Friday, 27 November 2015

How Goes the Project for the New American Century?

The drum beat for war driving Britain into joining the bombing campaign in Syria is more about politics than any real military strategy.  Given that the UK has only eight very old Tornados based at Akotiri in Cyprus available for Iraq and Syria, extending their role into Syria is clearly a political rather than military act.
The political objective seems to have two dimensions, to show our fealty to the USA and, to split the Parliamentary Labour Party from its leader.  Sadly the PLP is well populated with Neo-Cons who buy into the Americans world view enabling the media to exaggerate any split. 

This has been convenient for the PM as it conceals why he needs Labour support. He cannot command the votes of his own party. Not all of the Parliamentary Conservative Party are Neo-Cons there are still a few genuine Conservatives left amongst them! 

Of course the flagship policy of the Neo-Cons, the one that Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz promoted and was championed by Bush and Blair was “the War on Terror”. 

Iit was always morally dubious that the “war on terror” was to be being fought using terrorism.  My Chambers dictionary defines terrorism as “the systematic and organized use of violence and intimidation to force a government or community, etc to act in a certain way or accept certain demands.” 

So we find ourselves again as we did after the attacks on the Twin Towers in the position of attacking the random bombing, shooting and killing of civilians by the random bombing, shooting and killing of civilians.  Something we have been doing in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen in fact anywhere in drone range.  We seem not to have learned from our own experience that people do not respond well to terrorism. 
So how is this “War on Terror” going? Well the Institute for Economics and Peace a think tank founded by Australian tech entrepreneur Steve Killelea produces a fascinating Global Terrorism Index. 

This year’s Index was released recently and the headlines are not good. It reports that by non-state actors: 
* 32,658 people were killed by terrorism in 2014 compared to 18,111 in 2013: the largest increase ever recorded with Boko Haram and ISIL jointly responsible for 51% of all claimed global fatalities in 2014
* Countries suffering over 500 deaths increased by 120% to 11 countries, 78% of all deaths and 57% of all attacks occurred in just five countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria
* Iraq continues to be the country most impacted by terrorism with 9,929 terrorist fatalities the highest ever recorded in a single country. Think about this for a moment. Almost ten thousand dead in Iraq over a decade after Saddam Hussein was captured.
* Nigeria experienced the largest increase in terrorist activity with 7,512 deaths in 2014, an increase of over 300% since 2013.

These are the deaths many more have been injured. In countries with poor health services and none existent welfare support. What is more, terrorism is spreading. The number of countries that suffered more than 500 deaths has more than doubled, increasing from five in 2013 to 11 in 2014. The new additions were Somalia, Ukraine, Yemen, Central African Republic, South Sudan and Cameroon.

Remember that these are just the numbers killed by non-state actors. State sponsored terrorism, if the word means anything, must apply to the killing of British citizens in Syria by drone. The argument that this targeted lawless assassination was self-defence is stretching that notion beyond belief. 

It is not just a huge human cost the economic cost of terrorism reached its highest ever level in 2014 at US$52.9 billion, an increase of 61% from the previous year’s total of US$32.9 billion, and a tenfold increase since 2000.

What we do seems only to make things worse. The more violence we exert the worse things get, the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria, since 2011 is the largest influx in modern times. Current estimates now range from 25,000 to 30,000 fighters, from roughly 100 countries. This flow is not falling but growing over 7,000 arriving in the first six months of this year. 

In presenting this gory data, Steve Killelea said, “Since we can see a number of clearly identifiable socio-political factors that foster terrorism, it is important to implement policies that aim to address these associated causes. This includes reducing state-sponsored violence, diffusing group grievances, and improving respect for human rights and religious freedoms, while considering cultural nuances.”
Instead of this sensible and logical course of action we are turning our society into a surveillance state destroying our civil liberties and freedoms. We need to bring the majority of Muslims onto our side yet we promote the idea of two opposed camps - Islam and the West – and fail to tackle the jihadists' propaganda of our rampant Islamophobia.

Worst of all we fail to stem the source of the most reactionary version of political Islam by doing business with and forming alliances with those states most active in the propagation of this reactionary religious ideology. Then acting like neo-colonial and self-interested powers we support the most authoritarian, corrupt and venal states and wonder why they alienate their own people. 

Jeremy Corbyn is right we have to tackle the underlying causes, there is no military solution, there has to be another way. If anyone asks you how goes the “War on Terror”?  Tell them we are losing it.

Letter to the Guardian in Full!

Dear Editor, John McDonnell makes a very important point by brandishing Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book in parliament. George Osborne is not just enabling the Chinese State to own British State assets. He is actually subsidising Chinese state enterprises to do so as well as structuring UK public sector contracts in such a way as to favour the Chinese! What’s more with recent Chinese engagement in energy he is effectively selling to China future UK tax revenues. When he finally leaves office I fully expect him to be given a Chinese pension and a grace and favour apartment in Beijing.
Yours sincerely,
Nick Matthews

Monday, 23 November 2015

Tony Blair, David Cameron and the Neo-Cons.

“Ah, Love! Could thou and I with Fate conspire

 To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire!

 Would not we shatter it to bits-and then

 Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!”

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Following Tony Blair’s non-apology, apology I thought back to when I first realised that he was mad. It was at the Labour party conference, after nine eleven, in Brighton in 2001 and the speech when he said, “This is a moment to seize. The Kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us re-order this world around us.”

When I heard this I thought this bloke is a megalomaniac and my legs refused to draw me into an upright position and I was left the only person in my row not joining in the standing ovation.

Upon leaving the hall I was asked by a journalist what I thought about the speech I said that it reminded of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khyyam written in the eleventh century and bought to Victorian English readers by Edward Fitzgerald, the speech had a similar rhythm to its quatrains and it contained the same moral ambiguity. Needless to say he gave me a funny look.

