Friday, 30 May 2014

The School of Eloquence

That great labour historian Edward Thompson in his finest work The Making of the English Working Class wrote, “In 1799 special legislation was introduced “utterly suppressing and prohibiting” by name the London Corresponding Society and the United Englishmen. Even the indefatigable conspirator, John Binns, felt that further national organisation was hopeless… When arrested he was in possession of a ticket which was one of the last ‘covers’ for the old LCS: Admit for the season to the School of Eloquence.

In the recent past we have lost some of the most eloquent voices on the left, from Stuart Hall to Bob Crowe and probably the greatest of them all Tony Benn. The current criticism of modern political leaders seems to me to be twofold firstly that they are all the same. I have some sympathy with this observation. I saw a photograph of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband last year at the Cenotaph in similar attire and all trying to look respectful. For a moment even an old political hack like me could not tell them apart.

The second and perhaps less well articulated point but even more damaging is that they are inauthentic. Political leadership has always had an element of theatre about it but modern politicians really are bad actors. They are incapable of “feeling our pain” and they speak in a carefully managed language that is completely meaningless. What’s more their experiences are so far away from ours they have no idea what we think or feel anyway. Encapsulated this last week when Ed Miliband had no idea how much his household spent on a weekly shop.

This means that most of us have simply stopped listening to them. Even people who are paid to listen to them like the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson have the ability to make a government announcement like the bedroom tax, sound like a minor kerfuffle in the Westminster tea shop, rather than the brutal attack on the poor that it really is.

Political discourse has to start with the articulation of representative experience. So when was the last time you heard a Labour leader talk about catching a bus? They just do not sound like normal people. In democratic systems there is a kind of decay. When a new party or movement breaks through it has a broad scope and is full of ideas and talent giving a voice to the previously unheard. Then over time it narrows.

This is understandable the threat to leaders comes from within their own parties so they seek to control who is chosen to represent the party. The gene pool the party draws from gets narrower and narrower and unless the party is truly democratic and has the ability to renew itself eventually it simply collapses.

This is the very dangerous position that Labour finds itself in. Its base is too narrow. The leader and its spokespeople are dull. They speak with out feeling or belief. They are inauthentic.

This is a deeper problem than just policy. Even if they adopted all the policies we would like to hear the wider public cannot hear them. So when an able political actor like Nigel Farage turns up he is like a breath of fresh air.

This is something hard to say - I feel sorry for Nick Clegg. Why? At least he took Farage on and did not just pretend he wasn’t there. In the authenticity stakes however he lost. He made the classic mistake of trying to fight the irrational rationally. You cannot fight emotion with logic.

Labour ought to have been able to capture the anger of those who voted for UKIP. They are not aliens from another planet they are people whose lives have been turned upside down by neo-liberalism and deregulation. They are seeking stability and security and looking for someone to blame for their plight and all they see from the three main parties is more of the same.

Labour however has been unable to break out of the ideological straight jacket that got us into this mess and therefore has no plausible explanation of how to change things. They have been unable to alter the Tories narrative of the recession being caused by excessive debt or that falling living standards are the fault of migrants. These explanations are now the conventional wisdom.

It has also been unable or unwilling to be critical of the past Labour Governments embrace of neo-liberalism.  Sadly in this regard Labour has become part of the problem not part of the solution. So we need new voices to harness this anger, to articulate this experience and turn it in a progressive direction that does not attribute the cause of austerity to its victims but attacks the real culprits and does so in a language that everyone can understand.

This may or may not require a new political party but it certainly requires a new School of Eloquence.

Workers Control in the Coal Industry

Thirty years after the heroic miners strike there is an enormous contradiction in UK energy policy. Despite everything last year coal remained the main source of power generation producing 41% of all output, requiring us to import around 50 million tonnes of coal.

Yet last month the Government announced they would contribute to the costs of closing two of the very last three deep coal mines in the country (you cannot make this up). This weeks Turkish mine disaster shows the true cost of imported coal.

I would be happy to give up coal for a green alternative but UK coal is being replaced by Russian, Columbian or American coal. It is also not a question of cost does anyone think nuclear is cheaper?

UK energy policy is crazy and so is the structure of the coal industry. It is interesting that the last deep mine in England, Hatfield, and the last deep mine in Wales, Tower, are both employee owned.

I remember the heated debates we had back in the late 1970’s about workers control and the coal industry. There is a seminal pamphlet by Arthur Scargill and Peggy Kahn, “The Myth of Workers Control”, published in 1980. Arthur makes the case against workers control in favour of collective bargaining. He argues that the relationship between capital and labour is fundamentally one of conflict and that workers control under capitalism is a contradiction in terms.

He is not against the increase in the influence of workers on the work process through their unions. The process of class conflict requires unions to exercise both their industrial and political power. In these circumstances therefore workers control is a dangerous myth that diverts and weakens the class struggle.

I understand this argument but still I wonder.

There is a history of bitter struggle between the colliery owners and the miners. In the early days there was deep suspicious of co-operative ownership. When in 1865 Henry Briggs and Son after a decade of bitter industrial relations decided to turn their pit into a co-op one worker is reported to have said, “ All coal masters is devils and Briggs is the prince of devils, (this co-op system) it was instituted in order to destroy the union.”

