Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Co-operative Year 2012

2012 was thanks to its United Nations Designation as the Year of Co-operatives, one of celebration for the Co-operative movement. That was certainly something worth celebrating but it would have been less of a celebration if the UK sector had not performed so well.

For the fourth year in a row the co-operative economy has out performed the overall UK economy. Despite the fact that economic conditions for all sizes of co-op’s in all sectors are, thanks to the unresolved banking crisis and the efforts of the economic management of the ConDem coalition to make a bad situation worse, the toughest we have seen in our lifetimes.
Against this backdrop some co-operative businesses have been real star performers like the Co-operative of the Year, Midcounties, one of the larger retail societies, trading in food, pharmacy, funerals, childcare and now energy. Their outstanding energy business, Co-operative Energy, has won numerous awards and now has over 60,000 customers. CEO, Ben Reid, has said: "It has been an exciting 12 months as we have developed and expanded our food, energy, childcare and travel businesses in particular. We have had the confidence to invest and diversify despite the challenging economy because we believe in the co-operative way of doing business. Winning Co‑operative of the Year is a fine endorsement of our approach."
If you haven’t checked out Co-operative Energy yet supplying households with their gas and electricity and the only suppler to CUT its prices this winter I suggest you do so. Another outstanding performer has been the Wine Society, supplying high quality wine at fair prices, receiving the Decanter Award as National Wine Merchant of the Year for the second year running.

The Co-operative Banks capture of 632 former Lloyds Bank branches is also something of a coup and completely changes the scope and reach of the Co-op Bank. This was clearly a tough call for the Co-op Group but to achieve this level of growth organically would have taken decades.

The Co-op Bank has been a great success, it never required any government support but has still been hit by tough new regulations requiring greater capital adequacy, a significant contribution to the banking compensation scheme and having to set aside millions for PPI miss-selling despite the fact it hardly sold any, the price of defending yourself against no-win, no fee lawyers, all these costs means bank profits will be hit in the short term. 
Other star performers include, small co-op of the year, Equal Exchange, a fair trade workers co-op, dating back to 1979 when three voluntary workers returned to Edinburgh after working on aid projects in various parts of Africa. Their belief was that aid was not the only answer and direct, fairer trading could help redress the balance. Today they have a great range of quality products helping producers across the developing world, including an excellent Palestinian olive oil.
As a fan of supporter owned football clubs I was delighted when FC United, won the #coops2012 Award, for the co-operative which has actively used a variety of media (radio, press and social media) to promote their co-op. Their innovative use of social media to engage with its fan base is quite stunning. To date they have raised over £1.7million in a Community Share Issue by using every channel to talk to their members and supporters. Their communication strategy has real purpose as Andy Walsh, FC United's general manager, said: "The club's media work not only helps spread the word about FC United and supporter-ownership, but also gives many of our co‑owners the chance to be involved, develop their own skills and take responsibility for running an important element of the club."
The final major event of the International Year, Co-ops United in Manchester, was great fun and attracted almost 12,000 visitors with 200 Co-ops exhibiting including the Peoples Press Printing Society. The history of the sector was not neglected in the year with a super Lottery Heritage Fund refurbishment of the Rochdale Pioneers Museum and a new version of the film of the Pioneers.
One last highlight in a year of highlights was the publication of the, The Co-operative Revolution, a graphic novel that vividly explores the history of the co-op movement and its spread across the world and then takes an optimistic look at the co-operative world in 2044 the 200th anniversary of the Rochdale Pioneers. Published by co-operative New Internationalist with the support of the Co-op Group at just £5.99 it makes a great stocking filler.
There is no doubt that this year people have started taking the co-operative business model more seriously and as Victor Hugo said, there is nothing more powerful than an idea when its time has come. And after the satire of the Nobel Peace Prize, being awarded to Henry Kissinger, Menachim Begin, Barack Obama and now the European Union we should campaign in 2013 to get the Prize for a genuinely peace promoting international body, the International Co-operative Alliance, they could certainly make good use of the prize money!

Friday, 9 November 2012

Co-operatives United

 Wow! Co-operatives really lit the blue touch paper in Manchester for the Co-operatives United festival to mark the culmination of 2012 as the UN year of Co-operatives. What a celebration, Co-operatives United together with the International Co-operative Alliance Expo, generated some amazing statistics, there were 11,800 visitors, representing 88 countries, 753 co-operatives attended, 171 co-operatives exhibited (including the Peoples Press Printing Society), the whole thing made possible by 521 volunteers and returning £12.8 million into the north west economy.

Many international visitors took the short trip to Rochdale for the spectacular re-opening of the refurbished Toad Lane Shop and Museum or caught up with the new Pioneers film (to be shown on Film4). I was particularly pleased with this years Co-operative Congress and the Co-op awards partly because my Society, the Heart of England Co-op Society, sponsored one of them. The award winners where from quite a cross section of the movement, a fan owned football club, a large retailer and a fair trade workers co-op. Organised by Co-operatives UK, the awards were announced at the international gala dinner in front of 900 people.

Miidcounties Co-operative, one of our larger retail societies, trading in food, pharmacy, funerals, childcare and now energy, won the Co-operative of the Year Award, sponsored by Cobbetts LLP – for overall performance excellence. Their outstanding energy business has won numerous awards and now has over 60,000 customers. Ben Reid, Chief Executive of Midcounties said: "It has been an exciting 12 months as we have developed and expanded our food, energy, childcare and travel businesses in particular. We have had the confidence to invest and diversify despite the challenging economy because we believe in the co-operative way of doing business. Winning Co‑operative of the Year is a fine endorsement of our approach."

Equal Exchange, a fair trade workers co-op, won the Small Co-operative, Big Achiever Award, sponsored by Chelmsford Star Co-operative Society – a small, under £5 million turnover co-op that has made a big impact. The origins of Equal Exchange go back to 1979 when three voluntary workers returned to Edinburgh after working on aid projects in various parts of Africa. Along with a sister organisation in London, Campaign Co-op, they started buying instant coffee from Bukoba on Lake Victoria in Tanzania. As a result Campaign Coffee was born. The volunteers had seen how small scale farmers were getting into debt due, in part; to the appallingly low prices they received for their products. Their belief was that aid was not the only answer and direct, fairer trading could help redress the balance! Today many years later, after bigger campaigns, more education and better products finally reaching independent retailers and supermarkets, the three volunteers' dreams are beginning to be realised. They have demonstrated a continued dedication to packing fair trade products at source, adding revenues, employment and new skills to the developing world partners they work with making them worthy award winners.

My delight however was for FC United, the fan owned football club, who won the #coops2012 Award, which we sponsored – for the co-operative which has actively used a variety of media (radio, press and social media) to promote how their co-operative is building a better world through co-operation during 2012. Their innovative use of a broad variety of media to engage with its fan base, to promote their long term aim of changing football for the benefit of supporters, is quite stunning. And by using every channel to talk to members and supporters their communication strategy has real purpose as Andy Walsh, FC United's general manager, said: "The club's media work not only helps spread the word about FC United and supporter-ownership, but also gives many of our co‑owners the chance to be involved, develop their own skills and take responsibility for running an important element of the club."

These Co-op Winners offer a snapshot of the breadth and excitement of the modern co-operative movement, a movement which has a new spring in its step following the UN year. What is important now is to build on the terrific quality of the international contacts we have built to generate a commercial co-operative advantage one from the other. Key initiatives must include an international buying Group to enable co-op retailers to compete with the very biggest of our capitalist rivals.

The inspiration of some of the international examples we have seen should also encourage us to continue to develop new Co-ops in new sectors here in the UK. In the United States the umbrella of electricity co-ops, Touchstone, serves 30 million members everyday - so don’t tell me we can’t have a huge co-op energy sector here in the UK. Lots to do now to build on the UN Year of Co-ops!

Monday, 22 October 2012


 Last week I had the privilege of attending the World Summit on Co-operatives in Quebec representing Co-operatives UK. It was amazing to be amongst 2,800 delegates from 91 countries - including a number from the very healthy co-operative sector in Quebec. The Canadian cooperative sector as hosts did us proud and played a huge role in the success of the event especially key sponsors and facilitators the Quebec financial co-operative Desjardins.

As well as the main summit there was a 'future co-operative leaders' programme which ran alongside the official event with participation from young British co-operators, and the summit was preceded by a pre-conference academic event ‘Imagine 2012’ on co-operative economics supported by St Mary’s University of Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the Sobey School of management are world leaders in co-operative management education..

There was a very strong emphasis on understanding the range and scope of the global co-operative experience and part of this included the launch of nine studies – some of which added more value than others - produced in partnership with leading private sector professional service firms - some of whom, like McKinsey’s, lets face it are a bit of a surprise as they are not known for their advocacy of the co-operative model.