This speech was essentially a version of one Blair had given in Chicago in 1999, labelled the ‘Blair Doctrine’ by US commentators; it was as Gore Vidal so clearly articulated the case of “Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace”.

That speech in Chicago was a game-changer because it completely cut the ground from under the democrats in opposing George W. Bush and his later adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. Blair gave Bush the language he himself did not have.

Brighton was Blair at the very peak of his oratorical powers in the previous paragraph, he had said, “The starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant, those living in want and squalor from the deserts of Northern Africa to the slums of Gaza, to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan: they too are our cause.”

Now his follower David Cameron is not so keen on welcoming those huddled masses to our shores. What should have been a job for the police to arrest Bin Laden, who it now appears, was hiding in plain sight, has turned in to a thirty years war that covers the entire area Blair so poetically described.

What amazes me about many contemporary politicians especially those who talk about “abroad” is how ignorant they are.  Something has gone badly wrong here. We used to govern a fair chunk of the world’s surface and yes it may well have been for the wrong reasons but we knew what was going on in the world.

 Now we hear politicians of all colours talking complete nonsense about international relations in a way that is symptomatic of the neo-conservative world view. International relations should not be decided upon using mere facts. We must first shape the facts and then the world to our hearts desire.

The greatest exponent of this shape shifting before Blair and the Dodgy Dossier was George W Bush’s head of Strategy Karl Rove. In an interview with Ron Suskind of the New York Times  he said that guys like Ron were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." .... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Now initially David Cameron was not a Neo-Con he was from an earlier school of conservative political realism. He had been a reluctant supporter of the Iraq war and had been critical of Israel. On achieving the top job however it did not take long, he too became a Neo-Con, and with French President Sarkozy, leading the way in the intervention in Libya and only two years ago he would have intervened militarily against President Assad if parliamentary had not stopped him.

Mr Cameron regularly seeks advice from Blair who was one of those urging him to bomb Libya. In foreign policy Cameron can be seen as Blair’s protégé.  They are both solid supporters of the Gulf dictatorships, of Netanyahu’s Israel, and are totally hostile to democratic movements within Islam, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood. Now not a week seems to go by without some dictator crossing the Number 10 threshold.

Then there is Chilcott, Cameron has clearly protected Tony Blair. This inquiry was meant to publish its conclusions within 18 months of the British withdrawal from Iraq in 2007 and we are still waiting and what happened to the investigation into British complicity in torture and extraordinary rendition during the Blair premiership?

Listening to many Labour MP’s including sad to say Mike Gapes and John Woodcock recently they have clearly been bitten by the Neo-Con bug. To his credit Ed Miliband was trying to move Labour away from this position. By opposing intervention in Syria and by whipping Labour MP’s in support of a Palestinian state.

In a foreign policy speech before the election he made the case for the rule of law, international institutions and diplomatic engagement, and against the idea of American exceptionalism.

This work is now being carried on by Jeremy Corbyn who is now Britain’s finest advocate for human rights and we must not let him standalone against this empire of lies. On hearing Tony Blair back in 1999, that old hawk Henry Kissinger had said he “felt a little bit uneasy” about the inference that this was a good moment to solve every problem in the world.

We should all be uneasy if the world continues to be shaped by people with a wanton lack of concern for the truth, human rights, and life itself.


Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Y Gwyll - Hinterland

A few years ago I went on a pilgrimage to Aberystwyth. It’s a bitter sweet story. When I was 12 or 13 on a family holiday to New Quay on Cardigan Bay one day it rained as only it can in West Wales. Fleeing from our caravan we ended up in Devils Bridge just in time to miss the last little steam train back to Aber on the delightful Vale of Rheidol Light Railway.

Forty years later I finally took that ride. Happily very little had changed a beautiful little steam loco took us up the valley we had lunch in the Hafod Arms Hotel looking like a piece of Switzerland and took in the punch bowl and the famous three bridges.

Not long after what should appear on our TV screens but Hinterland a new noir detective set of all places in and around Aberystwyth and where was the very first storyline to take us but up to Devils Bridge. Needless to say I was hooked. Today I have two main obsessions, the progress of Jeremy Corbyn and catching every episode of Hinterland or Y Gwyll to give it its Welsh title.

It is much more than your usual TV detective the whole world of West Wales is a key character. The place has this astonishing marginality that I find fascinating. Its Welsh title, Y Gwyll, means the dusk, between light and dark and across this landscape we see a whole society and economy teetering on the edge.

The cinematography is stunning never has decay and decline looked so beautiful, the acting too is outstanding, there is not a single character that is not fully rounded. The key partnership between Richard Harrington as DCI Tom Mathias and Mali Harries as DI Mared Rhys is also deeply enigmatic. Richard Harrington’s character is central to each episode but the acting too of Mali Harries is excellent.

Just what are they one to the other, well you will just have to watch and find out. I first discovered Y Gwyll in its English incarnation as Hinterland. Astonishingly it was filmed twice once in Welsh and once in English.

S4C the Welsh TV channel had been here before with A View to a Kill starring Philip Madoc as DCI Noel Bain, which ran for ten years from 1994 to 2004. I greatly enjoyed that show too my first introduction to a gritty view of South Wales.

Y Gwyll however elevates the detective genre to art it out noirs the Scandinavians and often uses silence and sparse dialogue to give us a huge sense of space. This is achieved without the usual patronising back fill and over explanation of much modern crime drama.

Contemporary crime drama can give us the reach of Dickens linking those from the very top of the pile to those at the very bottom along the way exposing the ugly greed, corruption and social dislocation of globalised capitalism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the edge lands of Ceredigion so stunningly captured in Y Gwyll.

