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
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:

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