Former Labour MEP now President of the International Co-operative Alliance, Pauline Green, played an important role in holding the show together and there where other significant UK contributions, from Peter Marks of the Co-op Group, Ben Read of Midcounties Co-op, Vivian Woodell from Co-operative Phone & Broadband as well as Ed Mayo from Co-operatives UK.

’Imagine 2012’ with its theme of co-operative economics looked at traditional and current theory in understanding co-operative enterprise, but also looked the flaws in wider neo-liberal economics that seemed to dismiss or exclude co-operative solutions. The work of Nobel Prize winning Elinor Ostrom was celebrated and a major issue was the role of co-operatives in tackling the challenge of environmental sustainability.

What emerged from the official conference was a strong sense of relevance and confidence in the co-operative model.  For me reading that the top 300 Co-op businesses have a turnover of US$1.6 trillion then seeing them represented in a room made an abstract idea into a reality and was very uplifting. Seeing the reality of the size and scope of the global co-operative movement in the flesh was amazing.  At times, the mood felt a little self-indulgent, as many of the outside speakers seemed to have come to curry favour rather than to offer grounded support and advice.

Some of the challenges articulated at the conference are ones we know well, given the speed of market change, are co-operative businesses, agile enough and innovative enough? Are we bold enough in positioning ourselves as an alternative to shareholder companies? ... or is it the case that what fires us up doesn't necessarily work in the wider world beyond our members, where people just need to know who we are and what we do well.

It was great to meet with and listen to the examples of how co-operatives where facing up to their business challenges, the Texas Energy Co-op that was outperforming its private competitors by going back to the members, the Danish farmer cooperative that felt it could not operate in a dozen countries on the back of membership from just one and so is exploring minority external capital; and the delegation from Cuba, trying to plan for a new role for autonomous co-operatives in a more open but still socialist economy.

I had the pleasure of joining a group of Brits, Canadians and Cubans for a very lively dinner. We discussed everything from how committed Raul Castro was to co-op development, to all the practical issues of starting and managing co-ops, to the philosophical issue of could you have a non capitalist market economy?

This was a substantial Cuban delegation, typically boxing above their weight, including ordinary Cuban farmers, as well as government officials; but if there was one person who held our attention it was Professor Camila Pineriro Harnecker from the University of Havana who has edited a new book, Co-operatives and Socialism, A view from Cuba. The book a collection of essays makes the case for co-operatives as part of the solution to building a more equitable society.

Working with the Ministry of Light Industry she and her colleagues are making the case for the co-operative economy to be a viable alternative to the neo-liberal capitalist and the authoritarian socialist models currently in use around the world. Thanks to support from Canadian co-operators the book has been translated into English and Co-operatives and Socialism will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in December.

So far the United Nations Year of Co-operatives 2012 has been a tremendous opportunity to bring co-operators together as there is indeed much we can learn from one another and if we work together and support one another there is a great deal we can achieve. It is very important that this momentum is not dissipated and that the Co-op Year becomes the decade of co-operative development.

The next stop for this international Co-operative caravan will be at Co-operatives United, the World festival and ICA Expo in Manchester from the 29thOct -2nd Nov. I very much hope as members of Co-operatives UK, the Peoples Press Printing Society and its members will be there amongst the 10,000 visitors. For more information go to:

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Pioneers on Film

That well known TV face John Henshaw has a key role in a new adaptation of the classic story of the Rochdale Pioneers being bought to our screens by the British Young Film Academy supported by the C-operative Group. This splendid initiative to give the Pioneers story a contemporary twist is one of the highlights of the celebrations of 2012 as the UN year of Co-operatives.

All social movements have their mythologies, the stories they tell themselves to explain their purpose and their origins. The co-operative movement is no exception and one of the most powerful in the working class movement is the mythology surrounding the Rochdale Pioneers. Whilst we know quite a lot about the pioneers and the formation of the shop at Toad Lane, Rochdale, in 1844 we owe their story, the creation of their story, is the work of one man. One of the greatest propagandists for working class emancipation that we have ever seen, George Jacob Holyoake, memorialised in the head quarters of the co-operative movement, Holyoake House in Hanover Street, Manchester.

There where many early co-operative societies before Rochdale and very many around at the same time but there can be no doubt that Rochdale was lifted into prominence by the work of Holyoake. His history of the Rochdale Pioneers written in 1857 made Rochdale the key place for modern co-operation, followed by his, The History of Co-operation in England in 1875, and The Co-operative Movement Today in 1891 these works made him the outstanding co-operative propagandist.

Holyoake, born in Birmingham, had been an Owenite and a follower of the early sociologist August Comte and in his newspaper the Reasoner developed the idea of secularism, before becoming a co-operative activist.  His story of the Pioneers became a great way of explaining co-operative principles and practices in a way that was easy to understand and to follow in ways that a dry textbook could never have achieved, and thousands followed the Pioneers example. Holyoake’s story telling was a tremendous boost to the spread of co-operation. 

Being in the UK predominantly a consumer movement co-operators have not been adverse to a bit of marketing and the use of every tool available to sell co-operation. When film first came on the scene they quickly took it up to spread the message. In the National Co-operative Film Archive there is a stunning collection of those early films but the art form really took off  in the 1930’s and 40’s with such gems as Co-operette (1937) starring Stanley Holloway to promote CWS products and films that also had important political messages like Peace Parade (1937) or Advance Democracy (1938). The Scottish CWS where not to be outdone and they made Out of the Box (1942) about the earliest documented co-operative society the Fenwick Weavers of 1769.

Probably the jewel in the collection is the film the Men of Rochdale made in 1944 at the then enormous cost of £15,000 to mark the Pioneers centenary. This is a beautifully crafted film with a script written by Reg Groves, who had written books about Conrad Noel and the Thaxted Movement, Victory Grayson and the Agricultural Workers Union. Probably most famous in Communist circles for being expelled from the Party in 1932 for being a leading light in the Trotskyite International Left Opposition. Groves work was based however almost exclusively on Holyoakes book.

The film has very high production values Sydney Box was the co-producer, Compton Bennett director and Reg Wyer was cinematographer. These three went on to work on the 1945 hit ‘The Seventh Veil’ with Sydney Box becoming head of production at Gainsborough Studios. The score was provided by John Greenwood who worked at Ealing Studios and was played by the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) which had formed itself as a co-operative in the 1940’s.

The star of the production, easily recognised today, was John Laurie, familiar from all those Dads Army reruns. The film was easily the most popular co-op film they ever produced, seen in co-op halls up and down the country, it no doubt contributed to the spirit that swept Labour to power in 1945.

The new film is essentially a remake of the 1944 classic and is now being shown in cinemas around the country for Co-operative Group members to enjoy. It is directed by John Montegrande and Adam Lee Hamilton, whose last BYFA movie ‘Julius Caesar’ was nominated for an award at the prestigious Raindance Film Festival. The filmmaking process has been truly co-operative, with extras recruited from the local community to play supporting roles alongside professional actors, including John McArdle and John Henshaw.

The fact is that myth or reality the arguments the film presents are as relevant today as ever and this is a terrific piece of work which is credit to everyone involved in its production, just like the Men of Rochdale was all those years ago. This is a lasting legacy of the International year making the story of the Rochdale Pioneers accessible to a new generation and making the co-operative message anew in 2012 is important. So if you are a Co-operative Group member get along to one of the free screenings ahead of the film’s official premiere during the International Year of Co-operatives celebrations in Manchester. If you can’t make it be sure to watch out for its TV debut in November on Film4 as part of the channel’s British Connection Season.

To book your place or find a screening go to:

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Heart of England: Making a Song and Dance on our Birthday

2012 as well as being the UN Year of Co-operatives also has a special significance for my own Society. We can trace our roots back to nine ribbon weavers from Foleshill, now part of Coventry, who in 1832 formed the Lockhurst Lane Industrial Co-operative Society.

Well 180 years later and following a number of mergers we became in 2000, the Heart of England Co-operative Society, based in Nuneaton serving the communities of Coventry and Warwickshire, South Leicestershire and West Northamptonshire.

Today we are a well run profitable Society with trading figures that are the envy of many of our larger rivals with a broad portfolio from food to travel, non-food to funerals. Trading conditions are tough but we are quietly confident of the future. A long life and an illustrious past, even if that does mean being formed a good decade before the famous Rochdale Pioneers, however is no guarantee of success.

Co-operative Societies like any businesses have to keep renewing themselves and adapting making themselves relevant to the needs of their customers and members.

