Thursday, 16 May 2013

A Small Allotment of Freedom

I was delighted when the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardner’s joined Co-ops UK. They have been around since 1901 and as a bone fide Industrial and Provident Society have long been a co-operative.

Allotments hold a special place in working class culture and whilst there is no typical allotment holder or allotment site, nonetheless they have produced an instantly recognisable landscape. Interestingly, in their seminal book, now sadly out of print, The Allotment, its landscape and culture, (Five Leaves 1997) David Crouch and Colin Ward argue that the allotment began as a moral landscape with rules that promoted almost in a parody of William Morris 'useful toil'.

They say that the allotment was adapted over time to provide individual space away from the home and a means of escape from 'real' life. Today it remains a sociologist’s dream space and is important as a place where a range of significant social activities, attachments and cultural encounters take place.

We are seeing a huge upsurge in demand for allotments. There are around 300,000 allotments in the UK and it is said that there is a new breed of young professionals who are seeking to “grow their own” who are untypical but as Crouch and Ward point out in over 150 years there has never been a typical allotment gardener.

There are more young professionals, families and groups embracing allotment culture, and demand has outstripped supply in many parts of the country with long waiting lists. In 2009 the National Trust pledged to create a thousand new allotments on its land and they where soon snapped up.

We can date the development of the modern allotments movement back to the great Enclosures Acts of the 1836 and 1840 which deprived many working class people of access to the land. The General Enclosures Act of 1845, following a degree of popular unrest, introduced the idea of “field gardens” for the landless poor but whilst hundreds of thousand of acres of land was enclosed only a couple of thousand was set aside for such use.
It was not until 1887 that local authorities where obliged to provide allotments but this was uneven in its application. It was the Smallholding and Allotment Act 1907 that imposed responsibilities on parish, urban district and borough councils to provide allotments and further legislation in 1908 consolidated this position.
For the late Victorians allotments were thought of as productive use of time for the working poor taking them away from the demon drink. They where also thought of as a way of providing wholesome food for a workforce housed in high density gardenless housing.
It was the German U-boats in the First World War that cemented the allotment into popular culture the blockade cut off supplies of many products and workers took to the allotment as a way of filling the gap, interestingly the “Dig for Victory campaign in World War Two was based on the same principle.

During the War many railway companies released land to their workers for allotments and this is why many allotment sites are next to railways to this day.

After the war there was a steady decline in the number of allotments but in recent years this decline has stabilised and in parts of the country we have seen a growth in allotment numbers.

Allotments have always been good for physical as well as mental health. They are obviously a space for recreation, for exercise, but are also a space for contemplation and solitude. Of course, whilst hard work, for many poor people the chance of growing one's own food was a great boon. Today when we are so alienated from the natural world and most of our food comes shrink wrapped there is almost something spiritual about growing something you can eat yourself.
Allotments and urban agriculture projects often offer an opportunity for excluded groups to participate in gardening and horticulture and can contribute to a sense of self as well as a sense of community.
An allotment is defined as an area of land, leased either from a private or local authority landlord, for the use of growing fruit and vegetables. In some cases this land will also be used for the growing of ornamental plants, and the keeping of hens, rabbits and bees.
Rods, poles and perches are Anglo-Saxon names for the same unit of measurement (1 rod equals five and half yards). An allotment is traditionally measured in this way and ten poles is the accepted size of an allotment, about the size of a doubles tennis court. Never has such a small parcel of land carried so much cultural significance and added so much to our countries wellbeing.
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Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Time to Look Again at the Co-operative Option

A piece I wrote for Chartist 

It is admittedly from a low base but it is a fact that since the great crash of 2008 the co-operative economy in the UK has grown by 19.6% to £35.6 billion, the number of individual co-operative enterprises has grown by 23% and the number of members in co-ops has reached 13.5 million (4.5 million more than all the individual shareholders).

Internationally too the sector is in rude healthy with over a billion people members of co-ops employing over 100 million people more than all the transnational businesses added together and the world’s top 300 co-ops have a US$2trillion turnover.

So why is the sector still so invisible here in the UK?  I believe this is for two reasons, people felt following the demutualisations of the eighties that it was a historical thing (interestingly none of the demutualised building societies have survived as stand alone mortgage banks) and secondly because in the public mind the sector is almost exclusively identified with co-op shops which where disappearing and only now are clawing their way back through mergers and acquisitions.

