in India and Latin America,[…] He has influenced Chinese labour historians and inspired the feminist scholar of Arab texts, Fatima Mernissi.’ He lectured in Canada and the USA and maintained his family’s links with India. His influence marked the developments in labour history in all three countries.”

This canonisation of Thompson is not to diminish the work of other scholars but it does point up the huge contribution to both broad and narrow Labour History from those outside the academy and the fact that institutionalised university history has never been quite sure what to do with the history of the lower orders.

The second thread is that well before the forward march of labour was halted in Eric Hobsbawms immortal phrase the subject matter had begun to fragment with new dimensions to the central ambiguity. Some of these especially the interest of feminists has been very welcome others like the so called ‘linguistic turn’ less so.

Hobsbawm suspects that what made British Labour history influential however, apart from the sheer size of the community and the high quality of some of the work produced was “its function as a catalyst of political rethinking on the British left”.

“Neither E.P. Thompson’s Making or Raph Samuels initiatives, the ‘History Workshop’ movement , nor my Primitive Rebels , can be fully understood accept as an attempt to find a way forward in left politics through historical reflection.”

Anyone interested in Labour History will find terrific value in this book I found references to works that I was not familiar with that I will now seek out to fill gaps in my understanding and readers will gain huge benefits from the references and bibliography. I particularly welcome the opportunity to look at Labour History through the prism of the Indian, Japanese and German experience which these international essays give us.

If I have one disappointment it is that although Van der Lindon mentions co-operation in his definition (and as a co-operator) I found only one reference in the index to Co-operation and that is in the context of the Canadian Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. Clearly there is work still to be done and I hope the next fifty years of organised labour history are as rich as the first fifty and we will continue to look for ways forward in left thinking with active historical reflection.

Nick Matthews is the Chair of the UK Society for Co-operative Studies


I was surprised when Tory rhetoric went from “No such thing as Society” to the “Big Society” and even more surprised about their new found passion for co-operatives and mutual’s. Well we can all now see that it was purely cosmetic. The coalition has fallen at the very first fence. The first chance the Coalition gets to turn the rhetoric into action about creating co-ops and new mutual’s and they sell Northern Rock to of all people Richard Branson.

As Ed Mayo general secretary of Co-operatives UK said “The government had a real chance to show the strength of its commitment to co-operatives and mutuals….it passed it up”. The winner is the people’s capitalist and self publicist par excellence Richard Branson.

This is the man who made his first pile from the Exorcist. A film that like the Coalition was pretty scary. Every time we went towards that room we heard the music of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. Released as single in America on the Virgin label it became a top ten hit. The success of the film drove the sales of the album, until then an underground success, and made it the first hit on Branson’s Virgin records – a hit that made a fortune for Oldfield and for Branson.

Tom Bower wrote a wonderful biography of Branson, a book which had this glowing endorsement from its subject, “What I have read has offended me on every single level ... it is a foul, foul piece of work from the first words to the last - really rotten, nasty stuff.” In the book Bower points out that, “Virgin Music - started amid a sophisticated purchase-tax fraud that Branson admitted in 1971 - was sold in 1992 for a record £560m”. The money was used to found an airline Virgin Atlantic (which is now 49% owned by Singapore airlines) created when the government stripped BA of landing slots at Heathrow.

Since then Branson has been lending his Virgin brand name to various enterprises to give what are a set of fairly mediocre business a bit of hippy radical gloss as customers using any thing carrying the Virgin brand will tell you.

Most of the things he has launched in competitive markets have failed, Virgin, condoms, cola or vodka anyone and what happened to Virgin stores?

And there are Virgin trains (49% owned by Stagecoach) currently operating the West Coast franchise who used to be much bigger until they lost the cross-country franchise after lumbering it with the worst modern train fleet in Britain. Trains that are noisy, uncomfortable and unable to cope if passengers dare to turn up with luggage.

As with Virgin phones, Branson operates in protected markets. As Aditya Chakrabortty said in the Guardian, “the Virgin boss keeps himself in homes in Holland Park and Necker Island by taking taxpayers subsidies and operating in heavily protected businesses.”

Now he has written a book, called ‘Screw Business as Usual’ needless to say published by Virgin Books in it he talks about the “new capitalism”. He says that he has a new name for it, “Capitalism 24902” apparently because the circumference of the earth is 24,902 miles. Then you read in the Financial Times Branson’s chief investor in Northern Rock, American Financier Wilbur Ross saying, “We would hope to sell out a few years down the road.”

This sounds like business as usual to me. It is not the business that is being screwed it is the taxpayer. The Northern Counties Building Society founded in 1850 and the Rock Building Society in 1865 they survived two world wars and the great depression before merging in 1965 to form Northern Rock. Then it floated as a mortgage bank on 1st October 1997. Less than ten years later it in 2008 it was spectacularly bust!

Many commentators have pointed out that the £747 million price Branson is paying for Northern Rock means that every taxpayer in Britain is paying Branson £13 to take Northern Rock away. But this is not the full story. Branson is only buying the good part of Northern Rock. So far the Coalition has no plans to sell Northern Rock Asset Management or the so called Bad Bank.

In October 2010 Northern Rock (Asset Management) plc and that other busted bank and former building society Bradford & Bingley were integrated under a single holding company, UK Asset Resolution which has a plan that hopes to wind down the institutions in a way that repays a combined debt to the taxpayer of around £50billion.

There is no reason to think that this tiny mortgage bank can survive on its own with just 75 branches and investors would be wise to get out as soon as practically possible. None of the converted Building Societies have survived as Mortgage Banks because the model simply does not work.

That is why many people campaigned for the Rock to be remutualised to return to its roots as a provider of mortgages based on savers deposits. But no George Osborne has decided to make his own horror movie and once again the Virgin label is providing the soundtrack.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Somerset’s Co-op Champion

Chewton Mendip, Coleford, East Harptree, Bradford-on-Avon, Frome, Trowbridge and Radstock names that sound like a stopping train journey with John Bejtemen on the pre-Beeching Somerset and Dorset railway.

What these places have in common is that until the 1970’s they all had their own retail co-operative societies. The exception in the list is the small Somerset town of Radstock a former mining village in the old Somerset coalfield. Not only does it still have an independent Co-operative Retail Society – it is thriving - with in 2011 gross sales topping £21million, a record £1.5 million trading surplus and is totally debt free.

In 1868 the early meetings to form the Radstcock Co-operative and Industrial Society took place in the towns Workingmen’s Hall. A temperance house, supported by the agent of the local coal owner Countess Waldegrave, this ensured that according to Society President and historian George Donkin, “those budding co-operators were not going to hang about”.

The society was formed by a mixed bunch drawn from the railways and agriculture as well as mining. One founder Septimus Kidd, who sounds like a character from a Dickens novel, was the head bailiff for the Waldegrave collieries.

At the end of the first year the 145 members enjoyed a dividend of one shilling and five pence in the pound - quite a useful sum at the time. As there where so many co-op societies in the surrounding villages up until the 1920’s rather than form branches they went into house building. Most of the sturdy terraces sold to members and staff are still standing today.

It was the new century, 1901, before the Society began to branch out, the first branch opened in High Littleton and branch thirteen in Midsummer Norton in 1913.

The Society had a close relationship with the mining community. In the 1912 mining dispute the Society lent a £1,000 to the Miners Association a considerable sum causing the Society some difficulty until it was repaid in 1913. The Society always supported local workers in difficulties including in 1920 the Boot and Shoe Operative Union and in 1921 the Miners and Enginemen’s Association was loaned £6,600 together with a donation of £160 to their distress fund.

The First World War saw many of the Societies workers conscripted. Ten men never returned a large number out of a staff of just 200 when the war started. The War saw the Societies first foray into farming, one it has maintained unlike most independent societies, right through to the present day.

In 1926 they were steadfast once again in supporting the miners. A loan of £10,300 was made to local miners unions and £515 donated to the distress fund as well as £210 in food vouchers from the Co-operative Union. Staff also expressed solidarity with the donation of a days pay to the relief fund. The 1930’s where very difficult in the coal mining areas Somerset was no exception but thanks to support from the Co-operative Wholesale Society they survived.

The Radstcock that people came back to after the Second World War was very different to those troubled inter war years and in modern times the Society has been able to survive as an independent society by being a good retailer.

In 1959 it made a huge investment in a new central store in Radstock. To outsiders this looked like not only putting the entire Society under one roof but putting the whole town of Radstock under one roof! It was a dynamic modernist style of building that would have looked more at home in post-war Coventry than in rural Somerset.
Despite any architectural misgivings for over fifty years as many of the branch stores closed this has been the anchor of the Society. In more recent times as well as totally refurbishing the superstore they have been once again been opening new branches growing from six to ten.
The Society's 1000 acre farm at Hardington on the outskirts of Frome also played its part after some very difficult trading conditions in the farming industry. Nowadays supermarket cheddar can come from anywhere in the world so here is a novelty, the milk from the farm goes to make Wyke Farm cheddar which supplies co-op stores across the country. Cheddar from Somerset who would believe it!
Today the Society is well grounded in its local communities and a staunch supporter of the Eat Somerset campaign being keen to support local suppliers by selling and showcasing their products which all helps to cut down on food miles.