We often say that our crime genre is running to catch up with Scandy noir with offerings like Broadchurch but that is not the case with Y Gwyll, Ed Tomas, executive producer, of Cardiff based Fiction factory had pitched the idea years before the Scandy detectives reached our screens.  

The challenge for S4C was raising the cash to do the idea justice. Fortunately with some support from the Welsh Assembly they have pulled it off to the extent that the second series was bought by Danish television unseen.

Now I think you can tell there is something I find particularly satisfying about Y Gwyll and what is more despite only understanding the odd word I prefer it in Welsh to English. The sound and rhythm of the language adds another layer to the whole marginality of the drama.

Raymond Williams the great Welsh cultural theorist wrote one truly great novel called Border Country in it he explored the boundaries between England and Wales, town and country, classes, and the generations. Showing how culture and character was shaped by landscape.

The young protagonist on returning to the family home in Pandy not far from Abergavenny says that, “He had felt empty and tired, but the familiar shape of the valley and the mountains held and replaced him.  It was one thing to carry its image in his mind, as he did, everywhere, never a day passing but he closed his eyes and saw it again, his only landscape.  But it was different to stand and look at the reality.  It was not less beautiful; every detail of the land came up with its old excitement.  But it was not still as its image had been. It was no longer a landscape or a view, but a valley that people were using.”

That is what Y Gwyll does for the landscape of Ceredigion, it makes it not just a thing of beauty to look at but turns it into a landscape that is lived in capturing brilliantly along the way all the difficulties of life lived literally right on the edge.


Friday, 6 November 2015

When we all wanted to be Nicaraguans

When I was a student, (back in the day) one of things I did at our Poly was to help set up a Film Society to show films you could not ordinarily see. Every Friday night at six pm before heading for the pub we devoured anything with sub-titles.

The films from Latin America where always among the most interesting and challenging I learned so much about so many different parts of the world by watching their cinema. I love the art of a good story teller and I always found the rhythm and grammar of their films so much more interesting than the Hollywood standard.

The films of Chile, Argentina, Brazil and of course Cuba where in our schedule. Then came the Sandinista Revolution an event which gripped our imagination, we still have the mugs and the faded tee-shirts with pictures of the man in the big hat on them, Augusto Cesar Sandino. The overthrow of the Samoza dictatorship and the David and Goliath struggle between the FSLN, known as the Sandanistas, against the Contras backed by the USA.

This was the very early eighties when Mrs Thatcher was in her pomp and we took great heart from the Nicaraguan struggle. In artistic terms it produced some great literature as well as a series of short documentaries which we showed to gain support for the solidarity campaign.

In more recent years the radical democratisation of Latin America politics has generated some stunning new movies. The smaller Central American nations have all been gripped by this new wave but face considerable problems in getting films made there are the usual problems of raising cash and getting films distributed but in many ways made worse by the lack of the necessary film making skills. The nearest film school is as you may expect in Cuba.

It was a real delight then when back in 2010 after twenty years of silence this wave hit Nicaragua when Florence Jaugey’s film La Yuma hit the screens. Amazingly this was the first feature film to be made in the country for all that time!

That film told the story of a young woman who dreamt of escaping her bleak life in the slums of Managua by becoming a boxer. There was an extraordinary performance by Alma Blanco as Yuma, her strength, astuteness and determination reflected the feelings of the adversity and inequality faced by Nicaraguans.

It was an instant success shown in many film festivals receiving the audience award at the San Francisco festival.

Florence Jaugey’s film allowed us the rare opportunity to get a glimpse of life in a country which has been through so much in recent years. Florence, originally from France, came to Nicaragua in 1984 to be the lead actress in the movie El Señor Presidente by the prolific Cuban director Manuael Octavio Gomez.

In 1989, together with her partner Frank Pineda a Nicaraguan film maker, (he was second camera on Ken Loach’s film Carla’s Song) they set up in Managua an independent film company, the Camila Films Production Company. La Yuma was well received and it has received numerous awards at Festivals across the world.

Now we have the chance to go to the UK Premier of her new film La pantalla desnuda (the naked screen). Filmed in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, this is the story of a couple who topically find their intimate relationship is made public on social media.
To say making these movies is tough is an understatement. It took Florence ten years to make La Yuma despite being an award wining short film director. Her new film has cost $500,000 scraped together from sponsors and crowd funding. They have to do all sorts of work to make ends meet including working on BBC’s Caribbean with Simon Reeve broadcast earlier in this year.
As I began many of us remember the importance of short films in the Nicaraguan revolution when INCINE, the Instituto Nicaragüense de Cine, was important and of which Frank Pineda was a founder member, making dozens of short documentaries about the revolution.
As Florence Jaugey says, “It was a time before the internet, and a way of showing to the outside world what was happening in Nicaragua – everybody wanted to film, and be Nicaraguans!”

Now you can help support this fantastic new endeavour in bringing the lives of the underdogs to the silver screen by treating yourself to an afternoon of Nicaraguan film. You can see the UK premier of La Pantalla Desnuda / “The Naked Screen” (93 mins, 2014). Directed by Florence Jaugey together with one of her prize winning shorts “Cinema Alcázar” (10 mins, 1997) about an elderly woman who lives in what used to be a cinema, together with “Running in Solidarity” (10 mins, 2015). About a young woman runs the London Marathon for the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign. Directed by George Fuller. £12.50 or £7.50 (concessions) on the day, £11 or £6.50 in advance.