That drive and adaptation has since 2004 been lead by a remarkable man, Ali Kurji, the first and so far only ethnic minority leader of a major UK co-operative retail society. Ali’s story reflects well his ambition and drive and also ability of the co-operative movement to develop both his business skills alongside his desire to contribute to society.

Ali is quiet a character, on the surface an unassuming modest man but someone who is deeply determined, totally committed to doing the right thing with a very high level of personal integrity. Not characteristics you always find, it would seem, in some modern business leaders.

He was born in Kampala in Uganda and when he was just seventeen, left the family business to train in the UK as an accountant. Arriving in England in 1968 was a tremendous culture shock for a boy from Africa but soon things would get a great deal worse. Only four years after his arrival his family’s world in Uganda was turned upside down by the rise of Idi Amin.

His rule precipitated some very dark days indeed for the Asian business community in Uganda many fleeing the country with just what they could carry. For Ali there could be no going back. Having qualified as an accountant he worked for Manchester based, Appleby and Wood, who undertook audit work with co-operative retail societies.

Years later Ali was able to return to Uganda but only to sell up the family business donating the £35,000 proceeds to charity in India. For ten years he toured the country doing the audit sums for Co-ops large and small. This experience taught him that there was indeed a different way of doing business based on an ethical approach with a commitment to social justice. In 1982 he was offered a job as a management accountant with the old Coventry Co-operative Society a key part component of the Heart of England.

Since becoming CEO there is no doubt that today the Society reflects Ali’s personality, a tight control on costs and good business practice, continuous investment, alongside a strong commitment to the community. Unique in British retailing the Heart of England Board decided that they felt uncomfortable profiting from a product whose normal use killed those who used it. So over the last eleven years the society has donated the proceeds from the sales of cigarettes and tobacco products into a Helping Hearts fund to support local good causes, a fund that to date has dispersed some £636,000.

This year Ali has encouraged the Society to also adopt a corporate charity selected by staff. This year the Air Ambulance has been selected with positive effects and support form staff.

Ali however does not only support the societies charitable giving but he also carries out charitable work on his own behalf. One of the projects with which he is closely involved is supporting an orphanage in Iraq which sadly has currently plenty of work on its hands.

The Society has long standing commitments to an amateur orchestra and also to an amateur theatre operating from one of our old stores. However I have to say that for me the most pleasurable event that the Society has supported this year has been the Warwick Folk Festival. I feel the worlds of co-operation and folk music have a lot in common. After all being founded in 1832 means that a lot of folk music is contemporary for us!

The way folk festivals are organised and run has a terrific co-operative feel to it, people getting together with a common purpose not for personal gain but for the sheer pleasure of making a wonderful noise or having a good dance with all the proceeds being ploughed back into the making of bigger and a better festival.

Warwick this year was terrific, Eddie Reader was top of the bill, but there where many excellent acts and more importantly to be a true festival opportunities for people to participate in workshops for singing and dancing. John Plumb, Festival Chairman, said he was delighted with the support from the Society.

So after all these years the Society is in robust health and we are perfectly happy to be accused of making a song and dance of our 180th birthday!

Trade Unions and Co-ops

There was an internet discussion recently begun by John Merrit MD of Social Enterprise link Wessex about the relationships between Trade Unions and Co-ops. He saw some of the key philosophical differences between trade unions and co-ops pointing out that there are strong syndicalist tendencies in co-ops and democratic centralist tendencies in trade unions, despite the fact that co-op members and workers are very often the same people. It is indeed a pity that with a shared criticism of share holder capitalism, co-operators and trade unionists cannot find ways of working together to create new models of democratic ownership.

This is very important. Despite the evidence of the complete failure of neo-liberalism it still has the ruling class and its acolytes in its thrall. Look at the debate about whether the blood sucking leech that has the franchise for the West Coast Mainline should have a beard or not. Despite all the evidence of colossal waste the Labour Party cannot bring itself to state the obvious - that privatisation has been an unmitigated disaster and the railways have to be bought back into some form of public ownership.

As a co-operator I of course believe that the precise form of public ownership should be open for discussion to ensure railway workers, rail-passengers and the government get a say in how then are managed and run. In my opinion there is no scope for private ownership of key utilities they are natural monopolies that as well as carrying out key economic activities also have a social function. Private businesses can often be reasonably well behaved but fundamentally in healthcare, education and the criminal justice system, the pursuit of profit is inappropriate it distorts the outputs and eventually increases the cost of these activities. I remember listening to Gordon Brown railing at the electricity companies about their pricing structures. It is clear that whatever regulatory system you create the companies will use all their efforts to subvert it.

It was even worse when we had those devastating summer floods with Tewkesbury threatened with complete submersion. Brown demanded that private companies should give up profits and dividends and invest more in flood prevention measures. You may as well tell a dog to be a cat. What nonsense these are private companies, if you do not want them to behave like private businesses don’t make them profit seeking in the first place.

This year Co-ops UK have signed a memorandum of understanding with the TUC we have a common interest I believe in protecting the co-operative brand from dilution and reputational damage from the creation of pseudo public service mutuals. But whilst we can easily agree that key services and utilities should be firmly in the public sector that still leaves an awful lot of the economy where there is a greater scope for co-operative ownership models.

The Post Office for example which consists of a large number of small private businesses, the provision of council services like waste collection and grounds maintenance seem ideal for co-operative business models and you don’t need to hear me going on again about a greater role for co-ops in the provision of financial services. In the United States the largest worker co-op is Co-operative Home Care Associates whose two thousand members are represented by branch 1199 of the Services Employees International Union (SEIU). Their slogan is the provision of quality care through quality jobs. Not a message that seems to strike a chord with many of the UK private social care vultures.

Here in the UK UNISON have signed an MOU with the Schools Co-operative Society which promotes Co-operative trust schools. The NASUWT have also signed an agreement with them to ensure schools remain not for profit and democratically accountable. There is no doubt the ground is moving, the masochism of the Conservative cuts will continue whilst they are in power, despite the whining of the Liberal Democrats and if Labour wins the election despite Ed Milibands rhetoric about good and bad businesses Labour has still not woken up to the reality that the old ways have failed and new ownership models are needed.

One recently lost comrade Ken Coates who was the driving force behind the Institute for Workers Control, saw through Tony Blair early on, the removal of the old clause four from the Labour constitution confirmed his fears. For Ken workers control came from his views on poverty and alienation and the fact that people where disempowered. He said it was “not simply about the worker taking all the decisions; it is about the environment being such that human development is the crucial datum and not profit and loss.”

Tory austerity is about destroying any hope of development for the working class, about breaking us so that we are grateful for whatever we are given, the process of alienation runs deep and it is up to us as trade unionists and co-operators to map out an alternative future. As the great Jimmy Reid said in his University rectoral address in 1971,

“Alienation, is the precise and correctly applied word for describing the major social problem in Britain today… it is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It is the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the process of decision making.”

It was true then and it is even truer today. More and more of us are the slaves of global capital and its lackeys prostituting ourselves in search of “investment”. Yet we have a choice - ownership really does matter - we can reverse this trend and find new ways of making capital work for people.

Monday, 6 August 2012

SACP Welcomes New Start for Co-op Movement in South Africa

There has been a strong commitment to co-operative development in South Africa since the end of apartheid. All the Tripartite Alliance partners (the ANC, COSATU & SACP) have a commitment to building co-operatives. As far back as 1998 the Alliance Summit adopted the program Unity in Action, which placed co-operatives firmly on the agenda.

It would be understandable if amongst the wider black population there was less enthusiasm for co-ops. For many years particularly in the agricultural sector they bolstered white power. Beginning in the 1910’s and 20’s, they focused on input supplies and joint marketing; and establishing processing co-ops. They became a powerful lobby holding a virtual monopoly in key agricultural sectors, backed by ready access to finance through the Land Bank, and controlling the Marketing Boards that regulated prices until this system was dismantled post-apartheid.

A classic example is KWV which came to dominate the wine and spirits industry. Formed in 1918, by growers in the Western Cape the Kooperative Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika became a giant in the industry. As apartheid collapsed so did its marketing and regulatory functions leaving behind a mistrust of the Co-operative brand amongst black farmers and wine growers that has taken a long time to change. Today there is a small inclusive co-op sector supported by fair trade and foreign co-operative organisations like the German Co-op Movement and the UK’s Co-operative Group who support the Du Toitskloof wine co-operative in the Breede River Valley.

The history of financial mutuals goes back further still. Old Mutual the South African financial giant was founded by Scotsman John Fairbairn in 1845 as the Mutual Life Assurance Society of the Cape of Good Hope it began with no initial capital other than the premiums of its first 166 policyholders. As you may expect at that time they where all white. Following demutualization in 1999 and a listing on the FTSE it has become one of the worlds leading financial businesses on the back of a dominant position in South Africa.