Don Morris, CEO said, “We were really proud to gain the Social Enterprise Mark in 2010. We are committed to supporting local suppliers and helping our communities to thrive. We are determined to protect our independence so we can be responsive to local needs and react quickly to changing local conditions. We are not just in business to make money, but to serve our local communities."

At a meeting recently a friend whose wife owns a shop in Glastonbury that sells crystals and all sorts of new age stuff to those seeking the Arthurian experience said how delighted they where with the new Radstock Co-operative shop in the town.

So there you have it - at the end of the search for the Holy Grail is a Co-op shop.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Co-op Women and the White Peace Poppy.

The other day I picked up a couple of white poppies with the word Peace boldly displayed at their centre. I wondered at this time of remembrance if people realise that the White Poppy was first launched by the Co-operative Women’s Guild back in 1933.

The Guild with a proud record in campaigning for a peace began with a small ad in the Co-op News of April 13th, 1883.

It read:
'The Women's League for the spread of co-operation has begun. All who wish to join should write their name and address to Mrs. Acland, Fyfield Road, Oxford.'

Mrs Ackland edited the papers women’s pages and from such humble beginnings one of the most important working class women’s organisations of the twentieth century was born. A year later it had a change of name to the Co-operative Women’s Guild and by 1910 had 32,000 members.

What began as vehicle to spread the ideas of retail co-operation soon took on the wider concerns of working women. It was Guild pressure that ensured maternity benefits where included in the 1911 National Insurance Act. The Guild campaigned tirelessly both nationally and internationally for minimum wages and maternity benefits.

In April 1914 they were involved in an International Women's Congress at The Hague which passed a resolution totally opposing war:
this Conference is of opinion that the terrible method of war should never again be used to settle disputes between nations, and urge that a partnership of nations, with peace as its object, should be established and enforced by the people's will.”
What a pity that the men of Europe did not pay heed to their women! This was the beginning of the Guild's active peace work.

After the 1914-1918 war they sought to understand the social, political and economic conditions which gave rise to war and by 1921 their Congress called for the:
'Cessation of the provocative competition in armaments... revision of the Peace Treaties... purging politics and education of militarism in all its forms.... abolishing force as a remedy for social unrest.... eliminating private profit-making from the industrial system.'

In 1933 at its peak with a membership of 72,000 it launched the White Poppy as an alternative to the British Legions Red Poppy campaign. The red poppy had begun as a way of collecting funds for French war orphaned children and was taken over by the British Legion for the Haig Appeal. Many women who had lost husbands, brothers and sons in the First World War did not want to see Armistice Day used to make war acceptable.

Today of course when war is a matter of choice many people, particularly those in the media have no choice when it comes to the wearing of the red poppy and thereby inadvertently supporting war. No one is critical of those mourning lost loved ones but the theatrical use of the dead by politicians and the military as a justification for endless war lest their deaths be ‘in vain’ is despicable.

When we are not facing an existential threat it is more important than ever to remember all the victims of war. Sadly the number of civilians killed in wars, represented by the White Poppy, totally dwarfs the numbers of service personnel who are killed extending and defending “western interests”. In the First World War the overwhelming number of dead where combatant’s as warfare has evolved it is now largely fought by highly technologically equipped forces against civilians.
In the Iraq war less than 3,000 US service personnel died whilst according to the MIT Mortality Study the civilian death toll was over 650,000.

The fact we have to estimate the Iraqi dead because no cares enough to count them and record their names tells us why we should remember them. The White Poppy therefore has come to represent the true cost of modern warfare and those who are left out of the reckoning when it comes to the laying wreaths at the cenotaph.

The tradition of the White Poppy is kept alive today by the Peace Pledge Union founded by Canon Dick Shepperd. Dicks final appointment was at St Pauls cathedral so it obviously has a history of awkward priests. He was supported by notables such as the Methodist Donald Soper and Labour leader George Lansbury. The newly founded PPU joined with the Co-operative Women’s Guild in distributing the White Poppies and has done so ever since.

This year when Britain has been continuously at war for fifteen years the PPU will lay a wreath of white poppies at the Conscientious Objectors Memorial Stone in Tavistock Square on Remembrance Sunday at 12.30. They will be there to call for an end to war, to reflect on the misery caused by war and those who support it and be inspired by those individuals who have refused to take part in war whatever the consequences.

If you just want to obtain some White Poppies go to www.PPU.org.uk
The Co-op Women’s Guild hit the nail on the head back in 1921 there is still too much profit in war. Thankfully the Guild it is still going, still striving to make the world a better more co-operative place and now accepts individual membership see: www.cooperativewomensguild.coop

Peoples March for Jobs

I was heavily involved along with many others at Wolves Poly in the Peoples March for Jobs back in 1983 and just as all that stuff comes back again it was sad to hear of the death of old Tiptonian Pete Carter.Here is his Obituary from the Guardian:

Pete Carter obituary

Union leader who fought for the rights of construction workers by Jon Bloomfield The Guardian, Tuesday 25 October 2011,

Pete Carter, who has died aged 73 of lung cancer, was an idealistic, imaginative and effective leader of the construction workers' trade union Ucatt. He looked beyond the traditional labour movement to build wider alliances, notably around environmental values. The union's Midlands organiser from 1980, he worked with three TUC regional councils to mobilise the People's March for Jobs the following year. It sought broad support for alternatives to the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government, and evoked memories of the Jarrow March of October 1936.

A group of 280 marchers left Liverpool at the start of May 1981, local groups supported them en route, feeder marches from Yorkshire and South Wales joined in, and by the end of the month 150,000 unemployed people and trade unionists converged on Hyde Park in central London for a final rally. Pete was again to the fore when the Scottish TUC, Wales TUC and regional councils set about planning a second march in 1983, this time starting from Glasgow and involving a wider range of localities.

Public campaigning and winning new allies were Pete's strengths. He was less comfortable with the political in-fighting that he had to endure from 1984 as the Communist party of Great Britain's industrial organiser. Immediately he had to deal with Arthur Scargill's disastrous leadership of the miners' strike of 1984-85. When it was over, Pete and the CPGB's general secretary, Gordon McLennan, met to discuss how unity could be preserved among the miners with Scargill and Mick McGahey, and a furious row ensued.

By then, the civil war between the CPGB's eurocommunist and traditionalist wings had grown too deep to resolve. This made it impossible for Pete to transform labour-movement politics in the campaigning directions that he had envisaged, and in 1991 the party broke up. Pete returned to the building trade. Too principled to be attracted to New Labour, he found himself beached by Blairism.

Born in Tipton, near Dudley in the West Midlands, Pete was the eldest of five children of Ted and Mabel Carter, licensees of the Whitehall Tavern in Greets Green, West Bromwich. Unable to write when he left school at the age of 15, he became a skilled bricklayer, and in the late 1950s met Norma Harris, who was a huge influence on his political awakening. They married in 1962 and had two children, Sue and Mike.

By the mid-1960s, Pete was an enterprising national organiser of the Young Communist League. For one of the League's summer festivals, he booked the Kinks; during the Vietnam war, he organised support for the communist north with a Bikes for Vietnam campaign; and when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, he expressed fierce opposition. The Stalinist old guard hated him for the next quarter of a century as he made the case through campaigning and action for the modernisation of the labour movement and linking up with new social movements.

In the early 1970s, as a shop steward on Bryant Estates sites in the Midlands, he and other communist militants succeeded in abolishing the "lump" casual labour system, improved wage rates and working conditions, and attracted enormous publicity through occupying the Rotunda site in Birmingham. Construction News magazine called the agreement with Bryant "a watershed in industrial relations in the building industry".

I recall a packed meeting in West Bromwich town hall in autumn 1979, when Pete was convenor – senior shop steward – of Sandwell council's direct labour organisation. Through a haze of cigarette smoke on stage, he lambasted management and called for an all-out strike. Suddenly, oratory turned to song, as he belted out a few verses of That Old Black Magic.

Pete persuaded workers on building sites to take down pin-ups from the canteen wall, and to buy copies of Robert Tressell's The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists from the boot of his car. Inspired by the "green bans" – industrial action in support of environmental aims – pioneered by the Australian builders' leader Jack Mundey, he saved Birmingham's Victoria Square post office through a dynamic campaign including demonstrations and construction-site crane occupations. Permission to demolish the post office was granted in 1973, and five years later it was reprieved, as was much of the rest of Victorian Birmingham.

His love life was turbulent: his marriage ended in separation in 1977, and Norma died 10 years later. Long-term relationships with Val and Jude followed, along with shorter affairs. In his final years, Pete lived on a canal boat in the West Midlands. He is survived by his children.

• Peter Edward Carter, trade unionist, political organiser and environmentalist, born 8 July 1938; died 11 October 2011

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Housing the Working Class

One of the most import buildings in the Midlands stands in the Worcestershire countryside. It is in the ownership of the National Trust but is not a stately home or a castle but a small workers cottage. It is called Rosedene and it is in Dodford, just three miles west of Bromsgrove in Worcestershire.