020 7561 4836 or

Friday, 30 October 2015

Student Debt is an Economy Wide Issue Not Just for a Problem for Students

The introduction of student loans in the UK was meant to introduce a more vibrant dynamic market for higher education. The idea was that we would copy the United States and create a new Higher Education market with new entrant institutions financed by a larger number of students studying to improve their career prospects. As the Treasury has been colonised by bankers what was not to like about the fact that this would be financed by larger and larger student loans.
The fact is however that this model does not work. Student debt in the US is now reaching crisis proportions and this is no longer looks like such a good idea. Student debt in the US is now higher than all US credit card debt or auto-loan debt and according to some US commentators it is having serious negative effects on the US economy.
Since 2004 US student-loan debt has quadrupled with some 40 million people now owing around $1.3 trillion.  Over the same period student-loan defaults have also nearly doubled.  The average student-loan debt of a bachelor's degree student has risen from $15,000 in the mid-1990s to the most recent class of 2014 graduating with debts of $33,000.
This debt burden is having two major economic impacts firstly there is a crowding out effect as unable to take on any more debt fewer people are buying homes and cars. The second effect is as larger portions of incomes are eaten up student loans people are less likely to engage in entrepreneurial activity and to start new small business.
So what has this to do with the situation in the UK?  Well the House of Commons Library published a paper at the beginning of October on Student Debt with the following predictions, “The Government has projected that the outstanding cash value of publicly owned student debt in England will increase to around £100 billion in 2016-17, £500 billion in the mid-2030s and £1,000 billion (£1 trillion) in the late 2040s.”
Now a trillion pounds is a lot more than a trillion dollars so you can we are copying the US alright but not in a good way! Both the scale and rate of this debt increase is staggering. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) does not project the size of the student loan book per se, but the additions to net debt from student loans.  In some ways this underestimates the issue but it does give us an indication of what is happening by representing the cumulative cash flows (spending less repayments) on loans as a proportion of GDP.
It gives us an indication of the scale of lending. Their latest projection is that across the UK student loans added 3.5% of GDP to net debt in 2014-15 (around £63 billion). This is all loans, repayments and sales up to 2014-15, not just net lending in that year. This rate is expected to increase rapidly over the next two decades (even with planned loan sales) before peaking at 8.8% of GDP.
This is a serious drag on the economy as a whole. The fact is however that the creation of a market for Higher Education has made students the latest target for what have been called NINJA loans (No Income, No Job, No Assets).  This is the next sub-prime crisis in the making because it underestimates the total of student debt. Students do not just depend on their student loans they rely on a host of other forms of credit too – from overdrafts and credit cards to payday loans – all specifically marketed to them because of their limited income.
The whole loans process is enormously expensive: about one-third of all the money lent to students – approximately 10 per cent of public spending on higher education – is never repaid just because of the interest subsidy that the Government spends supporting the loans.  Even so the lack of jobs paying sufficient to enable repayment of loans is leading to just 45p in every £1 of loan being repaid. 
No wonder this month Moody’s, the ratings agency, has  downgraded the Higher Education Securitised Investments Series No. 1 PLC's debt (part of the sold off student loan book) because of higher than expected defaults and the higher than expected proportion in deferment. From these types of loans they are only expecting a 30% recovery rate.
Looking to what is happening  in the US we know this is a ‘ticking time bomb’ as the young are shackled with mountains of debt that will take decades – during their prime earning years – to pay off if they are lucky enough to get a well-paying job and a rising number will never pay off these debts. The government are so concerned about the poor repayment of this debt they are considering reducing the salary at which payment commences from £21K to £18K. Not quite the fantastic graduate salary students have been promised.
Not only is the UK seeing the emergence of its own Generation Debt – where the young must mortgage their future to gain access to today’s economy but the whole structure of these debts is beginning to have a deleterious effect on the economy.
Time to stop this process before it gets any worse, there has to be a simpler way of financing higher education. The Loan route produces far too much waste in this system with money that should be being spent on actual education leaking out of the system in finance costs.  The Government already effectively funds half the costs of graduate’s tuition why not cut out the financiers and support the rest?
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has called for the burden of fees and debt to be removed. That burden however is not just on the individuals concerned this crazy method of financing higher education is a burden on all of us. 

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

My Old China

Britain and China could develop a grown up relationship China is already a major global economic power that relationship is however unlikely to be a healthy one whilst the key interface between the two is George Osborne.

Osborne seems to have found being Chancellor of the Exchequer insufficient to keep him busy. Nature abhors a vacuum so the space he has been pulled into is that as Trade Minister.

The present President of the Board of Trade, Sajid Javid (also known as the Minister for Business) has vanished. Nowhere to be seen on the steel industry, he seems to have no time for supporting business, increasing skills or promoting exports being totally preoccupied in destroying the residual rights of trade unionists.

The Board of Trade is possibly the oldest part of the British state it was in 1621 that James I directed the Privy Council (a body we here a lot more about these days) to set up a temporary committee “to investigate the causes of the decline in trade and the consequential financial difficulties.” 

The Board of Trade has been filled in many ways over the years but it has always had roughly the same objectives - to win overseas markets for British goods and services and to win work for British firms from foreign governments.

George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, I repeat his title because he seems to have lost his grip on it, at least in relation to China seems to see this trade thing in a very strange way.

Does he think he should be helping British firms to win a share of the Chinese market for British goods and services or helping them to win contracts from the Chinese to undertake work in China?

No he thinks his job as a British trade minister is to help the Chinese get a bigger share of the UK market and so keen is he on this he is prepared to subsidise them to get it and to structure UK public sector contracts in such a way as to favour the Chinese!

Can you imagine any other country doing this? We will subsidise you to increase your penetration of our market. We will package public sector contracts in such a way to help you get more of our business!

The headlines promise us billion of pounds of Chinese “investment” in the UK. But no one makes an investment at all let alone on this scale without a return. So what do we pay the Chinese in return for this investment?

As most of our manufacturing sector is in freefall caused by an over strong pound and slowing Chinese growth, steel is collapsing and both JCB and Jaguar Land Rover have seen a large slow down in sales in China so have even luxury brands like Burberry. 