In its early days it enabled white farmers to build up their businesses offering insurance and savings to weather the ups and doubts of agricultural markets. What was wrong with these organisations was not their co-operative nature but their failure to adopt the key co-operative principle of open membership. The things they did to enable small producers to gain economies of scale and less affluent communities to gain access to finance are needed today more than ever. Co-operatives like trade unions are not inherently progressive. They have the capacity to be so but can be corrupted into advancing the rights of one group over another.

The concrete situation in South Africa today means that with now with the right legislation co-operatives can play a positive role in fighting unemployment and poverty. Despite the end of apartheid the economy is still dominated by largely white owned corporations and whilst Black Economic Empowerment has propelled a relatively small number of blacks into top positions in these corporations much of the black working class has been left behind.

It was a welcome move therefore in response to the UN Year of Co-operatives that last month SA Trade Minister Rob Davies addressing the International Co-op Day celebrations in Kimberley announced a new development agency would be established as a result of the Co-operatives Amendment Bill. A body for both financial and non-financial support "tailor-made for co-operatives", he said. "These will include administration of incentives, provision of training and improvement of working conditions in the co-operatives sector." He added, "The proposed institutions will then assist the government to reduce the mortality rate amongst co-operatives and ensure their sustainability."

Mangaliso Stalin Khonza, National Spokesperson for the Young Communist League said in response he hoped “That implementation will be speedy and not get delayed by bureaucracy. The co-operative agency will go a long way in ensuring that co-operatives do not remain an option only for cleaning, public school feeding schemes and other basic services. The Agency must ensure that the co-operatives are capacitated in terms of skills and resources to operate fully even in the commanding heights of the economy such as banking, mining and IT.” He went on, “It is well known fact that co-operatives can serve to curb the increasing unemployment particularly amongst the youth and will further ensure the communities are directly responsible in their own service delivery and development; unlike the corrupt entrepreneurial system which serves to illegitimately profit uncaring entrepreneurs.”

If any country needs its wealth spreading more fairly then it is South Africa. The country has a Gini Coefficient, which measures inequality, amongst the highest in the world and as the economy has grown wealth distribution has worsened. Whilst a larger and thriving co-operative sector cannot solve this problem alone it could make a significant contribution. There is an awful lot of work to do in changing attitudes and educating the people, I recently had the chance to see the work the UK’s Co-operative College is doing in training Co-operative trainers in KwaZulu Natal, the state with the highest concentration of worker co-ops in the country, this is impressive but it is a small program considering the scale of the task.

Co-operatives can make a difference in undertaking work contracted out by local government where there has been a huge problem with corruption. In his address to the SACP’s 13th Congress on July 12th Blade Nzimande, Minister for Education and Training and SACP General Secretary said that to help the sector grow, the SACP is.. “calling for effective state support for the co-operative movement, including setting aside certain functions in the state (eg. school nutrition, cleaning services, etc) exclusively for cooperatives.”

A strong commitment by the SACP means this new found commitment to co-operatives has a chance of working and I look forward to a thriving co-op sector that serves all of South Africa’s people.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Co-operation, Cricket and Class

The perception of co-ops in Britain has changed tremendously over the last few years. There is a clear generational demarcation in the perception of co-ops particularly as a retailer. For my grandparents they fed and clothed them through the war and they could, until they became customers of Co-op Funeralcare remember their divi-numbers, for my parents they where old fashioned and closing down, yet now for the young people I teach in the University they have in some cases like the Co-op Bank, John Lewis and some of the funky new co-ops become sexy.

Not a term many of us in the movement have had applied to us very often, if at all.

As well as this generational difference in attitudes towards Co-op’s and co-operation there also seems to be a class difference. I was thinking about this because the Government of posh boys is always going on about the John Lewis model or employee ownership but rarely use the term’s co-op or co-operative.

This is ironic because often it is the better off that nowadays seek to co-operate to improve their lot whereas it is much more difficult to get those who really need the benefits of co-operation lower down the social and economic pile to do so.

Internationally co-operative housing, for example, is a common form of tenure yet in the UK housing co-ops have failed to take off often because they are lumped into the social housing space and have historically gone into battle, as a more complex form of tenure, for investment with housing associations, which at least to outsiders appear to be doing similar work.

The truth is that for investors and tenants the co-operative housing model is a terrific way of taking the risk out of housing for many people who for whatever reason cannot engage in, or do not want, the hassle of owner occupation.

Compare this with the situation in the United States where some of the world’s most exclusive housing is in co-operative ownership.

Indeed some of the famous New York Co-op Boards that select tenants are notoriously picky. Well known figures such as Madonna, Carly Simon and Calvin Klein have in recent years been turned down for membership of some of New York’s more exclusive housing co-operatives.

This class issue once again came to mind when I read that the Marylebone Cricket Club was consulting its members on a new structure. This follows an acrimonious debate within the MCC about the redevelopment of the ground. The project was called “A Vision for Lords” and it involved the building of luxury flats at the nursery end of the ground.

This however was not a vision shared by the membership of the club who rejected it. As a result of this row one prominent member of the project committee, Sir John Major, resigned complaining about the way the decision had been taken.

One thing the potential development highlighted was the sheer precariousness of the club’s existing legal structure. As an unincorporated association the club is not a corporate entity and cannot therefore own property, including the ground itself, and the members are joint a severally liable if they ever get sued!

The club have put forward a solution to this legal weakness and have decided that they should ask the Queen for a royal charter of incorporation a bit like the way Universities are established. A rather complicated and rather long winded solution you might think.

Of course there is another way forward, one that does not require any grovelling to Buck House, and that is taken by virtually all of the other county cricket clubs in the country.

That is to form an "industrial and provident society", or a co-op in a letter to members they say, "Although some first-class county cricket clubs have chosen this method to incorporate," they add somewhat sniffily, "the working party thought that such a method would not appeal to members of the club. Traditionally, this route was used to incorporate working men's clubs."

Well this method is also the one that is the legal basis across the river of Sir John Major’s beloved Surrey County Cricket Club, one of the UK’s top one hundred co-op’s. So I would like to think this is why Sir John fell out with the clubs management, although I doubt it.

The Industrial and Provident Society , the co-operative model, is the legal form of the Club I am a member of, Leicestershire, and a quick check tells me it is the legal form too of the following County Cricket Clubs, Kent, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Glamorgan, Lancashire, Gloucestershire, Essex, Yorkshire, Somerset, Derbyshire, Sussex ,Hampshire and Nottinghamshire.

To add insult to injury for MCC members it is the legal basis of Middlesex County Cricket Club. Many MCC members are also members of Middlesex who have the privilege of sharing Lords with the MCC.

If the members of the MCC have any brains and really want to protect the club from the toffs who think they own everything in this country they should vote for the co-op option. Importantly it protects the club’s democratic nature, maintaining member control and ownership. After all it has served many businesses well over the years some of which have been around almost as long as the MCC.

Oh and yes it is also the legal basis for many Working Men’s Clubs and if it helps for many Conservative Clubs too!

Wednesday, 4 July 2012


Book Review

150 Years of Lincolnshire Co-operative by Alan Middleton, Published by Lincolnshire Co-operative Ltd 2011. ISBN No: 978-0-904327-11-3

I love histories of Co-operative Societies although they are of variable quality so I was delighted by my first impression of this book as it is a stunningly produced illustrated history of one hundred and fifty years of retail co-operation in Lincolnshire. Having read it however I see it also contains a very important extended essay, using Lincolnshire as a case study, of the ingredients for successful retail co-operation. Author Alan Middleton and Editor in Chief Ursula Lidbetter deserve credit in producing a book which not only marks a significant milestone but is also an important contribution to the thinking about the future of retail co-operation.

The story, whilst told in relatively few words, sets the formation and development of the society in its social and economic context yet does not avoid the challenges along the way. It is one of continuous development but there is no sense of inevitability about it. It is clear that at key moments the Society could have taken a different road and there are important lessons for the way in which decisions where taken and how those vital relationships between managers and members where fostered and how together they overcome difficulties in maintaining growth and development.

A recurring issue that would not have concerned the pioneers but has been vital to the society’s success – is the importance of good corporate governance. Alan Middleton who served the Society as a director for 40 years, a good part of the society’s history, is a champion of good governance for co-operative societies and through this history he explores its importance as a driver of success.

There is insufficient space in a short review to describe all the twists and turns in this history but what we can see is that from its inception it is a Society that is both fiercely independent and yet deeply embedded in the community it serves. From when the Lincoln Equitable Industrial Co-operative Society was founded in 1861 by Thomas Parker a joiner from Gainsborough and began trading from 1, Napoleon Place Lincoln, when goods where sold only for ready money and after the first quarter they had 74 members and where able to pay out a dividend of nine old pence, the society’s mission was the “domestic, social and intellectual advancement of its members.”