Great Dodford was the last development by the great Chartist Co-operative Land Society set up in 1845 to settle working class families on small plots of land. It was hoped that from a couple of acres a family could make a reasonable income. Chartist leader Fergus O’Conner had bought 273 acres, land of the former Dodford Priory, and hoped to settle seventy families there.

O’Conner’s plan had two objectives one was to ensure that working class people could qualify for the vote as there was a property threshold in 1832 Reform Act the other was the romance of a return to the land for those trapped in inner city slums.

Needless to say a combination of mixed objectives, poor organisation, a ruling class keen to ensure it would not work together with a “lying and slandering press” (not of course something we are familiar with) meant the project was not in the end a success. 70,000 shares had been sold in the Land Society and then properties where to be distributed by ballot amongst the shareholders.

In 1848, the House of Commons established a Select Committee to decide the fate of the Chartist Land Company, by then known as the National Land Company which had got into financial difficulties. As most of the shareholders had little or no chance of being allocated a smallholding it was deemed to be a lottery and therefore its registration as a company was declared illegal.

Fortunately this was not the end of Co-operative Housing in Worcestershire as today the largest provider of new build co-op homes in the country is not so very far away from Dodford in the new town of Redditch.
Redditch Co-op Homes manage nearly 300 properties in the town including apartments, houses and bungalows to suit varied needs, from young single people and families to older retired people.

Indeed across the West Midlands the Co-op housing model is getting a new lease of life. Carl Taylor, former manager at Redditch Homes, is now the Director of Birmingham Co-operative Housing Services part of the Accord Group of Housing Associations. BCHS provides management services for nine housing co-ops in the West Midlands and since 1997 have developed over fifty co-op and community controlled housing projects. Carl makes a powerful case that the current housing crisis is forcing everyone to look again at housing co-ops.

“We have to be innovative about how we finance new social housing developments”, he says “and working co-operatively to spread the investment risk is becoming an attractive option.”

Whilst Carl recognises that Fergus O,Conner may have got the details wrong in Dodford his legacy is still important, “co-operative housing is still just as much about political empowerment as it is about putting a roof over working class families heads”, he says. In the last few months even this government has come around to seeing the benefits of investing in housing co-ops. The latest bid round from the Homes and Communities Agency has brought some success to the region with three new Co-operative developments being supported creating a £26 million pound Co-operative House building programme.

“This is the largest Co-operative Housing development programme in the West Midlands since the 1980’s,”says Carl, “new Co-operative developments will take place in Redditch, Darlaston and Charlemont Farm in the Black Country and Garretts Green in Birmingham. This will see the building of at least 260 new homes”.

These developments will be a powerful advertisement for the co-operative housing model but Carl is ambitious for the co-operative housing sector. He has seen the impact of the co-op model in empowering communities, helping people gain confidence and improve their life chances. For him this is just the beginning the search is on to develop new ways of financing co-op housing. With interest rates at an all time low there is the potential for new housing bonds to give a steady return to potential investors.

“Rosedene in Dodford is a simple building but it really is very beautiful”, says Carl, “and as part of a community it embodies the hope that everyone can have a decent place to live where they can feel at home. We really have to try every avenue if we are to be the generation to finally fulfil O’Conners dream”.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Co-op's and the Jobs Crisis

You would think that at a time when unemployment is once again inflicting untold damage on a new generation that any government would leave no stone unturned in getting people into work.

There is a sector that has continued to grow through the downturn, has outperformed UK economic growth every year since the 2008 banking collapse, is continuing to grow with the performance gap widening and is also expanding fastest in the new parts of the economy crucial for future economic development like renewable energy and environmental services.

It is a particularly resilient sector with new start ups out lasting their conventional competitors by a significant margin. A growing sector with a £33.2billion turnover employing over 236,000 people. Yet it is all but invisible when it comes to politicians and so called opinion formers.

That is of course the co-operative sector. Today there is so much interest in forming co-ops that the small number of co-op business advisors is overwhelmed by the demand. The movement has itself risen to the challenge the UK’s largest co-op, the Co-operative Group will by 2013 have ploughed £11 million into providing a specialist support and advice package to help new and existing co-op’s to become more sustainable businesses.

The service provided through the Co-operative Enterprise Hub puts those needing advice in contact with co-operative development specialists throughout the UK to enable them to access free advice, training and consultancy. The package can also include loans without security or personal guarantees.

Now this is a significant effort and clearly the Co-operative Group are fulfilling one of the key co-op principles that of co-operation amongst co-operatives. Many other co-ops help in similar ways like Lincoln and Midcounties. But we have to be honest and admit that this terrific effort on the part of the movement is scratching the surface of the potential for new co-op start-ups.

The fact is just one in every three thousand new business start-ups is a co-op! There are two main reasons for this. Firstly the chance of finding a business advisor who has any idea about co-op’s is decidedly slim.

There are some very good advisors out there in my own region we are blessed with the Coventry and Warwickshire Co-operative Development agency and the Gloucester based Co-operative Futures. But that is your lot so they have to cover a huge area with tiny staff numbers.

If that is not bad enough some mainstream business advisors are less than helpful and do their best to steer potential co-operators down the limited company route because that is all they understand and the registration process is simpler.

Which highlights the other reason - the sheer complexity of the regulatory environment new co-operative society’s face. New co-op start-ups have to be compliant with nineteen separate pieces of legislation! This is a tough ask when a group of people are taking a risk setting up of a new business. Co-operatives UK help with the process of registration ensuring that the cost is no more than establishing a limited company. This is very important as any error in registration can create huge problems further down the line.

Now after thirteen years of a Labour Government the fact that the co-operative movement has had to resort to winning piecemeal changes to legislation through very hard-won private members bills is a disgrace. Sadly this is what you get when the ruling party is in thrall to the monopolistic corporate sector. A sector which despite the rhetoric fears genuine competition.

The fact is that there is no chance of the corporate sector filling the huge gap in our economy being caused by the senseless attack on the public sector. Yet despite the governments myopia with a relatively modest level of public support we could double the number of co-ops in the UK in a short amount of time creating thousands of new businesses and many thousands of new jobs.

As well as start ups there is another untapped source of new co-operative businesses and that is the conversion of owner managed businesses. These types of businesses often face succession problems when the founder comes up to retirement. When there is no son or daughter with the skills or desire to take on the firm it can lead to closure or a painful acquisition by a competitor. Now the obvious successors are the workers but making this a genuine prospect requires education and support.

There is a considerable body of evidence that such transfers work well after all the John Lewis model that the government are always going on about (even if drawing the wrong lessons) was a successful transfer out of family ie private into workers ownership. Other examples of successful employee owned firms include the architects and consulting engineers, Arup Group, paper and board manufacturers, Tullis Russell and chemical makers, Scott Bader.

If the government was really committed to co-operative enterprise it would not be merely trying to pass off public sector privatisation as co-op development but would be just as enthusiastic about turning private firms into co-ops. Be in no doubt as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett point out in their wonderful book the Spirit Level it is worth the effort. A country with a larger co-op sector would be a better place for all of us to live in.

Interested in starting a new co-op?

Go to www.co-operative.coop/enterprisehub

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Not all Bankers are Bad!

Whilst discussing bankers makes most people’s blood boil there is one bank that has quietly got on with delivering a good service to its customers without engaging in the kind of reckless activities that have bought the global economy to its knees. You may have missed its half yearly figures buried in the overall performance of the Co-operative Group. Despite the overall performance of the Co-op Group at the half year stage not being much to write home about, with the integration of Somerfield still causing issues in the Food Division, the Co-op Banks half year results whilst not spectacular did show steady improvement. The operating results are up a respectable 20% to £131 million and the steady increase in new account holders since the financial crash goes on with a 73% increase. The Bank gained 56,000 new customers (and therefore Co-op Group Members) in the half year.
The benefits of the Britannia merger are also now beginning to show with better savings products and this month Co-op Bank current account customers have access to an extra 245 branches as baking services are available in the Britannia outlets. These branches now offer Co-op Bank customers full access to everyday banking services, including paying in cash and cheques, withdrawing cash and making transfers to Co-op credit cards and Britannia savings accounts.
This more than trebles the number of available branches from 97 to 342. This is at a time when, according to the Campaign for Community Banking, 1,000 local communities have been left without a single bank branch.
It also seems that the Co-op Bank is the last credible bidder for the 630 branches that the Lloyds Banking Group, is being forced to sell under European Union rules on state bail-outs. And there is pressure from the Independent Commission on Banking for them to sell more than that. If successful this would be a huge increase in their branch coverage.
The lack of branches is something which many feel has slowed down their growth. Despite the huge growth in online banking, in which Smile the Co-ops own online service is a market leader, many customers still want access however infrequently to a bank branch.
Currently the Bank is a Money Which? Recommended Provider for current accounts, savings, credit cards and car insurance and its current account scores a high customer satisfaction rating of 86%. I have always found that there is an anti-co-op bias in Which? So this is praise indeed.
The real test of the benefits of the Banks development will be felt at the end of this year when the £729 million investment in new internal processes backed up with state of the art information technology should deliver a new business wide banking IT platform. This is being rolled out in stages. Last year saw the new online business banking facility and later this year the payments hub will go live. These new systems will give the Bank the most up to date and flexible back office systems around, increase their capacity and will enable the new merged organization to offer a totally integrated service to its customers.

