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.