In 1863 the society asked its members, “to have faith in the lovely principle of co-operation and cast your mountain of woe unto the sea.” By 1876 they had established an education committee and having raised £18 from concerts and readings opened a reading room twenty years before Lincoln’s first public library. By 1898 when Peter Kropotkins, Fields, Factories and Workshops was published the society was mentioned in passing for its work in horticulture and in rural areas an issue which commands a couple of chapters in the book and marks its expansion from the City of Lincoln to the wider county.

Today the Society is still deeply committed to its locality not just by sourcing local produce but by also using its property portfolio to drive countywide economic development. In modern times the Society has thanks to that good corporate governance been blessed by outstanding leadership in the form of Keith Darwin, another Gainsborough boy, and Lincoln born Ursula Lidbetter. Between them since 1992 in just 20 years they have thoroughly modernised the Society taking the turnover from £130million to over £270million, tripling the profit to over £20million and enabling a fourfold increase in dividend to £4million.

Mere statistics however undervalue the importance of the Society to the life of the county. In a spirit of Kroptkin’s Mutual Aid the Society established and continues to support Lincolnshire Co-operative Development Agency and the Society has ensured his other work the Conquest of Bread with its own bakery which supplies bread to others as well as its own stores.

So to what do we attribute the society’s success? Alan Middleton offers the following, “The Board of any co-operative society is key to its success or failure. With the introduction of professional management in the 1940’s it became necessary to establish the correct balance between them and the board. It would take many years to get this to the very best level. However, more than anything it is the willingness of the Lincolnshire board to do its job and only its job, and to do it well, that sets it apart from so many boards of societies long gone.” A lesson for consumer co-operators everywhere.

In Fields, Farms and Factories Kropotkin wanted to reunite the brain worker and the manual worker which he felt had been separated by the division of labour. Lincoln shows how workers by hand and brain can be successfully united and I warmly recommend this book not only as a beautiful embellishment to any co-operative coffee table but as an important education tool for how to run a modern retail co-operative society.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Anglia Regional Co-op Back from the Brink!

There was a debate within the Co-operative retail sector about the merits of national versus regional societies. To put it crudely the idea was that to be competitive the movement needed the economies of scale of a national society to compete. The other side of the argument was that our key competitive edge was in being close to our stores, communities and customers and that was more easily achieved in a regional setting.

It is because those ideas have never been resolved and the spate of mergers that have taken place mainly into the Co-operative Group that we have the current patchwork of national and regional co-operative retail coverage today. They have in common however the need to constantly to turn over their assets to ensure they have the kind of offer their members and customers want to use.

A Society that exemplifies these issues and the dramatic changes the movement has had to face over recent years is the Peterborough based Anglia Regional Co-operative Society.

Its roots go back to 1876, when a travelling salesman from the north sold tea from a canvas covered area in Peterborough. To help the widow of a local railwayman he gave five per cent of his takings to the widow, selling 1,400 lbs of tea that night and raising her £12. He also gave out coupons to his customers which they could exchange for gifts. His rival traders argued that this put him in breach of the Lottery Act and, although magistrates sentenced the man to two hours’ detention, his actions inspired the locals.

The very first meeting of the Peterborough Co-operative Society took place in his tent!

That story highlights three issues the movement has always faced, hostility from capitalist traders, the often inadequate legal basis for co-operative business and crucially that if you want to return something to the community you have to make a surplus!

More recently the modern Anglia Regional Society was born of a merger between the Greater Peterborough and Waveney Regional Societies in 1987.

Why the history of this society is so important is because it was central to another key argument over trade should we concentrate on food or non-food? With the formation of the Co-operative Group it took the key decision to pull out of what is called non-food. I am sure many readers have fond memories of Co-operative Department stores selling clothes and furniture. For decades they were the symbol of co-operative retailing. Until very recently Anglia was a champion of this type of retailing with stores as far north as Berwick and as far south as Cinderford.

They were convinced that there was a future in the town centre department store model. There was a perception that if the society could grow sufficiently large there was a point at which this type of retailing could be profitable. Their peak was reached in 2005 when the Society took 9 stores off the Co-op Group to add to the twenty plus it already had.

Sadly customers and member’s tastes changed, out of town retailing for furniture and clothing took hold and the point of profitability disappeared into the distance. You could not say however that they did not try to make the format work.

Then the credit crunch and in austerity Britain there came a point when the debt that the stores where racking up and poor trading where endangering the whole of the Anglia Society. Clearly some radical surgery was needed but everyone in the movement was caught out by the boldness of the Anglia management team’s approach.

With a thousand jobs at risk Anglia came up with an imaginative solution. Whilst keeping the freehold of the stores it has transferred nineteen of the department stores to Beales PLC. Whilst trading under the Beales brand the stores will continue to operate AHF furniture and carpets, Co-operative Travel, Anglia Co-op Optical and Stylistics hair and beauty concessions with Beales being committed to honoring the co-operative dividend.

Then later in 2011 the other part of Anglia’s non-food estate Anglia Home Furnishings (AHF) was transferred to its staff as a going concern. This single transfer made AHF amongst the largest workers co-operative in the country. With nine stores of its own and trading through ten department stores and an online presence this is a business, with a turnover of over £14 million.

All three elements have been freed to concentrate on what they are good at. Beales is good at department stores, AHF has pioneered new store formats that have set it off to a flying start and Anglia has been free to focus its full attention on the core businesses of Food, Funerals and Specialist Retail and most importantly ensuring value for the members. In the first half the Society overall achieved an Operating Profit of £2.65m. This may not seem much but is a huge advance on the loss of £0.2m at the same time last year. During the period the Society has again significantly reduced borrowings and are now opening new stores and growing again.

Whilst these changes may have been forced on Anglia due to changes in the trading environment they have been made sensitively with the minimum impact on employees. Meanwhile the Society has been using the advantages of the electronic membership system to good effect in rewarding customer loyalty. The system also allows members to donate their ‘divi’ to the Anglia Co-operative Community Fund (ACCF). As I write over £700,000 has been awarded to good causes. So from 1876 to today the principles of giving members good value and supporting those in need still holds true!

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Co-op's in Higher Education

Like co-operators everywhere I was saddened to hear of the death of Elinor Ostrom. Elinor, or Lin, as she was known was remarkable; the only woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for economics. Her Prize was for her analyses of how individuals and communities can often manage common resources – ranging from activities as far apart as irrigation systems, fisheries and information systems – better than markets or the state.

Her most influential book was the 1990 work, Governing the Commons, in which she examined numerous local management systems overturning the conventional wisdom of resource management. This was the work that lead to her Nobel laureate and Time Magazine, earlier this year, to list her as one of the world’s top 100 most influential people.

I was thinking about her when I attended the Co-operative Education Trust Scotland (CETS) conference, Co-operation and Co-operatives in Higher Education, which bought together teachers, lecturers and students from across Scotland, in the Institute for the Formation of Character, the school founded by Robert Owen, at New Lanark.

Despite the work of great minds like Elinor’s neo-classical economics, has higher education in a death grip. It is like a religion, in the sense that its belief in markets is based purely on faith when all the evidence points in the opposite direction.

Like many abstract ideas they work very well in theory but not only do they not work in practice they simply do not exist. For neo-classical economists co-operatives are a result of market failure and the thing do when markets fail is to make the market work better with yet more liberalisation and deregulation.

The fact is that markets always fail because they are an abstract idea and take no account of the way people actually behave. The only way they can be made to work in the interests of people is by some degree of co-operation. But today co-operatives have almost completely disappeared from the economic text books.

When the subject of economics had its original name of political-economy co-operatives where well represented in the text books with co-operatives being presented in great detail with important contributions from Robert Owen, Proudhon, John Stuart Mill, Charles Gide and the Webb’s.

Come the rise of the neo-classical thinking however and all this disappeared.

The question we have to ask is why? Is it because co-operatives are less important? If anything co-operatives are more important now than a hundred years ago. In the European Union countries co-operative membership to total population is between 20 and 30 % and in North America it is even higher. By any measure the importance of co-ops globally has increased over the period with more members of co-ops than shareholders in private firms, 1.4 million co-ops international employ over 100 million people 20% more than all the transnational companies put together.

Is it therefore ideological? There is no doubt during this time economics has become even more abstract. That early analysis was of economic institutions today the worlds is bent to match the theory with the role of government reduced to getting out of the way creating perfect spaces for markets to operate in eliminating any need for co-operation.

