Wednesday, 26 September 2012
Tuesday, 11 September 2012
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
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
His rule precipitated some very dark days indeed for the Asian business community in
Years later Ali was able to return to
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
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.
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!
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
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
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
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.