So how is Osborne to get the Chinese to finance projects like HS2 or Hinckley Point or his most fanciful project of all the Northern Powerhouse?

His record on government investment in infrastructure despite his rhetoric is lamentable falling by over 5% since he became chancellor. Now finance to pay for infrastructure can come from taxpayers, from banks or pension funds or from foreign institutions. However thanks to his policies many of these sources are now unavailable.
His bizarre fiscal charter and its objective of an overall surplus on the public finances prevents a significant rise in public sector capital expenditure and since the banking crisis the banks have become far less willing to invest in infrastructure, so that only leaves foreign investors. Undoubtedly as pockets go China’s are the deepest.
The failure of the Government to do the sums on investment was shown in the 2014 £2.8bn purchase of 1,140 trains and carriages for the Thameslink service. We have paid way over the odds because of its exorbitant finance costs when it would have been cheaper for the state to finance the purchase.

It is worth remembering how ultimately these projects are paid for? They are paid for by me and you. The extra private finance costs are in paid higher taxes, higher rail fares and higher energy bills not just in the short term but for decades to come. 

It is bizarre that only last week the Chancellor (for it is the same person) was telling us we could not borrow to invest because it is immoral – he could find no economic reason. Yet we can borrow from the Chinese state.
How can we determine if this Chinese “investment” is value for money when these deals are hidden behind walls of commercial confidentiality, with costs obscured by government guarantees and with no clear obligations on the financiers to accept any of the risk for the construction or indeed the operation of the infrastructure?
The case of the London Underground public private partnerships shows how bad these things can be with all the benefits going to the “investor” and all the costs to the taxpayer. When Osborne offers Billions as government guarantees, a “contingent liability” does not show up on the books — but such contingencies have a nasty habit of materialising in practice.
So what is Osborne selling in return for this so called investment? Effectively he is selling off future tax revenues. As James Meek has pointed out in his splendid book Private Island, Why Britain Now Belongs to Someone Else, “The essential public good that Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and now Cameron sell is not power stations, or trains, or hospitals. It’s the public itself. It’s us.”

Our Island Story

I have often wondered what first attracted the Barclay Brothers to Brecqhou near Sark, an island that has no taxes on income, capital gains or inheritances and no company law.

They live in a castle that was designed by Prince Charles's favourite architect, Terry Quinlan, the man who designed Poundbury his new olde-worlde village in Dorset.

Technically of course, purely for health reasons that I am sure have nothing with their tax-status, as residents of Monaco they do not actually “live” on Brecqhou although as Sark has no customs post how will anyone know if they are there or not?

Despite being hidden in their castle the impact of the Brothers on Sark has been felt. Since acquiring the island they have been at war with the local citizens I say citizens but I probably mean serfs. The island was trapped in a medieval Norman time warp but unfortunately for the Barclays the wrong feudal lords where in charge.

Sark has been kept underdeveloped for years partly because it is good for tourism and partly because if you do not collect any tax you cannot tarmac the roads. With a population of just 600 they did not relish the impact the Barclays would have on what they saw as being their islands. Mind having seen the size of their gothic monstrosity who could blame them.

A series of legal battles by the Barclays forced the islands into the twenty first century with their very first elections in 2008. As owners of the Daily Telegraph, they probably thought they knew a thing or two about how to influence the outcome of elections.

Well it did not work. It did not work again in 2010 nor in the most recent ‘elections’ in 2014 when mysteriously 16 people stood for 16 seats – the islanders had tried democracy and did not seem to like it!

So it was back to court and a complex legal battle over the new constitution. After a long trek through the courts that finally ended in the Supreme Court, with the Barclays’ arguing that the “dual role” of the island’s chief judge and de facto president were incompatible with European human rights laws enshrining the independence of the judiciary.

An admirable interest here in European Human Rights law you may think not something one would expect from the owners of the Daily Telegraph. In June the papers editorial said that “The Government is entirely right to seek to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. Britain needs to return some common sense to these vexatious legal proceedings.” Somehow I don’t think this was the case they had in mind.

The Barclays finally lost the case last October (although the roles where split in 2013). In apparent retaliation in November the Barclays closed their four hotels on the island for the 2015 season showing an admirable commitment to the islands economy.

Their patriotism as knights of the realm is unquestionable although they seem to go to inordinate lengths to avoid UK tax their murky tax affairs and the control of their businesses being hidden behind trusts and offshore companies.
The Telegraphs war against Jeremy Corbyn however is all to clear. Unpatriotic Corbyn snubs the Queen screams the front page headline. This was of course just hours after the paper had been found guilty of misleading its readers by the new press regulator.
The Press Gazette reported, “The Daily Telegraph breached the Editors’ Code by inaccurately reporting on its front page an allegation of anti-semitism made against Jeremy Corbyn. It is the fourth Independent Press Standards Organisation ruling against The Daily Telegraph, making it the title with the worst record for upheld complaints since the new regulator opened in September 2014.”
It is not just readers who cannot believe the paper. Last winter their chief political commentator Peter Oborne resigned because he could no longer write for the paper as he felt the advertisers where determining the news content.
He met with the chief executive of the paper Murdoch MacLennan, to air his concerns. Maclennan agreed with him that advertising was allowed to affect editorial, but was unapologetic, according to Oborne , he said that “it was not as bad as all that” adding that there was a long history of this sort of thing at the Telegraph.
Well there you have it. Was there ever a better case for proper media regulation? As Peter Oborne points out, “A free press is essential to a healthy democracy. There is a purpose to journalism, and it is not just to entertain. It is not to pander to political power, big corporations and rich men. Newspapers have what amounts in the end to a constitutional duty to tell their readers the truth.” Something you are not going to find in the Telegraph.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

A New Platform for Co-operative Ownership

At last weekends Co-op Party conference there was much discussion about Jeremy Corbyns first week as labour leader. The Co-op party historically has been firmly on the moderate wing of the Labour Party loyally supporting whoever is the leader. There is no doubt however that Corbynism in terms at least of opening up Labours policy process to new thinking has been warmly received by co-operators.