This is why it is so important to get the study of co-operatives and co-operation back into Universities and Business Schools. The complete failure of the pure market model to reflect the needs of the real world means we have a new co-operative opportunity. But it will be stillborn if students and policy makers have no idea what co-operatives are, how they work and how they can be encouraged.

This ignorance also enables charlatans to fill the space with all sorts of outlandish business models called co-operatives or mutuals when no meaningful control in the enterprise is exorcised by the members in the form of customers, suppliers or workers.

It is for this reason it was great to be in Scotland and to see the excellent work that CETS are doing. They now have three levels of qualification approved by the Scottish Qualifications Authority. Beginning with Co-operative Enterprise the Democratic Alternative, history of the movement, practical activities and an international perspective, this is a huge step in the right direction.

It was also a delight to be at the launch of Democratic Enterprise a fantastic new educational resource. Developed jointly between CETS and the University of Aberdeen it is designed for undergraduate students and provides an open access, introductory-level analysis of democratic models of enterprise, ie co-operatives and employee-owned businesses. A supplement to any course or module that deals with these topics, it also stands alone as a template for academics who wish to incorporate material on democratic models of enterprise into their courses or modules.

This is a completely free resource so any teacher or lecturer can get hold of this material at: So no excuse for university teachers to ignore the topic, Dairmuid McDonnell, who has worked on this for CETS deserves the plaudits but this is just a start of the education and educational tools we need to take co-operatives and co-operation out of their intellectual ghetto.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Celebrating the Co-op Group's Democracy

There is no doubt that the Co-operative Movement like all progressive movements underwent a near death experience during the onslaught of Thatcherism. Today we have a vibrant and exciting sector that to be honest is in a much better shape than we ever thought possible but perhaps not in as good a position as it should be. This was what went through my mind as I sat in the Annual General Meeting of the Co-operative Group in Manchester on a very hot weekend. The Group is the giant of the UK Co-operative sector a collection of significant individual businesses that have grown from a series of amalgamations of smaller consumer retail societies and the shared services the old Co-operative Wholesale Society used to undertake on behalf of the entire consumer co-operative movement. The AGM in Manchester is as you would perhaps expect in society with 7.2 million members a huge example of representative democracy with delegates from all the regions and devolved nations and from affiliated independent societies. Making for hundreds of representatives in a huge co-operative parliament. The Group has a lot to celebrate, with a store in every postal area of the UK we are all familiar with the Co-op food stores but did you know it is Britain’s 3rd largest pharmacy chain, as well as Britain’s biggest farmer and funeral director? Then there is the Banking Group and the travel arm with Thomas Cook. This is a huge business conglomerate when they have to some extent gone out of fashion. With a turnover of £13.3billion and £585million operating profit there is a lot to discus. A large part of the chair, Len Wardle’s, report to the members was taken up with the proposed purchase of banking branches from LloydsTSB. Frankly members have been disgusted with the way this had been reported in the financial press. The attacks on the Co-op Group board members as, a nurse, a Methodist Minister, a civil servant, a farmer, etc and therefore unfit to run a bank drew the response that if more Banks had been managed by people with common sense and real world experiences the country would not be in the mess it is in now! This attack on the democracy of the Group is a fundamental issue. We cannot allow the FSA or our enemies in the City who are against our democratic culture to determine our structure. Better in my opinion to pass over the opportunity for quick growth and stick to slower more organic growth than allow ourselves to be dictated to in this way. There is also a school of thought that in the present crisis in the banking sector it is impossible to do any accurate due diligence on these banking operations. The Group also has some new irons in the fire with the expansion of Co-operative Legal Services widening access to the law with the creation of 3,000 new posts. This is an area where trust is paramount and is a testimony to the integrity of the brand. Members however where not resting on their laurels. Clearly as a community retailer the Groups fortunes rise and fall with the communities they serve. There where key motions on improving the food store proposition and a demand that the Co-op Group supports the Living Wage Campaign. This latter is a tough ask for the Group as competition in the food sector is vicious and a 10p increase in the hourly rate is £50million off the bottom line. Also the competition in the form of Asda-Wallmart, Tesco and others has deep pockets. However the Board where anxious to find ways within the means of the Group to see what could be done and to report back to next half yearly meeting. There were tough questions on, supporting the communities in which we trade, e-business, joining with other European Co-operators in international buying, as well as issues around packaging and waste, and executive remuneration. The board where certainly put through their paces. I think however we are fortunate in the quality of the management team and the excellent quality of the CEO’s of the independent societies on the board. People like Ursula Libetter of Lincolnshire, Martyn Cheadle of Midlands, and Ben Reid of Midcounties stand comparison with any CEO’s in the corporate sector. The AGM had some more pleasant duties like voting through the distributions of £50.8million to the individual members and £24.4million to employees. I must say also I was deeply impressed with the contributions from the delegates from the Group regions, the quality of the arguments put forward, even if you did not agree with them was impressive. The passion for the communities they represent shone through, with rich accents from all parts of the United Kingdom. The democracy and representativeness of the Co-operative Groups Parliament feels and sounds like the real thing unlike some of the noises that emanate from the Palace of Westminster which these days sound like bland waffle in comparison. As I said at the beginning we are in a stronger position than we dared expect but we know we can do better and we will have too if in the present period we are to withstand both the competition and the destructive nature of the government’s economic policies.

In Praise of Champagne Socialism!

I am sure many readers of the Morning Star have been accused of being the proverbial Bollinger Bolshevik because they perhaps have a taste for the very best in food and wine. It is funny how many TV chefs trek half way across Europe to eat the food of peasants. I wonder if it is to escape the processed pap they help the supermarkets to sell to millions of us Brits! The TV advertisers tell us it is traditional or just as good as mother used to make but nothing could be further from the truth. There is no greater pleasure than sharing a meal, of good food and good wine, in good company. The tragedy is that unlike in most other European countries where people are closer to the land because of our early start at industrialisation and the consequent land clearances most Brits have long since lost contact with the place where their food and drink actually comes from. I well remember my first visit to the Fete de Humanite the newspaper of the Communist Party of France. Each region of the Party had a tent with a bar and restaurant selling its own particular regional speciality and the Communist Party’s from other countries had similar stalls. I particularly enjoyed those of Italy, Spain and Portugal. I can still remember the Portuguese stand with its grilled sardines and Douro wine; it makes my mouth water to think of it. One refuge from this blandness and an escape to world of the very best wine at very reasonable prices is to loin the Wine Society. WHICH readers proclaim it to be the very best of wine club voting it head and shoulders above all the others. Last Christmas I bought my wife a share in the Society, she is half Spanish, and is particularly fond of the albarino wines of the Rias Baixas area in North West Spain, which can be hard to come by. I must admit she went a bit mad with her first order delivered in the Society’s own van. “Never mind”, I said, “I will help you to get rid of it”! Unlike other clubs the Society is a genuine co-operative with a rather interesting pedigree. For the last of the Great Exhibitions, in 1874, various countries sent large quantities of wine in cask to be stored in the cellars of the Albert Hall where according to the early history of the society, ‘it entirely escaped notice from visitors’. The Portuguese growers appealed for help, step forward Major-General Henry Scott, one of the architects of the hall who held a series of lunches to publicise the wines. Many guests expressed an interest in buying the wine and Scott proposed the setting up of “a co-operative company” to buy good quality wines and sell on a regular basis to members. The International Exhibition Co-operative Wine Society Limited was born. This months AGM will be the 138th year the Society has reported to its members. It is still owned solely by them (one share each) and trades exclusively with them and there are a clear majority of elected members, 8 out of 13, on the board. The focus however is the same as it has always been and that is to make available to members the best quality of wine and service at the best possible price. The society sells only to members and a lifetime share costs just £40 with no annual fee or obligation to purchase and what’s more new members get a credit of £10 to their account to help with their first purchase. The Society’s wine buyers cover the world looking for excellence in every price bracket. Prices start as low as £5 a bottle. Whilst of course they carry all the classics from Claret to Burgundy and the Rhone the current range of 1,500 wines enables members to explore less well known wines if I am beginning to sound like their marketing manager it is because the more members the lower the costs! As the society measures success in member satisfaction at the beginning of this year they reduced over 300 prices and there where no price increases. Because they are a co-op they where able to reduce margins and reinvest previous year’s profits back into the society. 2011 was a tough year with a VAT increase, volatile exchange rates and members feeling the pinch and trading down. So despite the highest ever case sales, over 600,000 to 110,000 members, the deliberate reduction in margin meant that gross turnover only slightly increased to £69.2million. They have declared a 2% dividend which is to be retained within the business to continue to improve the service which includes free delivery on cases of twelve bottles. The price and quality of wine from the IWC is second to none and according to the chair Sarah Evans, who spoke at this years co-operative retail conference, this is thanks to its mutual, co-operative, status, “the buyers are not tasked with meeting specific selling prices and profit margins set by commercial priorities, but with finding high quality, interesting, value-for-money wines from around the world at all price levels. Member satisfaction is paramount, maximising profit is not.” They must be doing something right. Despite the fact they do not advertise membership grew last year by 13,269! As I write we have just taken delivery of a case of white sauvignons for summer which I can tell you we will enjoy drinking even if it never stops raining!