It may seem odd but in the first half of the nineteenth century as Britain was undergoing the industrial revolution it was unclear which model of business governance would dominate this new economy. People are familiar with Robert Owen who was a huge influence on the early co-operative movement but more important, in developing co-operative theory was Irishman William Thompson (1775-1833).

Thompson coined the word competitive to describe the system we now have. His An Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth Most Conducive to Human Happiness; applied to the Newly Proposed System of Voluntary Equality of Wealth, (1824) was an important contribution to the political-economy of co-operation. Thompson debated with J.S.Mill in the 1820’s as Mill too became convinced that the co-operative was the ideal business form. In his Principles of Political Economy (1852) he wrote,

“The form of association…which if mankind continues to improve, must be expected, in the end to predominate is not that which can exist between a capitalist as chief and work-people without a voice in the management, but the association of the labourers themselves on terms of equality, collectively owning the capital with which they carry on their operations and working under managers elected and removable by themselves.” 

Up to the end of the century it looked a no-brainer that co-operation would win out over wasteful capitalism. In 1899 Alfred Marshall, the founder of the Cambridge school of neoclassical economics, wrote in his essay on Co-operation, that in a co-operative, “the worker does not produce for others but for himself, which unleashes an enormous capacity for diligent, high quality work that capitalism suppresses. There is one ruined product in the history of the world, so much greater than all the others that it can truly be called the ‘wasted product’ – the best working capacities of the labouring classes.”

So how come for a hundred year’s co-operation vanished from economic text-books and as a consequence from our economic life? Pami Kalmi of the Helinski School of Economics has documented this disappearance.

He has shown that before World War I co-operation had a fair shake there was extensive discussion of co-ops, with theoretical insights and a careful examination of existing co-operative forms.   He pins the change on two things a move from an institutional approach ie from actually existing firms and co-ops to the more theoretical idealised neo-classical model, and to the increased role of the state which meant that all the social problems fell to the government with economists offering top-down solutions based on idealised abstract market solutions.

The current problems we face is that markets are an over simplified abstract idea which in the real world only work for short periods as a means of allocating resources. We only have to look at the multiple crises in banking, housing, energy, jobs, health and social care, transport and even in food supply, all due in their own way to market failure of the current capitalist model.

Yet the solutions to these crises offered by both government and opposition are almost invariably more top down, more market, and more competition!  It seems that those bought up and educated in the current period believe that the thing they want, “the market” offering consumer choice and a rational distribution of resources can only achieved in a capitalistic system.  But the market economy arose centuries before capitalism and the idea that capitalism and the market are synonymous is completely unfounded.

It is this inability to even imagine a co-operative alternative amongst economists, policy makers and politicians that is both holding back the development of the co-operative economy but more importantly doing immense damage to our national economy.

After all has any model been taken more in vain in the last couple of years than the “John Lewis Model”? This has become one of those Humpty Dumpty phrases from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean.” Talking about “mutuals” without any understanding of them is spreading distrust.

No wonder trade unionists see the “mutualisation” of public services as mere privatisation. Some of this failure to connect is the fault of us in the co-operative sector who seem to relish making co-op structures as complex as possible (although when you look at them in details share holder businesses too can be pretty complex).

In a neo-liberal binary world of public or private the very idea of a private business that is owned and controlled democratically by its members and that enters the market for social ends just does not fit into this world view. No wonder they have been successfully eradicated from economic textbooks.   

The fact that in some circumstances co-operatives can be more efficient, innovative or indeed more profitable than shareholder businesses is impossible for them to imagine.

If we look at the best examples of co-operatives around the world in energy, in social care, in food supply in housing and even in financial services many of the solutions to our current predicament are staring us in the face if we could only see them.

This is why Ed Mayo secretary General of Co-operatives UK has called for a National Co-operation Policy. Put simply to promote co-operation and co-operative solutions within and between enterprises and enterprises and individuals when it adds value. There are good examples of this approach from countries as diverse as Denmark, Germany, Italy and France.