One example of that new thinking that was welcomed at conference was his advocacy of a Peoples Railway. As far back as 2011 Co-operatives UK published a pamphlet by the recent London Mayoral candidate and all round railway buff Christian Wolmar advocating co-operative ownership for Britain’s railways.

The model is what is called in co-op circles multi-stakeholder meaning that unlike a consumer or a worker co-op there are different groups represented in the ownership structure. In the case of the railways the key stakeholders are the government – representing the national interest in such a crucial piece of infrastructure, railway workers, who keep it moving and provide the essential service and the rail users those who depend on and contribute to the service through their fares and season tickets.

It would be superfluous to argue yet again how the present system is confusing, over complicated and creates unnecessary competition between providers, thereby driving up costs and fares to extortionate levels. The question is how we change it and that is clearly the stage that  the Jeremy Corbyn proposals have now rreached.

The scope for a people’s railway is huge for example the Welsh Government are seriously discussing how to bid for the Wales and Borders franchise to turn it into a not for profit business integrated into a regulated national Welsh bus service thereby providing an effective Wales wide public transport system. 

A proposal for Rail Cymru, supported by Aslef, the Co-op party and the Socialist Environment Association written by Professor Paul Salverson was published in 2012. The irony is of course that the current Wales and the Borders franchise run by Arriva trains is owned by the Deutsches Bundesbahn which in turn is owned by the Federal Republic of Germany. So the take over of this franchise by a not for profit co-op would be a form of privatisation!

This is the Alice in Wonderland world of rail franchising the so called radical Scottish Nats  gave the Scot Rail franchise to Abellio or Nederlandse Spoorwegen the Dutch national rail company! So clearly they are not against nationalisation as long is its not our nation doing the nationalising!

One of the exciting things about a co-operative model is the potential for very local micro-franchises working with Passenger Transport Authorities and local rail partnerships to create new services.   This model would immediately stop the £200million of public subsidy leaking out of the railways in profits for shareholders.

Some estimates are that over a quarter of the total £4billion in public subsidy are the “fragmentation” costs the transfer payments and duplication costs between the train operating companies, the rolling stock companies and network rail.

There are also huge knock on benefits in public procurement and line improvements by having a more unified approach. More rational planning in electrification programs and rolling stick procurement could bring substantial cost savings. No wonder bringing the railways back into public ownership has over 60% popular support a figure that has increasing over time.

Furthermore the example of the London North eastern franchise shows that they can be bought back into public ownership at almost no cost. The Tory commitment to a privatised railway is a triumph of ideology over common sense.

Anyone who thinks these ideas are extreme needs to get out more. Christian Wolmars original ideas where endorsed by the hardly left Andrew, now Lord, Adonis. There is no doubt in my mind that the original Herbert Morrison model of public ownership did not give the public or the workers in the state industries any meaningful say in their operations making privatisation that much easier.

The Tory critics to Jeremy Corbyn’s peoples railway idea are in fact right it is indeed ideological and it will certainly be a joy to ride! . 

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Patriotic Karaoke

As a secular republican I have deep sympathy for Jeremy Corbyn’s position at the recent service for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. What the furore about his not singing along to our so called ‘National Anthem’ shows is the deeply undemocratic nature of our country.

It reminded me of my school days when once during assembly the Head stopped the hymn singing because we where demonstrating a complete lack of gusto. He said if we did not make a greater effort he would have us back after school, “and we would enjoy it.”

Even as I child I was able to work out that forcing someone to enjoy something was not an easy task. Setting aside the sound of the right wing press, whose owners’ patriotism does not extend to being British for tax purposes, baying for craven support for our monarch what is going on here?

Is the edifice of the British state so fragile that not singing the praises of Her Majesty is enough to bring it down? No wonder the nationalisms of Scotland and Wales are so powerful they have much better songs. As do many other nations as we will find at the Rugby World Cup!

We have this dreadful uninspiring dirge. It was not an uninspiring dirge when it was first song. Like much of the British constitutional settlement it was not adopted by Royal Proclamation or my Act of Parliament but by custom and practice.

It became popular on the London stage in about 1744-45 and was taken up as a response to the landing of Charles Edward Stuart, (Bonny Prince Charlie – as Billy Connolly points out the only leader to be named after three sheep dogs).
The first performance was in support of George II after his defeat at the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745. The anti-Jacobite nature of the song was shown in a verse expressing support for Field Marshall George Wade who was then assembling an army at Newcastle:
Lord, grant that Marshal Wade,
May by thy mighty aid,
Victory bring.
May he sedition hush,
and like a torrent rush,
Rebellious Scots to crush,
God save the King.

No wonder the modern Scots prefer, ‘Scotland the Brave’ or ‘Flower of Scotland’.  My dictionary says that a National Anthem is a “nation’s patriotic song”. This song then is not a song of our nation, there is nothing in it about the place or its people, and its only role is to put a dampener on national sporting and other events by reminding us of our embarrassing Imperial legacy.

On a more sinister level however it is part of the pseudo democratic rituals of our institutions.  Like for example the oath of allegiance that every MP has to make before they can take their parliamentary seat.

Is this allegiance to uphold the law or to the people who elected them. No it says " solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors according to law".

How can this make any sense it is either a piece of theatrical nonsense or it is a way of subverting the rights of the citizen. Allegiance is being pledged to the yet unborn - to Royal sperm!

Then comes all the nonsense about being Her Majesty’s Government and Opposition topped off with the ruritanian Privy Council which originated from the French prive meaning the private advisors to the Monarch, not as my Dad once told me because they met in the outside toilet.