The following decade saw numerous examples of co-op coal mines being successful, at least for a while, mining is always subject to geology, and individual pits where vulnerable to the coal owners rigging the market.

In 1873 the Northumberland Miners Association set about forming a Co-operative Mining Society. The prospectus said, “To give the miner the fruit of his skill, economy and care in production is nothing more than the barest justice…To this end the miners of Northumberland and Durham have resolved to have collieries of their own.”

Their aim was not just to own the pit but also the pit villages too. Their first pit was Monkwood near Chesterfield, a bit of a way from Northumberland, which they purchased for £68,000. Sadly things did not go well the miners at Monkswood where less than keen on being member/owners of the pit and despite reassurances it only had a couple of years of economic life in it.

Nevertheless co-operative pits sprang up as far apart as Ayrshire and Lancashire. When one pit near Bolton got into financial trouble it ended up being owned by the Bolton Retail Co-operative Society. 

The ownership question was central to that incredible out burst of industrial militancy that produced in 1912, The Miners Next Step. The South Wales miners argued that nationalisation of the mines does not lead to workers control but “simply makes a national trust with all the force of government behind it”.

Industrial democracy was the objective, “Today owners and shareholders rule the coalfields. They own and rule them mainly through paid officials. The men who work in the mine are surely as competent to elect these as shareholders who may never have seen a colliery.”

In the 1984-5 dispute the NUM certainly took on an NCB with “all the force of government behind it”.

That defeat led to the deliberate destruction of the industry. Yet the last deep mine in Wales was the miner owned Tower Colliery which was successfully mined for 13 years. Today with deep coal mined out the site is in the process of regeneration and is still producing benefits for miners and the local community via the “Tower Fund”.

The very last deep coal mine in Britain is also owned by miners in the form of the Hatfield Colliery Partnership. Saving 400 desperately needed highly skilled jobs in South Yorkshire the Doncaster pit was bought by an employee benefit trust in December last year.

The economic history of the industry is full of wasted opportunities now the bankers who funded the privatisation and could not get out of coal production and into property development fast enough have left millions of tonnes of accessible coal trapped underground.

Couterfactual history maybe but what would have happened to the UK coal industry if it had gone into worker ownership in 1947?

Would we have more than one pit left today?

Friday, 9 May 2014

Saving the Co-op

The great Brendan Behan, the drinker with a writing problem coined the phrase, “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” The experience we co-operators have had over the past year proves this is not true. A week has not gone by without some further dreadful exposure of the Co-op Group’s failings.

The most recent are the Groups financial statements. They are truly shocking showing an unbelievably badly run business which has squandered its assets and is now deeply in hock to a consortium of banks.

There has been much activity on social media and in several conferences amongst co-op activists to discus what is to be done about the Co-op Group. Sadly the situation is so bad that what ever we now do we have to do it very quickly. Control is slipping away from members and directors to external financiers.

Those financiers quite understandably want to know their money is safe and they want to see the management and board are getting a grip on the situation. The Co-op movement is not famous for quick decisions or for making them under so gaze of so much public scrutiny.

The good news is that the Group Board are finally waking up to the scale of the debacle.  £2.5 billion in losses does tend to concentrate the mind. The bulk of those losses are from the Bank failure, however the Somerfield acquisition was also disastrous, and the accounts also reveal the huge size of the pension liabilities.

There is no getting away from the fact that this is an enormous failure of governance.
The board have drafted a resolution for the annual meeting on May 17th to begin the process of governance reform. Whilst far from perfect it is a resolution that everyone who cares about the Group needs to get behind. The resolution makes four key points.

Firstly that a reformed Group needs to have a Board of Directors elected by members that is totally qualified to lead an organisation of the size` and complexity o of the Co-op Group.  

Secondly; that there needs to be a structure that empowers the members enabling them to hold the board to account both for the performance of the business and for the adherence to Co-operative values and principles.

Thirdly there has to be a move to one member one vote in the election of Directors.

Lastly and very importantly there have to be the necessary provisions in the rules to protect the Group from demutualisation.

This is a sensible resolution that will enable the Group to swiftly get on with working with all the members to prepare the necessary rule changes that can hopefully be put to members by the autumn.

Reforming the governance has to be done however whilst still running the business, this is a bit like fixing a puncture whilst still riding the bike. Impending governance change does not excuse current directors from doing some deeply unpalatable things including staff cuts and asset sales.

The Co-op Group could have gone bankrupt last year, it is a failing society. The type that at one time would have been recued by the Co-op Group. But this time there is no lifeboat.

The business within it will almost certainly be much smaller and a great deal leaner and some of the actions now required to save it will be very brutal. We must not delay as every day that passes debts increase and more control is seeded to the banks.

I may sound like a pessimist but I am not. All is not lost. We can recover. We began from a much smaller position than we are now in. We can rebuild the Co-op retail sector in the UK. It is going to be tough but can be done if we stick together.

We have to be honest with ourselves about what has gone wrong. We have to regain control of our own destiny and the confidence of our members and customers and those of us who chuntered behind our hands about past foolish decisions need to be more vocal in future. Not wanting to “rock the boat” almost led to its sinking.

Om May 17th I urge every elected member of the Co-op Group to get behind this resolution and then to fully engage in the process that follows to ensure we save what can be saved from the Co-operative Group. We must begin rebuilding a vibrant Co-operative retail business that gets all of its publicity in future for the right reasons.