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

UNITY: a 125 Years of Bolton’s Socialist Club

June 2nd sees Bolton Socialists on the moors taking their annual Walt Whitman walk, with fellowship, a swig of wine from the loving cup and poetry from Whitman. An event made famous from Stuart Maconies Radio 4 documentary and the book, With Walt Whitman in Bolton by Paul Salveson. Their association with Whitman is just one in a long list of historic ties going back to their formation in 1887. “The story begins with Tom France, who sold hot peas around the streets.” Argues Denis Pye in his history of the Club, In January 1886, Tom announced in the Social Democratic Federation newspaper, Justice that he would like to hear from any friends interested in forming a branch. The branch grew and was very active in a bitter engineering workers dispute from May until October 1887. In which they where supported by full-time SDF organiser Tom Mann, Bolton Socialists where so impressed they invited him to stay setting him up with a tobacconists and newsagents in Deansgate. Not long after his arrival the Independent Order of Good Templers Hall where they had been meeting became the Social-Democratic Hall, or the Socialist Club. Bolton had an incredibly vibrant socialist scene, as well as a Labour Church, they even tried to establish the Bolton Co-operative Commonwealth a self supporting village or colony. Sadly it only lasted six years. Meanwhile many important figures passed through including Peter Kropotkin and William Morris. In 1892 the ILP was established in the town with a strong overlap with the SDF. Noticeable when in 1896 Eleanor Marx came to speak. But the most important vehicle for creating socialist unity was the Clarion. Not just a political paper but a way of life. Its readers formed choirs, theatre groups, cycling and rambling clubs and most of all preached socialist unity. It is thanks to the Clarion that we still have a Socialist Club in Bolton today. It was in June 1898 that Sarah Reddish, active in the Co-operative Women’s Guild well known as a speaker with the Clarion women’s van, wrote in to the paper as Secretary of Bolton West Ward ILP branch saying they where prepared to fuse with the SDF. That fusion took place in September 1898 to form the Bolton Socialist Party. Their Principles and Objects ring down the years: a) The national ownership and control of land and the means of distributing national wealth. b) The reduction of the hours of labour to the lowest point compatible with the highest material moral and intellectual development and well being of the individual and society. c) The equal right of all to the highest and best education. Equal social rights, duties and responsibilities. Observance of the highest principles of fellowship. d) The abolition of all class privileges and monopolies. The abolition of war and the establishment of peace between nations. e) The furtherance of Socialism to the uttermost:- by means of local conferences, elections, public meetings, papers, pleasures and pastimes, not incompatible with the highest interests if the Party and Club and the uttermost furtherance of its objects. f) The promotion of the highest material wellbeing of the people of this and every other country of the world, without distinction of race, sex or creed. g) The emancipation of labour from the domination of capitalism and landlordism. The establishment of social equality between the sexes, the cultivation in all the clearest of conception and love of truth, justice, liberty, good manners and good motives. In 1901 a prospectus for the Bolton Socialist Hall Limited (the Co-operative Industrial and Provident Society which still exists) was launched offering £1 shares. Meanwhile social, cultural and propaganda activities continued, a Socialist Sunday School was established with the Socialist Ten Commandments which were reproduced for the centenary by Leeds Postcards. The same year James Connolly visited the town and by 1904 they had raised enough money to buy 16, Wood Street. Still committed to unity the Bolton Socialists sent delegates when the SDF called a Unity conference in 1911. This lead to the formation of the British Socialist Party and they became a branch. Then in 1913 they hosted Big Jim Larkin campaigning against the Dublin lockout. In 1916 a pro-war faction of the Socialist Party formed a National Socialist Party; the Bolton branch had the good sense to reject this and became independent once again. Following the war club secretary, Jim Paulden, write a hundred-page epic poem in praise of Lenin, yet at the end of 1921 they affiliated to the Labour Party. Sadly from the late 1920’s for fifty years the Club became something of drinking den as they exploited the licensing laws to serve alcohol when the pubs where shut. Left wingers still met in the Club but it was thanks to the licensing authorities who took the clubs license away in 1979 that it rediscovered its true purpose. In hock to the brewery the club was put up for sale in 1982 but its co-operative status saved it – the signatures of 75% of its members where required to wind up the society and they simply could not be found. The Society was re-floated in November 1983. The reborn co-operative club introduced many of the old activities to a new generation. Sadly in a burst of sectarianism by the Labour Party the clubs affiliations were terminated having hosted a meeting of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party – like they have for many other socialist parties and organisations. Independent again every Friday they have a regular cycle of events designed to encourage the education, organisation and agitation of socialists. They support those in struggle but also have a full cultural program of cinema, talks, play readings they even have a Clarion choir. As William Morris pointed out they are engaged in that most important of work “making socialists”. The Bolton Socialist Party and Club have been doing just that for 125 years, every town needs one!

Monday, 14 May 2012

Civil Service Pensioners Mugged by Maude and Hutton

I read in a Cabinet Office press release "the first 'John Lewis style' business created from a central government service", and ‘the first joint-venture mutual’ said the BBC. What is this new venture? It is MyCSP Ltd -short for My Civil Service Pension. Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, hailed it as an alternative to the "binary choice" between state monopoly and privatisation, and as a "pathfinder" at the "cutting edge of public-service reform". The man who created panic over a potential fuel strike is now spreading panic through the Civil Service and its pensioners as he again mangles the language in privatising the Public Service Pension Scheme whilst telling the world he is creating a mutual. There are such things as financial mutuals, they have their own Association, it is a significant group of 57 member owned businesses managing assets of over £85billion. For the record it defines a financial mutual as “an organisation that supplies financial services products, and which is owned by its customers, or members.” Examples include NFU Mutual and Liverpool Victoria Friendly Society. The 1.5 million members of the Civil Service Pension Scheme have no role in the new organisation. So it is a simple test is MyCSP owned by its customer/members? NO! So it is NOT a financial mutual. Is it owned by its employees? The definition published by the Employee Ownership Association says that, “for an organisation to be classified as ‘employee owned’, employees must have ownership of more than 50 per cent of the organisation”. So a stake of half this means MyCSP is not employee owned either. What’s more a key co-operative principle is “voluntary and open membership”. In a survey conducted by the PCS Union of staff in MyCSP over half responded. 96% wanted to retain their civil service status in full and 94% were opposed to the government's view that the mutualisation would ‘empower employees and improve performance’, as Maude had claimed. What is more as the workers have been coerced into this new business it is in no sense a co-operative. So who are the real owners? Well it is to be 40% owned by the Equiniti Group and the Government are to retain a 35% stake which makes it look like another smelly PFI scheme. As a sop the people who work in the company are to get a 25% stake held in trust. But who are the Equiniti Group? The Chairman is, Kevin Beeston, ex Serco and the Chief Executive is, Wayne Story, ex Capita, not exactly famous for a commitment to workers co-operatives or mutuality. The new business is set to get the contract for the Civil Service Pensions for seven years then they will be out to tender for the business against other Pensions administration businesses. The Parliamentary All Party Group on Employee Ownership, produced a report called Sharing Ownership, The role of Employee Ownership in Public Service Delivery. They asked David Burbage, from the London Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, if the mutualisation programme was viewed as “disguised privatisation” which could “swallow up” employee led mutuals. He responded that this was something that would have to be guarded against: “We don’t want to find we’re dealing with Serco in a different kind of deal”. Well that looks to me just what we have here. It is not as if we have not been here before when the Railways where privatised in 1993 the Corporate Pensions Department for the British Railways Board was also privatised as Pensions Management Ltd. Today it is called RPMI Ltd as they changed their name to attract non-railway clients. The scheme has been under continuous criticism from all of the rail unions. Despite a Commission on Railway Pensions the disagreements between workers and the scheme has continued. The current pensions dispute between ASLEF and East Midlands Trains which has led to this month’s strike action shows the importance to workers of their pensions. There is a case for both worker ownership and control and mutual financial services, they could have started for example with the bust Banks they had taken into public ownership, but the case of MyCSP is just Government spin. Just look who is to be the £1000 a day chairman of this new business according to James Lyons in the Daily Mirror who else but the architect of the work longer, pay more, get less, pension for public sector workers, the man who started the pensions assault in the first place, Lord John Hutton. What do the new quarter “owners” of MyCSP get? Well many will get the sack! Interviewed on the Civil Service Live Network the new CEO Phil Bartlett said when asked does the new business model mean staff numbers will fall said: “Yes. Overall when we start out, we’ll probably employ about 700 people in the public and private sectors running this. When we’ve re-tooled and opened up the new channels, then we’ll be smaller than that; probably half the size, maybe a bit less.” How long will it be in its present structure? “We want a mutual shareholding structure that provides good stability over time. But you never say never in these things. It will be the shareholders themselves that will take those decisions to change those arrangements in the future,” he says. Clearly the government could have prevented such a possibility by either making it a real mutual or giving the workers complete control. But they have done neither and this dreadful beast will do terrible damage to the image of employee ownership and the mutual sector by behaving like the private business it is.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Financial Fair Play and Fan Owned Clubs