It is wise I think to roll out such an enormous program in stages. I don’t think there has been any new large scale project that has work perfectly first time. There are always glitches and bugs in software systems that you have to operate the system to find.

To even be talking about such an enormous investment is amazing. The transformation of the Co-op Bank is remarkable. Just a few years ago to find a co-op bank outlet you would have had to find your way to a dusty corner of a Co-op shop just to gain access to a fairly rudimentary banking service. Yet today the Bank is a market leader in new products and customer service. There is no doubt that it has lead the rejuvenation of the Co-operative brand. The bank has long been the only Bank that consults its customers on its ethical policies and this year those Ethical policies will be extended to the £1bn of investments underpinning key insurance products.
Since the Ethical Policy was introduced in 1992, The Co-operative Bank has with held over £1billion of funding from business activities that its customers say are unethical. Having such a strong ethical stance has not however been bad for business because at the same time it has increased its commercial lending sixteen fold to almost £9 billion. This year the Bank has also strengthened its green credentials by extending its commercial lending in the area of energy efficiency and renewables from £400m to £1bn.
One group of people who have benefited from the Banks expansionary mood is UNISON members. The union’s members who switch to the Banks Current Account Plus before the end of the month will receive a benefit of £100 cash back, plus the Bank will make a £50 donation to UNISON Welfare charity in return for a minimum monthly deposit of £800.
Since the partnership between the Bank and Unison began the Bank has given more than £1.3 million to UNISON Welfare from financial products linked to the union.
UNISON members have until the end of the month to take advantage of this offer and the full terms and conditions can be found at www.britannia.co.uk/unison, or calling 0800 917 7066, or by visiting any one of The Co-operative Bank or Britannia branches.
They say you are more likely to get divorced than to change your bank account but nothing could be simpler and what’s more if they make any mistakes you are generously compensated. I know the Co-op Bank is still a bank and we all have a downer on banks at the moment but here is one way we can all be co-operators even if you are miles from a shop!

Friday, 16 September 2011

Sports fans, Spectators or Supporters?

There has been much debate about the Morning Stars sports coverage. As a small circulation paper with a mission to promote socialist ideas should it dedicate so much space to mainstream sport? As someone who believes in the cultural importance of sport I see this as an important debate. I confess, I love county cricket, indeed the more meaningless the fixture the more I like it! I am also an ecumenical rugby fan enjoying League as much as Union. I have however fallen out of love with modern football. This is a complex issue and is perhaps something to do with the way football culture has become ubiquitous elevating players into celebrities.

I suspect it is because I don’t much like the people who play the game who despite their working class origins have become in the immortal words of Jonathan Meades, a “bespoke cast of gladiatorial yob-gods, wag-roasting Croesus kids, who once a week descend from their Parnassian blingsteads to run around for 90 golden minutes of bravura vanity”.

As the great CLR James pointed out when he said “What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?” The social, political and economic context of sport is crucial to its understanding. My belief is that the role that football plays in our society has not changed as much as Sky television would like us to think. After all in English Journey, his account of a tour of the country in 1933, J.B. Priestley describes a game between Notts County and Notts Forest:

“Nearly everything possible has been done to spoil this game; the heavy financial interests; the absurd transfer and player selling system; the lack of any birth or residential qualification for the players; the betting and coupon competitions; the absurd publicity given to every feature of it by the Press; the monstrous partisanship of the crowds (with their idiotic cries of ‘play the game Ref’ when any decision against their side is given); but the fact remains that it is not yet spoilt and it has gone out to conquer the world.”

Well it has most certainly conquered the world but what I believe has changed since 1933 is not the game itself after all one of the reasons for its success is that it is fairly simple. What has changed is the role of the spectator. Are you just to sit in our arm chairs as a Sky subscriber as if it watching a soap opera? Is the spectator to be a mere consumer or is the role of the fan to be more than just cheerleader?

This is the key question being tackled by Supporters Direct the organisation that seeks to promote sustainable spectator sports clubs based on supporters' involvement & community ownership. Since they were formed in 2000 they have changed the nature of the debate about who owns our sports clubs.

One of the shortlisted candidates for Co-operative of the Year at this year’s Co-op Congress was to give it its full title The Exeter City AFC Supporters’ Society Limited, which as an Industrial and Provident Society (IPS) is a bona fide co-op and is the owner of Exeter City. I have to say when we saw how much they were able to do in their community from the base of the football club I was bowled over.
FC United of Manchester have shown what can be done from a standing start raising over a £1million in their community share issue towards the new ground planned to be at Moston. Fan owned clubs are on a roll. Many will be watching AFC Wimbledon back in the football league after their club was kidnapped and taken to Milton Keynes. I will be watching Telford United back in the Blue Square Premier after being rescued by their Supporters Trust. Indeed Telford is a hot bed of co-operation with the local ice hockey team the Telford Tigers being the only co-operative owned team in the national ice hockey league.

Supporters Direct have a proud record with 150 Trusts at clubs up and down the country bringing £25million of new finance into football alone, with 26 clubs now in Trust ownership and 110 having shareholdings in their clubs. This trend I believe can only go one way. With the greatest club in the world, Barcelona, being in fan ownership what better advertisement for this model could there be?
But it is not just football, in Rugby League there are now supporters owned clubs such as Rochdale Hornets and Hunslett. Many cricket clubs too are in co-operative ownership, including Surrey, Lancashire and Glamorgan which all feature in the UK’s top 100 Co-ops.

Modern fans can be more than just passive supporters and fan ownership has to be the way forward after all who is more committed to a club and more hungry for success than its fans? Who are the only people who can be trusted to stick with a club through thick and thin when the sugar daddies that see clubs as trophy assets bringing them status lose interest or go bust!
I hope our sports coverage can cover more of the political-economy of sport. Ownership really does matter. Who is profiting from the business of sport? And to those who think this is OK for the minor league clubs but not for the Premier League giants - remember when the banks where too big to fail?

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Fellowship is heaven

Review Essay

The Story of HF Holidays by Harry Wroe
Published by HF Holidays 2007

Voices of Wortley Hall, The Story of “Labour’s Home”, 1951-2011 by John Cornwell
Published by Wortley Hall, 2011

These are amongst that substantial library of celebratory self published co-operative society histories but none the worse for that. HF Holidays can trace its lineage back over a century whilst at sixty Wortley Hall is just a youngster. They have in common the quest for working class educational holidays.

The Holiday Fellowship (now HF Holidays) was registered as an Industrial and Provident Society in 1913 when it was a fundamentalist breakaway from the Co-operative Holiday Association (CHA) formed in 1897. The origins of the CHA can be found in the teachings of Dr. J.B. Paton, principal of the Nottingham Congregational Institute, who believed that,

“The wealth of a country does not consist in the number or exchangeable value of its agricultural or manufactured or artistic products,
so much as in the strength and intelligence and virtue of the men and women whom it rears.”

Paton was born in Galston in Ayrshire in 1830, where his father had been a hand-loom weaver before becoming the manager of the town’s co-operative store. He was an advocate of the National Home Reading Union (NHRU) dedicated to spreading adult literacy and his teaching inspired Thomas Arthur Leonard, originally from Stoke Newington, who trained at the Institute for the congregational ministry. He began his ministry in Barrow before moving to Colne his preaching at Colne lead to the formation of the Co-operative Holiday Association, from amongst NHRU members, his sermon at the Dockray Congregational Church on the theme of “The philosophy of holiday making” was reported in the Colne and Nelson Times of Friday August 7th 1891.

Driven by a spirit of temperance and Christian Socialism he felt the workers of Colne deserved to escape the usual trips to Blackpool or Morecombe with their “perverse or corrupt conceptions of life and conduct”. To this end he formed a rambling club which, in June 1891, took thirty participants to Ambleside, in the Lake District. These became annual affairs attracting large numbers using properties belonging to the NHRU and their supporters. In 1894 a committee was elected with Leonard as General Secretary and in 1896 they acquired their first property in Whitby. Then in 1897 they formalised the loose organisation as the Co-operative Holiday Association although co-operative in name it does not appear to have been a formal co-operative.

By 1913 the CHA had grown to eighteen centres but despite its working class origins it had become “rather middle class in spirit and conservative in ideas”. It had gained support from rich industrialists such as Sir William Mather of the Manchester firm Mather and Platt who helped “balance the books”. Leonard wanted to return to the idea of “strenuous and simple” holidays and the Holiday Fellowship was born and a headquarters was acquired at Bryn Corach at Conwy in North Wales, purchased for £5,096, quite a sum in 1914, and in HF hands until the end of 2010.

Not the best year to form a working class holiday organisation holidays started at Easter 1914. A week at Conwy would set you back 32s 6d with an extra 4s6d for the walking excursions. It is quite remarkable that despite two world wars, a depression and huge social upheavals the Holiday Fellowship is approaching its centenary in rude health. The basic idea has remained the same throughout.