Some of this ignorance about co-operative forms is the fault of the movement itself and this is also why the theme this year for Co-operative Fortnight, the movements’ outward facing celebration of all things co-operative is the “co-operative option.” We have set ourselves the challenge of persuading accountants and lawyers’ business advisers and bank managers anyone who advises start up businesses that there is always the co-operative option.

We have a lot to do but as John Stuart Mill argued “we may through the co-operative principle, see our way to a change in society which would combine the freedom and independence of the individual, with the moral, intellectual and economic advantages of aggregate production.”

Monday, 13 May 2013

Raising a Glass to Co-op Wine

If I had a favourite type of co-op near the top of the list would be those called caves cooperatives in France, cantina sociale in Italy and winzergenossenschaft in Germany. I am sure those of you who like me enjoy a drop and want to be ideologically sound in our choices have already worked this one out  - they are winemaking co-operative’s.

These splendid organisations allow small scale growers to pool resources and benefit from economies of scale. Small scale growers often lack the resources to build wineries, to invest in technology or marketing but get enough of them together and they can compete with the big boys. Every wine growing region in the world has some co-operative presence and some are dominated by co-operatives.

The worlds largest wine producing region is the Spanish region of La Mancha it was in the 1940’s that the growers here started joining together to get better prices for their grapes. Today almost 400,000 hectares of grapes are grown in the region 70% of which supply 130 co-ops.  Some people think that co-operatives only produce tank wine for blending or for distillation but here Cooperativa Virgen de Las Vinas, the largest cooperative in Europe with 2,445 members, recently won the Bacchus de Oro Prize for its 2004 Tomillar Reserva proving that even large co-ops can produce world class wine.

Over half of all French wine is produced by co-operatives and this too is not all Vin de Pays. There is an interesting struggle going on in the Champagne region between the large Champagne Houses and the co-operatives. The so called grand marques depend on the co-operatives for their grapes and although they dominate global sales they only control about 10% of the regions vineyards. Big brands like Moët & Chandon, Dom Pérignon, Veuve Clicquot and Krug could not sustain their sales without the input of co-operative producers.

There has however in a gradual shift in the proportion of the wine being sold directly into the market by the co-operatives bypassing the grand marques. What is more the bigger co-ops have been leaders in innovation developing interesting new products it is clear therefore that the co-operatives own brands will have a bigger share of the market in the years to come.

If you are a Bollinger Boshevik you may have seen the largest co-op own brand champagnes examples include Pannier, Raoul Collet and Veuve Devaux and they are often cheaper and just as good if not better than the more well known brands hardly surprising when they are made with the very same grapes.

One of my other personal favourites when it comes to the world of co-operative winemaking is La Riojana Co-operative in Argentina.  Its roots too go right back to the 1940’s, when Italian immigrants, most of whom were active wine growers back home, decided to build a small bodega and to buy grapes to make wine. Shortly afterwards they began planting vineyards in La Rioja province, in northwest Argentina.

Today several hundred families are involved in producing grapes for La Riojana co-operative and have helped to make it not only one of the largest and most successful co-operatives in Argentina but with annual production of around 4 million cases of wine, the world’s largest producer of certified Fairtrade-organic wine.
With over 500 members, mostly small-scale producers, many the children of the founder members continue the family tradition of producing grapes for the co-operative.
Their flagship wine is a delicious fair-trade organic Gran Reserva Malbec sold around the UK under the own brand of the co-operative group and is available from their stores. Having wet your appetite for co-op wines where can I get them from I hear you say. Well this month I received a truly co-operative offer from Britain’s very best wine club.
The Wine Society the world’s only co-operative wine merchant owned by and only trading with its members has a splendid offer called good co-operation, which is a free bottle with every order of a case from anyone of seventeen co-operatives around the world. For value for money as a co-operative wine merchant the Wine Society is outstanding with its paramount task the pleasure of the members. Not only do they supply the world’s best wine it is remarkably competitively priced.
This selection of co-op reds from Spain, France and Italy and whites from South Africa, France, Italy, Portugal and Germany also includes a co-operative non-vintage champagne, Le Brun de Neuville. To purchase these splendid wines you have to be a member but I have to say this is one of the best co-ops we have ever joined.
Never has co-op principle six, co-operation among co-operatives, been more pleasurable.
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