This is a gloriously ambiguous situation appointed by the Prime Minister under the fiction of loyalty to whoever the monarch happens to be. This is the pinnacle of the secret state. The Privy Council Oath was not revealed until 1989 following a written parliamentary question:

You do swear by Almighty God to be a true and faithful Servant unto the Queen's Majesty, as one of Her Majesty's Privy Council. You will not know or understand of any manner of thing to be attempted, done, or spoken against Her Majesty's Person, Honour, Crown, or Dignity Royal, but you will lett and withstand the same to the uttermost of your Power, and either cause it to be revealed to Her Majesty Herself, or to such of Her Privy Council as shall advertise Her Majesty of the same. You will, in all things to be moved, treated, and debated in Council, faithfully and truly declare your Mind and Opinion, according to your Heart and Conscience; and will keep secret all Matters committed and revealed unto you, or that shall be treated of secretly in Council. And if any of the said Treaties or Counsels shall touch any of the Counsellors, you will not reveal it unto him, but will keep the same until such time as, by the Consent of Her Majesty, or of the Council, Publication shall be made thereof. You will to your uttermost bear Faith and Allegiance unto the Queen's Majesty; and will assist and defend all Jurisdictions, Pre-eminences, and Authorities, granted to Her Majesty, and annexed to the Crown by Acts of Parliament, or otherwise, against all Foreign Princes, Persons, Prelates, States, or Potentates. And generally in all things you will do as a faithful and true Servant ought to do to Her Majesty. So help you God.”

Does this matter?  Well yes in one direct way Orders-in-Council take the form of secondary legislation and are used to make government regulations and appointments. And secondly in an indirect way this is the very centre of our state stuffed with appointees and serving a monarch. Yet we continue to pretend to live in a democracy.

Jeremy Corbyns crusade to democratise the Labour Party is the beginning of a wider crusade that is to finally democratise our country!

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Not Just the Young Gripped by Corbymania!

You know something is happening when people like my mum and dad (78 and 80 respectively and no longer in their young socialist phase) sign up as Labour Supporters so they can vote for Jeremy Corbyn. My Mum had been a party member but drifted away and Dad had been active in his union the GPMU. Living in Shropshire they had almost given up hope of hearing a labour voice they could support.

This shows that Jeremy’s reach is way beyond what the Westminster chattering class would have us believe. What is fascinating about this Labour leadership election is the way that the more publicity and the louder attacks on him the more people stop and listen to what he actually has to say and the more they like it.

Then and this is the key thing they are then able to express that support through the ballot box. It is interesting also that over the last few years some of the Tories and New Labour’s democratic fix’s have come back to bite them on the bum!

The Tories believed that giving the Unions back to their members that greater democracy would make them more moderate. Yet what actually happened was that they won every ballot for a political fund and then started to elect real left wing leaders.

Described as the awkward squad they began to change the terms of debate in the Labour Party. Now the reforms that Ed Miliband agreed to get the unions to give up their collective voice in the party have opened the doors in ways that are a nightmare for the Labour right.

The truth is that there has always been an appetite for the views that Jeremy Corbyn expresses but they have been squeezed out by electoral manipulation. Now they are out there and being clearly expressed the true level of support for them can be seen.

I remember going to Tony Benn’s ‘shows’ after he left parliament to devote himself to politics and seeing the huge numbers of all ages and class backgrounds who turned up and broadly agreed with him.

What most people on the broad left feel I think is why are Labour so spineless? Why have they surrendered so much ground to the Tories without a fight?

For me this goes back to the Philip Gould effect within the Labour Party. Find out what the public want and give it to them. Reflect the publics opinions back at them. Don’t try to shape or lead public opinion but follow it. 

This is the complete abdication of any form of leadership. It also leaves that public opinion to be shaped by others. One thing that is interesting at Jeremy Corbyn rallies is that often he asks how many people read a daily paper.  The response is often a very small number. This means that amongst the young and the less affluent the right wing press has less and less influence.

Of course this does not stop the BBC giving it undue prominence but it does mean that with social media this campaign is the first one for the Labour leadership that has truly exploited the power of the internet. This is what has enabled huge crowds to turn out for Jeremy’s meetings at incredibly short notice and for his message to be heard unmediated by the mainstream media thought police.

Not everyone who hears Jeremy Corbyn agrees with every word but I do not think that anybody finds his views outlandish or in any way extreme. This is why the hysterical reaction of the Labour right is so laughable.

He is also remarkably unspun, completely authentic, kind, generous and lacking in ego. Whilst he is asking you to vote for him his message is one of join me, come with me, we can change things if we do it together.  He is not just building a party he is building a community.

Listening to some shadow cabinet members criticise Jeremy’s economic ideas just demonstrates their economic illiteracy and exposes how far they have swallowed the Tory big lie on the necessity of austerity.

One thing is certain the genie is out of the bottle. Now we have to build the biggest possible vote for Jeremy over the coming days and weeks. And when he is elected we need to build that support as broad and wide as possible.

The Tories have a tiny majority. We need to build the campaign into next years mayoral election in London and the local elections across the country. And before those elections we need to do what Barak Obama did and actually build the electorate with registration drives!

The Tories where elected by around a quarter of the electorate people who voted against Human Rights and for the bedroom tax. To win a general election we do not need any of their votes we need the votes of the other three quarters.

The people who need a message of hope. All across Europe people are asking for the same thing we are not alone. At last there is an alternative!