The development of HF follows a common co-operative trajectory. Firstly you need a charismatic individual or small group who see a clear market opportunity that requires more than a commercial rational i.e. it has to be driven by more than the pursuit of profit. Co-operative businesses often grow out of strong communities and this is clearly the case here. Leonard was certainly charismatic he also had a role in the formation of the Youth Hostels Association and with Canon Rawnsley in the Lake District the early years of the National Trust.

He had a Whitmanite approach to the natural world and with his advocacy of ‘rational dress’ for women when out walking on the fells was ahead of his time. All successful co-operative societies need active members and the model the Holiday Fellowship employed of having a system of leaders ensured member engagement. They are a key group of volunteers who act as walking guides but also carry the culture of HF holidays out amongst the wider membership. That culture was for a very long time rather Spartan, it is perhaps no coincidence that before the First World War Leonard became a Quaker and the Quaker value of simplicity was certainly reflected in the business.

This model also helped keep the costs down, fresh air and walking are not expensive commodities but over the decades a major change in customer expectations has taken place. This was tackled by another key co-operative issue - the employment in the enterprise of professional management. Properties have had to be modernised and assets have had to be turned over. Unlike the CHA which changed its name to Countrywide in 1964 continuing as an association of walkers but selling its holiday operations to commercial operators.

HF has in modern times after a couple of sticky patches managed both to take on professional management including using modern marketing techniques including the innovative use of the internet and to renew the business model by a strong return to co-operative values and principles. Leonard who was also a strong internationalist, represented by having a centre in Germany as early as 1914, would approve of the current brochure (2011) of 236 pages covering the 16 UK HF centres but also including holidays in every part of the world from Japan to Peru.

This has been achieved according to the current Chief Executive, Brian Smith, by strengthening the co-operative nature of the business and making membership more than just a loyalty scheme - by making member ownership a reality. This strategy has included a significant increase in member communications and in their role as investors in the business.

This takes me onto Wortley Hall and the things they could perhaps learn from the renewal of the mission of HF holidays. The story of Wortley Hall is also that of the vision of one man, Vin Williams (1893-1970). He had been a lecturer with the National Council of Labour Colleges. The NCLC had grown out of the Central Labour College which had been created following the strike at Ruskin College and the formation of the ‘Plebs’ league in 1908. What the Plebs had realised is that,

“If the education of the workers is to square with the ultimate object of the workers – social emancipation – then it is necessary that the control of any such an educational institution must be in the hands of the workers.”

This principle was very important to Williams who whilst having been imprisoned during the General Strike for sedition was an ecumenical socialist, embracing, Trade Union, Labour Party and Co-operative views. His son, who he named Lenin, known as Len, recalls that he “saw himself as member of the whole Labour movement.” Black listed after the General Strike, after many attempts to make a living including a period of bankruptcy he had become a lecturer in the NCLC.

William’s NCLC district covered Sheffield and the North Midlands and he ran schools across the region, mainly in hotels and when he saw Wortley Hall he realised its potential as a permanent home for workers educational holidays. Friends in the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU), Mick Shaw and Alf Hague came to see the derelict building that Williams was raving about. Williams used every contact he had in the Labour Movement to get support for the Hall bringing together representatives of the AEU, FBU, NUM, USDAW, NUR, Co-op Party and Labour Party in 1951 to establish a committee with Harry Johnson, AEU full time official as Chair and himself as secretary. The first years rent was just £50 which just shows how derelict it was.

Williams spent a considerable amount of time fund raising around the labour movement. The story of how he assembled a huge army of volunteer skilled labour, needed for restoration, has become part of the Wortley Hall folklore. The hall was opened by Sir Frank Soskice MP KC in front of “3,000 rain drenched enthusiasts”. That year the syllabus of lectures at the Hall could be booked through your trade union branch or through Co-op Travel Services. The link with the Co-operative movement was very important, the first treasurer Bill Robinson was manager of the Co-op Bank in Sheffield, and until 1994 when they moved to Unity Trust, the Halls finances were a part of the Co-op Bank manger’s job description.

The Hall had been established as an Industrial and Provident Society in 1952 and took its part in the Co-op Union and Co-op Party. It was sadly an incident with the Co-op bank that bought Williams involvement with the Hall to an end. The purchase of some new furniture in 1958 saw Williams’s signature on the cheques. As he was an un-discharged bankrupt the Bank refused to honour the cheque. Other members of the management committee could sign cheques but he could not he was mortally offended that his integrity had been questioned and he left the Hall never to return.

This was a sad end to his engagement with the Hall as he had done all the hard work, taking the Hall through the period when visitors had to bring their ration books and a visit to Wortley was “the socialist equivalent of a week at Butlins”. Williams had gained the engagement of different parts of the Labour movement by getting them to sponsor the various “wings” of the building named after hero’s from different parts of the movement, Robert Owen, Keir Hardie, Tom Mann and George Lansbury.

Williams was succeeded by Alf Hague, a very different character; involved since 1950 and he was a long standing member of the Communist Party who the author points out saw themselves as the “sea-green in-corruptibles.” He shaped the Hall for the next thirty years. His first challenge was to purchase the Hall outright from the Wharncliffe family who where facing considerable death duties. He managed to buy the Hall outright for £10,000 by October 1959.

For years the model worked well with Trade Union and political schools and working class holiday weeks. They generated record surpluses, which thanks to the Co-op Bank connection were wisely invested. By 1970 the building had been Grade II listed and by 1976 the Historic Buildings Council valued the Hall and its 27 acres of grounds at £3.75 million.

However following its 25th anniversary celebrations the cracks began to appear in its offering. They had opened part of the building as a working-mens club which generated considerable revenue but had closed the share-register in 1962 as they felt they had enough “owners” and it was not fully opened again for twenty years. As tastes changed the Hall had become dated this came to a head when following the tough year of 1983 the FBU demanded improvements. Alf Hague was cautious, he saw improvements that some advocated as self-indulgence and had built the business generating considerable surpluses but his frugal style was out of the fashion of the times.

Eventually it was realised that if the Hall was to renew its purpose for a new era he would have to go. His successor in 1991 was Brian Clarke who saw through a complete change in the basis of operations despite a huge financial black hole opening up. For the trade union movement these were difficult times with a fundamental change in working class culture. In 1994 they renewed their links with the wider Labour movement by hosting the now annual South Yorkshire Festival in the grounds of the Hall. This has been followed by a steady up grading of the offer to the point in 2005 when they appointed their first professional hotel and catering manager.

In the last decade the gardens as well as the Hall have undergone considerable restoration, the restoration of the stained glass windows cost £35,000, the fountain was restored, the house gained four stars from the English Tourist Board, and the gardens gained the gold award from Yorkshire in bloom. Even the kitchen garden came back into use with organic status generating 4 tonnes of produce in 2010.

The first conference in the Hall in 1951 was of the British Federation of Young Co-operators many of the participants ended up having significant political careers like Ted Graham, later National secretary of the Co-op Party and MP and Betty Boothroyd who famously became the first women speaker of the House of Commons. Last year thirty four organisations had conferences in the Hall and despite the fact the Hall continues to provide a space for working class education it has also proven itself as a four star country house hotel.

Today the debate within the Co-operative movement about Co-operative education is very much alive. Can genuine co-operative education take place in mainstream institutions or do we need independent co-operative spaces for co-operative education to take place? If spaces like Wortley Hall are to survive and prosper then there is a responsibility for the Hall to engage with the whole movement and the whole movement to engage with it.

In many ways the arguments of Vin Williams and the “Plebs” are unresolved. It maybe that the transmission of culture is as important as formal education and perhaps that is what Wortley Hall could learn from the Holiday Fellowship. After all as William Morris said:

“Fellowship is heaven, and lack of fellowship is hell: fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death: and the deeds ye do upon the earth, it is for fellowship’s sake that ye do them”.

Amazon Booksellers

“Go on living while you may, striving with whatsoever pain and labour needs must be, to build up little by little the new day of fellowship, rest and happiness. If others can see as I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather than a dream.”
William Morris, News from Nowhere, 1891.

What a buzz at Co-op Congress a real sense that now is time for a greater role for the co-operative movement in the economy. The co-operative retail sector is gaining confidence, there are new co-ops springing up every day and the movement is weathering the recession better than private business.

I thought I was in a dream when, as a bookaholic, I entered the congress exhibition but that vision turned out to be the News from Nowhere bookstall. With Sara and Sal making everyone welcome it quickly became the place to hang out, supping excellent fair-trade Revolver coffee and chewing the fat over all matters co-operative, whilst browsing the stalls splendidly eclectic stock. It also had the edge as the place to pick up your free copy of the Morning Star kindly provided by Birmingham Readers and Supporters Group.

This was NfN’s first time at Co-op Congress but they are no strangers to co-op bookselling. May Day 1974 saw them first open their doors on Liverpool’s Manchester Street. Three moves later they are at 96 Bold Street in a 5-storey building owned by the workers co-operative as a not-for-profit community business. It has been run as a women’s collective for thirty years providing women with their first experience of running a business, building up their skills and confidence in bookselling, retail and accounts.

They try to put their values into practice with all staff receiving equal pay rates and collective decision making – no boss here! You could write the recent radical history (or perhaps herstory!) of Liverpool from those who have passed through their doors. Always more than a bookshop, the children’s area has toys and a comfy chair for tired or breastfeeding mums; many lesbians and gay men have found it a welcoming place when first “coming out” and numerous campaigns have found support here; Troops Out, Reclaim The Night, Striking Miners, Greenham Women and the Liverpool Dockers have all been welcomed.

They have strong local links with initiatives such as Sahir House, Black History Month, Africa Oye, Liverpool Friends of Palestine, the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, as well as refugee and women’s groups. Countless conferences have had their horizons expanded by a NfN bookstall. And where else in Liverpool can you celebrates, Chinese New Year, Martin Luther King Day, International Women’s Day, Jewish Book Week, St Patrick’s Day, Pride Week, Hiroshima Day, World Aids Day & Kwanzaa?

Anti-war from Vietnam to Iraq they have always been ahead of the curve on difficult issues even boycotting Barclays bank cheques during apartheid days. Over the years they have been called alternative, radical, feminist and now community so whilst their vocabulary has improved their values have remained stubbornly constant - to provide access to books and information on the reality of the world and how to change it and ourselves for the better.

They must be doing something right as they recently had a visit from the English Defence League. The EDL thugs more than met their match, back in the 80’s, the shop suffered a spate of arson attacks form racist groups and is more than capable of looking after itself with the support of its many friends in the City.

The EDL must have been attracted by their 30th Birthday Celebrations which ran under the banner of – “We are All Immigrants” – making the simple case that we all come from somewhere and showing solidarity with the City’s latest wave of migrants. Today they are Liverpool’s main independent bookshop, carrying a significant range of World Music and a selection of the weekly radical press. As there is only ONE left wing daily they make sure their local newsagent has a stock of the Morning Star. They take pride in helpful customer service and highly efficient ordering facilities, which have generated strong links with local universities and colleges.

In a world of the internet and multinational corporate chains, an independent, grassroots co-operative could struggle to compete, and serious difficulties with dilapidated buildings, ruthless landlords, and fierce competition have had to be overcome but News From Nowhere has shown what can be achieved by dedicated workers, with over 60 years bookselling experience between them and determined community support for a vital resource.

Now you don’t have to live in Liverpool to be part of that community they now have a super on line service which can supply pretty much any book in print so if you see a book reviewed in the Star and you wonder where you can get it simply go to: www.newsfromnowhere.org.uk and you can get your books from Amazons!

Monday, 20 June 2011

Summer of Co-op Celebration

Last year saw the very first co-operative fortnight. They say that imitation is the best form of flattery and that was the way Ed Mayo the new Director General saw it when in introducing Co-ops Fortnight he sought to emulate the success the fair-trade movement had achieved in raising its profile with “Fairtrade Fortnight”.
Last years Co-ops fortnight certainly helped raise the profile of the co-operative business model at a time when greater clarity and understanding was clearly required. At the time a day did not seem to go by without a Condem politician bandying the “John Lewis Model” about without any clear understanding of what the model actually amounts to.
This year Co-operatives UK aims to go one further with Co-op fortnight (something of an elastic term - 25th June to 9th July) by launching a petition with the aim of getting 100,000 signatures and thereby securing a parliamentary debate. The issue that the Co-operative movement is raising is the importance of wider ownership. The gap between rich and poor is once again widening. Today half of the UK population own just one percent of the nation’s wealth when a generation ago they owned 12 per cent.
Unlike bankers bonuses sharing ownership with workers consumers and residents spreading ownership and wealth is both good for the economy and for society. So this year Co-operatives UK is calling upon the Government to encourage firms to share profits with, staff, customers and the communities they serve. To promote the community ownership of key local amenities like village shops and local pubs and to enable people to take action on housing, arts, sport, land, finance and green energy and to create a level playing field by removing the legal barriers that make establishing a co-operative business more difficult than a private company.
Of course this is just the beginning public understanding of the co-operative business model is to say the least poor so this is just the beginning of a process of making the model better understood and better appreciated. Of course the co-op model is not suitable for every type of business or service but there is no doubt that the sector could be a great deal larger than it currently is.
Even many people who engage with a co-operative everyday do not always appreciate the benefits of the co-op model. Not something I would hope that could be said of Morning Star readers. As we enter the cycle of the annual meetings of the Peoples Press Printing Society it is worth remembering that the co-operative structure the Daily Worker adopted in 1945 to widen the ownership of the paper has served the business well.
Since it was formed as an Industrial and Provident Society there have certainly been enormous changes in newspaper publishing, not all of them for the better, but the Society has with the support of its members held firm providing a legal structure and a sound basis for publishing a daily newspaper in the most challenging of environments.
A huge number of publishing businesses that have fallen by the wayside over this period and they were not trying to carve out a special political space in support of the working class movement and its allies. It is tough to produce a daily paper when having the backing of millionaire proprietors and large scale commercial advertisers but to do it, with only the support of the Labour movement and its readers, is I think an immense challenge that successive workers and management have faced with tremendous fortitude and one that readers should never take for granted.
I know that for me the Morning Star, as the paper has been since 1966, is a daily voice of sanity in a mad world. It was sixty five years ago that at a huge gathering in the Albert Hall London bus workers leader Bill Jones handed the formal document of transfer of the Peoples Press Printing Society to Bill Rust. An early shareholder, taking the then £200 maximum, was none other than George Bernard Shaw. Soon the Society had twenty thousand shareholders including 266 trade union organisations and 45 co-operatives.
Sadly in fit of sectarianism the Co-operative Union refused the paper membership on the spurious grounds that it might be in competition with the Co-operative Press! Well I am glad to say, as a Director of Co-operatives UK, the modern day successor to the Co-op Union, that The PPPS is now a member and able to take its place with all the other co-operatives at Co-operative Congress.
I hope the PPPS will take its place at this years Co-op Congress from 24-26 June in Birmingham. I very much hope the PPPS will be represented and will share with other co-operators the lessons it has learnt over the years and pass on some advice to younger co-ops the secret of its resilience.
Today the Morning Star shines brighter than ever and that is due in no small part to the work of the members of the Peoples Press Printing Society, both individuals and organisations and their elected representatives on the management committee who have worked behind to scenes to keep the Star, the only daily newspaper owned by its readers, shining!

For more information about Co-op Congress go to: www.uk.co-op/congress and for details of the petition go to www.uk.coop/yourstoshare

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

150 years of Kropotkin's Footnote!

Lincoln Co-operative Society Celebrates its 150th Anniversary.

Sadly the Lincoln Equitable Co-operative Society only rates a footnote in the second edition of that old anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin’s seminal book, Fields, Factories and Workshops. This is the book in which Kroptkin laments the fact that; “Under the pretext of division of labour, we have sharply separated the brain worker from the manual worker”.
Originally published in 1898 alongside the Conquest of Bread and Mutual Aid it is one of Kropotkin’s most important works. In it he talks of a new “mutualist” venture – the Lincoln Equitable Co-operative Society. So here we have it, 1898 and the Lincoln Co-op is already making waves.
Founded in 1861 by a joiner from Gainsborough, Thomas Parker, it began trading from 1, Napoleon Place, Lincoln, in September 1861, wisely “goods where sold for ready money only”. After the first quarter they had 74 members and paid out a dividend of 9 old pence!
The society’s mission was the “domestic, social and intellectual advancement of its members” so in 1876, they established an Education Committee and having raised £18 from concerts and readings opened a free reading room twenty years before Lincoln’s first public library.
Lincolnshire Co-operative Society today has expanded across the county and into Newark in Nottinghamshire. This year the Society celebrates its 150th anniversary with a slightly larger membership - 198,000 - who last year received a dividend payment of £4.3million.
With sales of £278 million, a trading surplus of over £20million, two hundred outlets from food stores, pharmacies, post offices, home stores, travel agents, coffee shops, florists, a car dealership, funerals and even their own a bakery. This I suppose at least ensures the conquest of bread.
In the report to members in 1863 the Society told them to “Have faith in the lovely principle of co-operation and cast your mountain of woe into the sea”. Today faced with the retailing juggernauts of the big five supermarkets the performance of Lincoln Society is even more remarkable than it was in Kropotkin’s day.
For a regional consumer retail society to consistently deliver such staggering results for the community it serves and its members is more than remarkable. The Society is staunchly committed co-operative principles as well as fair trade and to local sourcing. They have a real commitment to local produce and it’s not just Lincolnshire sausage and Lincolnshire poacher cheese. They sell a large range of local sourced foods supporting local producers and cutting down on food miles.
The society established and continues to support the Lincolnshire Co-operative Development Agency which offers business support across the county. The 150th Anniversary gives the Society much to reflect on indeed for the 50th anniversary in 1911 a history was written by the then secretary Duncan McInnes and in 1961 a centenary history was written by Frank Buckshaw and Duncan McNab. The 150th will not be an exception and former Director Alan Middleton is writing a new history of the Society.
Lincoln has always been fiercely independent and is deeply embedded into its local community is it any wonder when last year it shared £132,000 amongst 1500 Lincolnshire groups and charities. This year to mark the anniversary their big birthday award means they will be sharing £500,000 with 150 local good causes – there you have some genuine mutual aid!
But do not think it is all looking backwards. Lincoln is one of the most innovative and dynamic societies in the country. It is engaged in using its property portfolio to drive economic development and buying a pharmaceutical distribution business. Chief Executive Ursula Lidbetter is well known within the movement as a staunch champion of co-operation and in standing up for members having a key role in society governance. Currently she is Chair of the Co-operative Group’s Food board bringing her Lincoln experience to the national stage.
Ursula has been inspired by the passion and zeal of the founders of Lincoln Co-op 150 years ago who started the society not to generate profits or seek returns on their capital, but because they wanted to make a difference. She says; “Whatever members needed, the society found a way to provide it and the same ethos applies today, we collaborate with our community because that’s what we’re all about. If we can help we do, but if you want community development, you’ve got to be in the community.”
“Co-operation?” she adds, “you know it when you see it — regardless of the structure or the name. All our co-ops were founded because of the desperate need for trust, fairness and integrity. Yet there’s a whole generation who thinks of the Co-op as just another supermarket. That demonstrates the scale of the task the Movement faces.”
Here is a clear example of Kropotkin’s brains and hands working together - the true secret of Lincoln’s success is in being true to Co-operative values instead of just trying to be another supermarket. That is a lesson for all of us.