Despite the some drama at the end of the football season it has yet again been a really good one for the case of football co-op’s. OK so fan owned Barcelona lost to Abramovich’s Chelsea. But Chelsea still have to beat the 130,000 fans who own 84% of Bayern Munich to win the title. So another good season for fan owned clubs with three of the four Champion’s League Semi-finalists being owned by their fans. The Bundesliga has a 50% plus one rule which means no individual however wealthy can take control of one of its member clubs. So I will be cheering on Bayern in the final. And when it comes to bankrupt blues why does no one seem to be advocating fan ownership for Glasgow Rangers? With their global support surely if any club is capable of rebuilding itself it has to be Rangers on the back of such a hugely passionate fan base. It is in an ideal position to go for fan ownership surely their experience of being owned by some particularly dubious people is enough to put them off being a rich man’s toy forever! Meanwhile in the lower divisions we have had some stunning performances from fan owned clubs. I will be cheering on Wrexham to make it into the football league after a dramatic year in which the club has been bought back to life thanks to the support of their fantastic fans. Last summer players went unpaid and pre-season games where called off for lack of cash. Now they are on the verge of promotion. The fans raised over £100,000 in a matter of hours to raise the conference bond and nearly 6,000 turned up for the battle of fan owned clubs when they played AFC Telford on New Year’s Day. AFC Telford another club undergoing rebuilding following a fan buyout has managed to hang on to their place in the Blue Square League. Sadly Exeter City one of personal favourites of fan owned clubs who do a tremendous amount in the community in Devon will drop into the Championship League 2 to join AFC Wimbledon who have had, well, a mixed season back in the football league. One of the most amazing performances of the season has been in the Premiership where Swansea the only Welsh club ever to play in the Premiership has set people talking with their brand of free flowing football. Not many people realise however that without the 20% of the club in the ownership of the Supporters Trust, giving them a seat on the board, this success would not have been possible. I am confident that over time as other shareholders come and go the Supporters Trust will come to play an even bigger role in the club. Elsewhere in Wales Merthyr Town won promotion from the Western Football League Premier Division to the Southern League just two years after being reformed under supporter’s ownership after the liquidation of Merthyr Tydfil FC. There is no doubt that Supporters Direct who promote supporters club ownership and the formation of supporters trusts are doing a great job with some 26 clubs now in ownership or control by supporters trusts. I will be looking forward to the contests for the Supporters Direct Shield between Fisher and Lewes and the Supporters Direct Cup, sponsored by the Co-operative Group, between Wrexham and Enfield Town when both games are played, on Sunday July 8th, at Enfield Towns Queen Elizabeth Stadium. Meanwhile talking of stadiums as well as reaching the play-off final in the Evo-Stick League, FC United of Manchester are also celebrating having raised £1.6 million in a community share issue. This cash will unlock the grant funding they need to meet the costs of their new £4.6 million stadium project and building work is set to commence at the Moston site in the spring. Many people have commented that in the tussle between the two halves of Manchester that United have been held back this season by the huge burden of debt imposed on them by the Glaziers. It was this argument that in many ways lead to the formation of FC United. They are not however the only critics of the Glaziers and their financial engineering. One critic brings me back to where I began it is the President of Bayern Munich, Uli Hoeness, he argues it is unfair for the owners of the club to lumber them with almost £450 million of debt, something I suspect many United fans would agree with when they woke up on the morning after City had overtaken over at the top of the Premiership table. This may soon become a much bigger issue as Bayern are vociferous supporters of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Regulations, which could see clubs barred from the Champions League if they fail to reduce losses and adhere to the new financial strictures by 2015. The German club's chief executive, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge insists that Europe’s governing body must get tough with those who ignore the rules. At the moment only Arsenal of the highest profile Premier League clubs would comfortably meet the requirements of the new rules based on recently published financial results. Under their current ownership model Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City would all fail. If it was needed another good reason to rethink how our most popular sport is owned and run.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Co-operation in Education

As a child of a “bog standard” comprehensive and an advocate of comprehensive education I have been horrified by the return to a class based selective education system. Selection achieved not by examination but by geography. Living in the right street or going to the right church gets your child into the ‘right’ school.

We never had a truly comprehensive system - the pernicious influence of the public schools and the church was always felt. Now the changes that began under the Tories, reinforced by New Labour, are reaching fruition with the Condems and can be seen for what they are privatisation and rationing. The mantra of ‘choice’ means schools choose pupils rather than pupils’ schools and the tyranny of testing means there is precious little time for any real education to take place during school time.

Working class education is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was on New Years Day in 1816 that Robert Owen opened, the Institute for the Formation of Character, in New Lanark, establishing Britain’s first primary school.

We can see how out of touch Owen was, he set no targets, children where controlled by kindness and affection with no punishments permitted, there where no prizes given that might encourage individual emulation, instead the emphasis was on a co-operative search for knowledge that would be its own reward. Today these ideas will not even get you the keys to a “Free School”.

As far back as the formation of the Rochdale Pioneers Society back in 1844 education has been one of the co-op principles. Yet despite the movement establishing its own college in 1919 the idea of ‘co-operative education’ in its more holistic sense has been an aspiration rather than a reality because it goes against most educational practice. Co-operative learning has two sides on one is the pedagogy, the way to learn co-operatively, the other is as a way of learning about co-operation as part of an alternative social and economic system.

These complex multi-facetted ideas about co-operative education have been bought together in a special issue of the Co-operative Studies Journal. Guest edited by Maureen Breeze, Co-President of the International Association for the Study of Co-operation in Education, with support from Alan Wilkins of Co-operative Learning and Development Associates and Richard Bickle Secretary of the UK Society for Co-operative Studies.

It contains some substantial articles that put co-operation in education into focus and are followed by 27 accounts of the huge range of practice here in the UK. It is gratifying that there is so much thinking about an alternative educational philosophy in these troubled times.

Maureen in her introduction argues, that “The intention of the Journal is to provide a platform from which to investigate and develop understandings of the breadth of meanings and representations variously described as co-operation in education as well as bringing some coherence to those approaches.”

Many contributors and practitioners in the field have found themselves isolated but by bringing so many together to produce the special issue of the journal co-operatively something really special has been achieved.

Owen was right that education has for its object the formation of character. But so too was Bertrand Russell when in his seminal book, On Education in 1928, he wrote “We must have some conception of the type of person we wish to produce, before we can have a definite opinion as to the education we consider best.”

Our present system does seem to propel those from the “best” schools and “best” universities to the top. Yet as examples of their output, David Cameron and George Osborne display astonishing levels of ignorance and a complete lack of empathy with their fellow citizens. Their socio-pathology shows us something is very wrong with the education they have received unless of course their arrogance, ignorance and greed are the desired outputs?

What is clear is that inviting students to compete as rivals for grades means they work against one another a process described as negative interdependence. Alternatively co-operative learning, working together to accomplish shared goals, creates positive interdependence, achieved when students learn that they can only reach their desired goals, if and only if, the other students in the group reach those same goals.

Co-operative learning can be seen as a form of experiential learning, as US author John Holt points out, “children cannot learn all that much from cookbooks (instruction and textbooks) new or old because they do not learn effectively by trying to transplant someone else’s reality into their own but by building up their own reality from the experiences they encounter.”

This Journal contains a wealth of experience from schools, adult, further and higher education, there is even a piece by a sixteen year old member of the Woodcraft Folk an organisation that could teach us all a great deal about effective learning.

We are facing some deeply challenging questions as the government dismantles the state education system, can you have a genuinely co-operative school within the context of these changes? As Maureen says, “By finding a way to bring these all together and harnessing the combined energy, knowledge, experience and practice, we could truly embrace the potential for transforming education through co-operation and become a force for change.”

That change cannot come soon enough this really is a splendid and timely publication if you are interested in obtaining a copy go to: