Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Tony Benn and Workers Control

In all the memorials to Tony Benn one period of his career seems to have been missed. The 12 years he was associated with the Institute for Workers Control. He first encountered them in 1971 when he visited the Upper Clyde Shipyards.

That contact was initially a bit circumspect, as Ken Coates said, “He was not rated very highly, although he would be given credit for having done some good things on the Clyde. He was felt to be too dodgy a customer by far. They thought he was a careerist, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, that he got his position in the Labour party because of his father. I bought them round to see that he represented a better left then the more conventional left, more adventurous, more dynamic, more liable to do things that we believed in.”

The IWC had been formed in 1968 by Ken Coates and Tony Topham it had the support of Hugh Scanlon of the Engineering Union and Jack Jones of the Transport and General Workers.

Their conferences where lively, well attended events they debated a broad range of proposals to introduce industrial democracy challenging management’s right to manage. In the first pamphlet by the IWC by Hugh Scanlon he reclaimed the radical history of British Trade Unionism from before World War One,

“The whole question of workers' control is once again becoming an important issue in the British Labour Movement. In some ways, today is analogous to that before the First World War.  Expansion of industry, coupled with inflation, up to 1914, provided the basis for aggressive union action and the growth of ideas concerning workers control, culminating in an historic pamphlet, ‘The Miners Next Step’. It provided the impetus of the growth of the shop stewards movement which arose during the war years itself.”

Benn became deeply involved in these discussions and contributed to over a dozen pamphlets for the IWC or Spokesman’s press many of which are still available and well worth reading.

In 1975 he called for the “Labour movement to intensify its discussion about industrial democracy,” but he not only made the case he offered support to. Many now look on the experiences of the Fisher-Bendix on Merseyside; or of the Scottish Daily News; or of the Triumph Meriden motor-cycle co-op as heroic failures, which in a way they where, of itself workers control cannot make a bad business good.

The Rochdale Pioneers are famous because their co-op model worked and set the scene for retail co-ops for 150 years. But before them there where hundreds that did not survive before the pioneers got it right. These experiments which will always be associated with Tony Benn are just as important in the realm of worker co-operation.
Like in many of his ideas Benn was way ahead of his time. His thoughts on Technology and Democracy where also important as he said in a pamphlet published in 1978,

“The general case for political democracy applies with equal force to industrial life. Industrial democracy, workers self-management, must develop to permit the sharing of power and responsibility at the national level and at all places of work in industry – including technological work places, and those in academic institutions.”

Further “In my submission, science can best flourish in a democratic society which shares power and responsibility more widely and in which the knowledge science has at its disposal is used to strengthen the people as a whole and allow them to harness this power to the advancement of mankind.”

Tony had more faith in us than sometimes we had in ourselves. “I had always thought it was a great pity that working people in Britain set their sights so low.” He said in a speech on Industrial Democracy in 1971.

Raising their sights the workers of Lucas Aerospace developed an astonishing plan for their business. As Bob Cryer MP said in the House of Commons in February 1979,

“I am grateful for the opportunity to raise what is one of the most important moral crusades that this country has seen in the twentieth century. I refer to the Lucas Aerospace combine shop stewards' committee, its corporate plan and the work it has done over the past three years. The shop stewards' imaginative method of tackling the question of providing jobs for peace and not for destruction is an important moral crusade of which the House and the nation must take note.”

The moral crusade for workers control is unfinished Tony Benn’s epitaph is that “he encouraged us!” Speaking in 1975 he said, “If I may finish with a tribute to the Institute for Workers Control, of which I am a member and have come to through my experience: the strange experience of being a Labour Minister makes me see in this organisation something that has real contribution to make to the debate within the movement as a whole and I would wish you luck in your future work.”

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Phone Co-op is Ringing the Changes

The annual Co-operatives West Midlands networking lunch saw co-operators from across the region come. There was much to talk about and we needed some good news.

Fortunately we got it from the key note speaker Vivian Woodell the chief executive of the Phone Co-op. What a great story as in 2013 they had declared record profits of £555,000.

"It has been a challenging year for both the co-operative movement and the telecommunications industry,” he said.  So they where delighted with their results, profits up, membership up, members investment in the business up to over £4m, and they had built reserves, to over £1 million.”
He added, “We see that consumer co-operatives, with their strong member-backing, can grow organically in a highly competitive marketplace. We are unique in our industry and this contributed to the improvement in our performance at a time when volumes and prices are falling."
Vivian himself is quite a deep thinker on the co-operative business model who as well as running an enterprising telecoms business also serves on the Boards of Midcounties Co-op and Co-operatives UK. A gifted social entrepreneur he came up with the idea of a phone co-op when he spent years working abroad being ripped off when he came to phone home.
Beginning the business in his back bedroom of his home it now has a turnover of over £10.5 million. This is amazing when you think how tough this industry is to break into. Much of the investment has come from its 10,000 members with the average having over £400 of shares.
They set aside a proportion of their surplus to invest in other co-op enterprises from their Co-operative and Social Economy Development Fund. Last year the Fund contributed £55,000 to businesses including: Drumlin Wind Energy Co-operative, Spirit of Lanarkshire Wind Energy Co-operative, Wedmore Community Power, Osney Lock Hydro Limited and the Bevendean Community Pub. 
As well 90% of business miles being made by public transport (not bad if you are based in Chipping Norton) they used energy from renewable sources, recycled 100% of its waste and offset all the carbon dioxide emissions that its activity generated, including that of its suppliers. As well as having installed 230 kilowatts at peak output of solar photovoltaic capacity since 2011.
It’s a wonder doing all this they have they have time to sell phone and broadband services but this year they have been particularly busy working with the Co-op Group to introduce the first Co-op Pay-As-You-Go SIM with very competitive rates.
It’s very easy to switch and you can keep your number and last year you got 2.5% dividend on all your telephone and broadband purchases from the co-op.  Considering their performance I do get annoyed when I see committed lefties using some very dodgy email and phone providers.
They do not like to pay to advertise in publications that they do approve so they have an affinity scheme where they offer a partnership with organisations which market or endorse their services to their supporters, members or clients. In return they pay a percentage of the call and internet spend of referred customers. There is a wide range of partners from CND to WWF.
Vivian first got involved with the movement through his local co-op shop in the early 80s in Oxford. “I was fascinated by the fact that there was this large operation that was different from other organisations. It was owned by ordinary people and was supposed to be run in their interest, but it actually seemed to be run by a small, fairly visionless clique.”
“They hadn’t done anything about member recruitment in years. There were few tangible member benefits and little desire to talk about what makes co-ops different. I felt that this was a business that had lost its way. When you went back to the root of it, these were such powerful ideas, but they hadn’t been updated. A few of us formed a group to push a different view, and we got elected.”
Working with new management, they started experimenting with ways of presenting the co-operative message in a modern way. I always felt that when you walked into a co-op it should feel different. We created a concept store promoting things like Fairtrade, supporting local producers, and the fact that it’s owned by the customers. Today that co-operative is the Midcounties Co-op the first £1billion pound regional co-operative.
At a time when the whole co-op idea has come under threat it is great to see the continued growth of a co-op like this in a new sector. The Phone Co-op shows with the right leadership and real member engagement co-operatives can not only be commercially successful but ethical and socially responsible to!