Wortley Hall @ 60

Happy Birthday to the Workers Stately Home!

At a time when we are battling so that workers can retire at sixty I am glad to see that one Labour movement institution has reached its diamond anniversary without a hint of retiring! I have always had a soft spot for Wortley Hall, I first went there longer ago than I like to admit, as it was the venue for the weekend schools of the old Midland Section of the Co-op Party.

Wortley Hall, between Sheffield and Huddersfield, is set in 26 acres of formal gardens and woodlands, was the ancestral home of the Earls of Wharncliffe, we are unsure when the original hall was built but it is known that Sir Thomas Wortley, born in 1440, lived at the Manor Wortley until 1510.

Sir Thomas, on the wrong side during the English Civil War, was taken by Parliamentary forces to the Tower of London. The hall then fell into decay until the mid eighteenth century when Edmund Wortley commissioned its rebuilding. The family’s new wealth came from the black diamond’s of the South Yorkshire coalfield. The Hall was occupied by the Army during the war, but with the coming of peace and the nationalisation of the mines it fell into what looked like terminal decline.

This all changed at a meeting in May 1950 when former miner Vin Williams proposed to local labour movement activists that Wortley Hall should become an education and recreation home for workers who would be both the owners and the users. The Hall was lifted out of almost derelict condition by a great deal of voluntary work with supporters carrying out much needed repairs and restoration. Then on May 5th 1951 it was opened as an education and holiday centre for the trade union, labour and co-operative movement.

For sixty years, successive generations have maintained that commitment and built on the sacrifices of those workers to keep Wortley Hall as the Workers Stately Home. It has always been run on co-operative principles and is a member of the Co-operatives UK and registered as a Friendly Society.

Today, with four stars from the English Tourist Board, the Hall is looking better than ever. The effort that has gone into bringing the accommodation and grounds up to the very highest standards has really paid off. The grounds laid out in an Italinate style on an eastward facing slope enjoying magnificent views over the Vale of Worsborough are absolutely glorious.

The Hall can host conferences for up to 175 delegates, with seven conference rooms and 49 en-suite bedrooms, all equipped with direct telephone lines and internet connections. Recently upgraded is the Unite ballroom, paid for mainly by Unite branches.

Another recent development has been the creation of two holiday cottages set in the old stable yard. The area has some excellent cycling and walking as the Hall is not far from the Peak District, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and for those wishing to travel further afield there is the ‘last of the summer wine country’ of Holmfirth.

Starting in May there are some exciting events to mark the anniversary especially intriguing are a series of folk song workshops with some very talented musicians and wordsmiths both to enjoy folk song but also to have ago at creating some new ones. Developed by Steel Valley Beacon Arts, participants include Pete Coe, Gavin Davenport, Ian Enters, Robin Garside, Bryony Griffith and Chris Mcshane.

The grounds are also the home of the South Yorkshire Festival, celebrating workers worldwide, which takes place on Saturday 2nd July this year, an excellent day out, in a delightful setting.

In August Jo Stanley will be giving the Sylvia Pankhurst memorial lecture which is sponsored by the National Assembly of Women, the Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee and Wortley Hall.

And don’t forget organisations and individuals can apply for shares which are in £5 units. For a small sum you too can have a share in the Workers Stately Home! If you are a member of a Trade Union, Labour or Co-operative organisation you are eligible to become an individual shareholder. This entitles you to participate in the running of Wortley Hall so for more information go to: www.wortleyhall.org.uk

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Is Co-operative Energy the Answer to a Toothless OFGEM?

In last month’s Morning Star we heard that Ofgem (the energy regulator) was giving the energy utilities “one last chance” to stop ripping customers off or face a full bloodied Competition Commission inquiry. The regulator said that it had found evidence that the 'big six' suppliers – EDF, British Gas, E.ON, RWE npower, Scottish and Southern and Scottish Power – increase customers' bills more quickly when wholesale energy costs go up than they cut them when they come down.

Talk about stating the blinking obvious. No wonder Mike O'Connor, chief executive of Consumer Focus, said: "Consumers have less confidence in energy companies than in any other sector – they feel that prices aren't fair, that tariffs are too complex and that the market doesn't treat them well."

It seems there has been as much wind generated from energy sector investigations as there has been energy from wind. To date this is the 18th inquiry. It was greedy energy companies increasing bills to near-record highs on the back of last winter’s record low temperatures that put pressure for Ofgem to investigate the sector for making excessive profits yet again.

After this investigation, Alistair Buchanan, Ofgem chief, ordered the power companies to simplify the bewildering array of 350 different available tariffs which they use to bamboozle customers and make price comparisons nigh on impossible. He added that there was still not enough competition and threatened them with a Competition Commission referral. In response the industry has been working overtime lobbying politicians and the media, warning that a referral, would delay their spending plans and new nuclear plants and an expansion of renewables until the outcome is clear.

Unsurprisingly, the former Rugby schoolboy, Tory Energy Minister Charles Hendry MP, whose business career was in Public Relations, (with Ogilvy & Mather and Burson-Marsteller), soon got to work - representing the industry. Last month he seemed to back the firms when he said of the big six that a Competition referral could scare them off from investing in the UK. It appears his corporate networking skills, he was founder of the Agenda Group, a specialist consultancy helping company Chairmen and CEO’s with corporate networking, have paid off!

Many industry insiders however think that Ofgem’s position is mere posturing as a Competition Commission referral would in reality expose Ofgem’s own failings and its role in creating the current system.

Clearly for ordinary consumers the privatisation of our energy supply industry has been a disaster. The structure has been described as “one of pretend competition and impotent regulation” but whilst we are waiting for a government with the backbone to take back the industry is there anything we can do as consumers?
Well I have decided to make the switch to the new kid on the block: Co-operative Energy, the brainchild of the UK’s third largest consumer co-operative Midcounties Co-operative Society.

I had been buying my energy via the TUC affinity scheme ‘Union Energy’ supplied by Scottish Power however when that scheme came to an end I was left buying my energy from Iberdrola S.A. as Scottish Power has been taken over by the giant Spanish utility.

This lead to an enlightening telephone conversation with someone from Scottish Power – they rang me up to ask me why I was switching. I said I had sympathy for the plight of the Spanish economy and great respect for the Basque people but I did not see why the profits from supplying me with energy should go to Bilbao. The person was clueless as to who the owners of the business he was working for where and found it hard to believe I could have a stake in the business I bought my energy from.
So I have given Co-operative Energy a chance, switching has been remarkably easy, with no shareholders to please, at least the decisions they make are in my best interests and by becoming a Midcounties member I get a share of the profits. They pledge that they will always offer a fair price and whilst they may not be the cheapest at certain points, they aim to make sure they’re competitive over the long-term.

They also pledge to have just one simple price (that’s a relief) with no gimmicks, and to make everything as simple as possible such as explaining how the energy is sourced and how the prices are worked out, being open and transparent in everything they do.

They aim for the carbon content of their electricity to be less than half the national average by April 2012 and like all co-operative businesses, aim to be ethical in their dealings with individuals and businesses.

The Co-operative supply of energy is not uncommon around the world; indeed in the land of the so called free some 47 of those United States have co-operative electricity suppliers. If you do an internet search for the ‘Co-operative Energy Company’ you may find yourself in Sibley, Iowa. The most impressive US electricity co-operative business is Touchstone Energy, an alliance of energy co-operatives, it has the highest customer satisfaction rating of all US energy utilities, so is it any wonder it has some 40 million customers.

Co-operative Energy is a new business and it will take a while to get to that level of membership but the more members it has the greater will be its buying power. The new business also faces that fact that its current energy mix may not be as biased towards renewable as some would wish but it does aim to be competitive and to work towards lower carbon inputs.

Well if Co-operative Energy this side of the Atlantic fails to fulfill its pledges they will have me to deal with at their AGM. So if you are fed up with being taken for a sucker by Ofgem and want to give the ‘big six’ energy companies a miss why not see if Co-operative Energy is for you. To find out more go to: www.cooperativeenergy.coop.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Goths Versus Vandals

The beautiful village of Hesket Newmarket in the Caldbeck Fells is home to the Old Crown reputedly Britain’s first co-operative pub. Today when the greed of pubco’s and cut price supermarket beer is driving a swathe through Britain’s pubs it is good to hear of a community coming together to take control of an important local institution.
The good folk of the village had earlier come together to save the brewery behind the pub when it came on the market keen to save the prize winning ales.
Julian Ross, who led the bid by customers to take ownership of the pub, said “People say they don’t care about making a return on their investment. They want to preserve something that is important for the community. Regulars and visitors alike always find a warm welcome, great home cooked food (including the famous Old Crown curries), a friendly smile and a truly superb range of real ales.”
When in the depths of the recession almost 40 pubs were closing a week, community co-operative ownership had been successful in saving village shops, so it was a short step to apply the model to pubs. In March last year in response to this success the government announced a £3.3million support program to help develop community owned pubs.
Needless to say despite the ‘Big Society’ rhetoric the Condem’s by August had bought the axe to the program. In January this year anxious to help the 82 communities left high and literally dry, a group including, the Plunket Foundation, Co-operatives UK, the Co-op Group and CAMRA (there are now seven community owned pubs in the Good Beer Guide) came together with a support package. Community ownership however is not just the middle classes playing at landlord.
The Star Inn, in Higher Broughton, Salford, was given three weeks’ notice of closure last summer but locals clubbed together, now it is back in business as Britain’s first urban community-owned co-operative pub.
Local Margaret Fowler has said: "The Star Inn has been part of the community since 1867. People really missed it when it was closed down and that brought us all together to invest our own cash to re-open the pub. It really was easy to set it up as a co-operative and now we have got our pub back, it’s the most fantastic feeling in the world."
Now this seems like a new idea but it got me thinking because I first visited a community owned pub on a trip to Scotland many years ago. It was in Newtongrange or Nitten as it is known locally. Home of the Lady Victoria Colliery, in 1890, it was the largest coal mining village in Scotland. Sadly the pit has gone and today it is home to the Scottish Mining Museum.
Despite all the changes the village has seen one local institution has stood steadfastly by the community both as an important social centre and as a benefactor - the Dean Tavern.
Back in the 1890’s the pit generated a lot of thirsty miners. It was a struggle for the Lothian Coal Company to get a license against a strong temperance movement. Resistance was overcome by agreeing to open a pub on “Gothenburg Principles”.
The Gothenburg principles come from the Swedish City. Sweden had a huge drink problem in the nineteenth century with every house owner legally allowed to have their own still.
In 1855 a law was passed banning domestic distilling and giving local authorities powers to grant licenses. The city of Gothenburg pioneered a system in which spirit licences were awarded to a trust which ran licensed premises in a way that would not encourage excessive drinking.
The premises were to be clean but unattractive, with employees having no interest in pushing sales to make a profit and the shareholders limited to a 5% return. All profits above 5% were to go to the City to be used to benefit the local community. It was a system that proved to be extremely profitable.
The idea was taken up by public house reformers and temperance campaigners in Scotland. Public house trusts or Goths were set up in Peebles, Leven, Clydebank, Broxburn and Tranent but most dramatically with the coal companies in Central Scotland.
There were 'Goths' in the Lothians, Stirlingshire, Ayrshire, and in Fife, where the system really took off. Often like in Nitten the coal companies were the source of funds and were a dominant force on the trust boards, but miners too contributed capital and gained representation.
Despite the fact the pubs were not to be welcoming, no credit, no betting, no gambling, no games or amusements (even dominoes was banned), the community facilities and beneficiaries funded by them was huge. They funded libraries, museums, parks, bowling and cricket grounds and pavilions, cinemas, community centres or 'Gothenburg halls' and gave grants to galas, charities, clubs and societies and even funded district nurses and ambulances.
In its first year of 1900-01 the Dean Tavern generated a profit of £340. Over the years the pub has contributed enormously to the village. Without it the place would be without numerous village landmarks that exist because of the Deans profits. Today the Trust continues to support village societies with annual grants and during the miner's strike of 1984-85, they provided the Miners Women's Support Group with £50 worth of food a week.
The Dean you may argue has been lucky there where over 2,500 pub closures last year. Clearly the pressure pubs are under from unsympathetic government policy and greedy pub companies and brewers is immense. In this environment the idea of community owned pubs is firmly back on the agenda it is time to save the ‘Goths’ from the Vandals!

Friday, 4 March 2011

There Really is an Alternative!

The Tories and their mates in the City are fond of telling us there is no alternative to their world vision. Corporate capitalism has won and we must embrace market fundamentalism at whatever cost to our environment, to our productive economy, to our international relationships or indeed to our relations with one another.

Well despite those Tory doomsayers for the best part of forty years in a disused quarry in mid Wales there has been a place where not only has an alternative future been thought about it has also been demonstrated to work!

Last year with the opening of their newest institute, the Centre for Alternative Technology, was credited with opening the ‘building of the year’ by of all publications the Daily Telegraph!

The new Wales Institute for Sustainable Education (Wise) was described not only as “an extremely worthy building but a ravishingly beautiful one too”. There is no doubt CAT founded in 1973 on the site of the disused Llwyngwern slate quarry near Machynlleth, in Mid Wales has really come of age.

Founder Gerard Morgan-Grenville, was well ahead of our contemporary concerns about the environment when he started the organisation that he conceived as "a project to show the nature of the problem and show ways of going forward."

It was originally a community dedicated to eco-friendly principles and a 'test bed' for new ideas and technologies. In the beginning, progress in the quarry was slow, and the early attempts to raise money were frustrating. Volunteers worked long hours, often by candlelight - there was no electricity on the site at the time.
Well they say it is better to light a candle than to sit in the dark! He had realised that if we are to tackle the threat to the environment we need to completely rethink the way we live and how we make our living. Today as a testament to his vision the centre is a world leader in alternative, environmentally sustainable technology.

What is more Machynlleth is not just the home of a world class centre of education and research it is also the home of one of the world leaders in renewable energy. That business is Dulas, originally spun out from CATS in 1982, the green energy consultancy business now based on the Dyfi Eco Park, near the railway station, began with just 18 staff and a turnover in 2000 of £1.4million today it has over 80 staff and a turnover of £12million plus.

There are few parts of the world today with renewable energy development taking place where you will not find someone from Dulas. It is involved in bringing proven technology to the market place in four main areas, solar photovoltaics, hydropower, biomass and wind energy. It operates throughout the supply chain, from feasibility and resource assessment through to installation, project management, operation and maintenance.

In operating across the world Dulas has, for example, as a solar supplier to the World Health Organisation and Unicef, won numerous awards for its work including being crowned, Company of the Year at the British Renewable Energy Awards in 2009.
At those British Renewable Energy Awards the company was rewarded for its diversity in providing solar DVD players and vaccine refrigeration solutions in Africa through to grid connected PV and hydro power in the UK.

It also won a co-operative enterprise award in 2009. Because as you may have guessed Dulas is a worker co-operative - its workers are also its owners.
They believe that being a worker owned business brings a very high level of commitment and application. They enjoy an open business culture where business development and performance are communicated to all the employee-owners on a company wide basis encouraging high levels of staff retention. They donate up to 3% of company profits each year to charity and invest heavily in staff welfare. Ownership of the business and its success is shared across the whole enterprise.

Modern capitalism has a great deal of sunk costs in the existing ways of doing business, there are a lot of powerful people whose power comes from controlling our access to carbon based energy, and they are working hard to maintain our dependency on their products. You only have to look at our Governments relationships with big oil to see that rather than helping us to wean ourselves off oil they are keen to maintain that dependency.

The technologies being developed at CATS and disseminated by Dulas could if we where smart enough break the embrace of these planet destroying technologies. I am certain that there will very soon be a time when we will be grateful not only for the work they have already done but also for the way in which they are doing it.

The future is not only in decentralised renewable energy but in also workers and community ownership and control of those very energy supplies. The uprisings in the Middle East show that tyrannical rule by kleptocrats is, like the carbon based energy they supply, unsustainable. We have to escape a situation in which every time we turn on our central heating we are propping up the Emir of Qatar. The pressure for alternative energy will grow with the realisation that we will no longer be able to hold down entire populations whilst we steal their energy.
If we are to liberate ourselves from the corruption and environmental damage that comes with big oil and gas Dulas will need to get a lot more work.

Whilst it may only today be a small example of what is possible it’s very existence and its remarkable growth clearly demonstrate that there is an alternative.