Ferry Co-op Fight Goes On

I sometimes think that the 21 miles that separate England from France are the longest 21 miles anywhere in the world. The lack of attention to what is going on there is quite staggering.
There has been a great deal of coverage of the fall out from the industrial dispute involving the formerly co-operatively owned MyFerryLink. Particularly the plight of migrants desperately trying to enter the UK on trucks and trains headed I our direction. There has been far less coverage of the dispute itself.
The co-op at the centre of the dispute emerged out of the collapse of the formerly SNCF owned cross channel operator Sea France. Eurotunnel bought the ships from the French Government and the Syndicat Martime Nord lead by the charismatic Eric Vercoutre persuaded 600 Sea France workers to put their redundancy money into a workers co-operative to enable them to operate three former Sea France ships.
All seemed to be going well they had captured 12% of the cross-channel traffic and it was reputed that the crews worked much more efficiently as a co-operative than under the previous owners. The future of the co-op based in Calais, is now to say the least highly uncertain.
Whilst the ferries are actually owned by Eurotunnel they had contracted the management of the service to the co-operative. The dispute began when Eurotunnel withdrew from the agreement at the beginning of June with the inevitable effect, if nothing changes, of the co-op having to go into administration.
The reasons for this are rather complex, but here goes, it seems to have begun when the UK Competition and Markets Authority had ruled that Eurotunnel was breaking competition law by owning the ferries as well as the Channel Tunnel.
This decision lead in January to Eurotunnel putting the ferries up for sale. In response the co-op joined together with a broader social enterprise venture so that it could make a formal bid for the whole business, one of several Eurotunnel received.
Whilst all this was going however the case was grinding on through the courts in Britain to the British Supreme Court. Then last month came a major surprise: the court ruled that Eurotunnel was not, in fact, in breach of competition law.
Despite there no longer being any reason for the sale Eurotunnel say that it is going ahead – and that their previous decision to terminate the deal with MyFerryLink will not be revoked. Two ferries are to be sold to DFDS and one to a freight operator.
This is all rather odd as Eurotunnel and MyFerry Link had been involved in a long legal battle together to keep the new service going against P&O the biggest cross channel ferry operator and the British competition authorities who had fought them all the way objecting to Eurotunnel owning a ferry company.
Then just as the legal battle was won Eurotunnel scuttled its own ships leaving six hundred workers high, dry and very angry. The suspicion is that they see this as an opportunity to break Mr Vercoutre and his militant union.
As I write with a migrant getting killed attempting to make the crossing at Calais, ferry workers are continuing their occupation of the two MyFerryLink vessels that where formerly worked by the co-operative and are now leased to DFDS by Eurotunnel. DFDS has complained to French Transport minister Alain Vidalies at the situation at Calais. As one Ferry Company - P&O – are able to operate normally whilst DFDS cannot.
DFDS’ vessels have now been ‘barred’ from Calais for a week and the financial implications could be significant. But this is part of a wider pattern going back to the famous trade unions and the ferries cases of Viking and Laval.
The late lamented RMT general secretary Bob Crow said that collective bargaining rights were being hollowed out by EU diktat and EU court rulings which encourage social dumping and severely weakens trade union powers to defend workers.
“ECJ decisions in the Viking, Laval, Ruffert and Luxemburg ECJ cases take us back over 100 years to the Taff Vale judgment when any trade union activity was perceived by the bosses to be ‘in restraint of trade.”
The legal framework now around secondary action means that this small co-op of unionised workers has to struggle alone as any secondary industrial action is pretty much impossible. At this stage one has to admire their tenacity in furthering this dispute against overwhelming odds.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Drawing Inspiration from Co-op Congress

I hope those of you who attended the AGM of Co-operatives UK and Congress got as much out of it as I did. Meeting so many passionate, engaged, innovative co-operators has made a huge contribution to re-charging my batteries.

I feel a renewed commitment to the cause. That inspiration does not just come from the energy on show in Birmingham Town Hall but from a co-operator who died in 1964.  That co-operator was William Hazell, the subject a splendid new book, ‘William Hazell’s Gleaming Vision’ (Y Lolfa 2014) by Alun Burge.

The title comes from the history of the Ynysybwl Industrial Co-operative Society Hazell wrote in 1954. Alun Burge’s book really is a stunning piece of scholarship. It brings back to life a whole world of co-operative enterprise and all its interlocking social and political connectivity’s that existed in South Wales from the First World War to the 1960’s. Our guide on this thoroughly delightful journey is William Hazell himself. 

Hazel is what Gramsci would have called an ‘organic intellectual’ not a utopian but a very practical man with huge ambition who set about creating a new world. The story begins in the relatively isolated pit village of Ynysybwl.  Yet as a result of Hazell’s and his fellow ordinary members’ creativity this, ‘one co-operative society expanded from a single village shop to become a large business undertaking with a million-pound turnover that stretched across and beyond the valleys towards Cardiff ’.

The challenges he and his colleagues faced in this endeavour are well documented thanks to the hundreds of articles he wrote for the myriad of co-operative publications at the time and Burge deserves great credit for tracking them down. Many of the issues he grapples with from the balance between members and management, local versus national control and the role of women are perennial issues and Hazell’s voice is remarkably contemporary.

Despite some of the massive challenges they faced from the general strike, the depression and war he is always on hand to offer sound advice and practical support.

As Burge says, “Hazell’s view of the potential of the movement at times appeared to have no limit. Throughout his life, his writings displayed an absence of cynicism and a freedom from disillusion or despair. He was a proselytiser who called for those who had become cynical or disillusioned to ‘Start again now’.

Alun Burge has done a great job in bringing an entire world to life in his other writings he makes a small linguistic point that gave me much to think about in how we make co-operative ownership meaningful. It is that Welsh speakers referred to their Societies as ‘siop ni’ (our shop) rather than ‘the co-op’.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in retail co-operation and those of you who are avoiding Amazon can get it online from the Welsh publishers at:

Burge is now working on a history of the Co-operative Movement in South Wales we must not distract him if this book is anything to go by it will be a classic. Hazell did not live to see the Co-operative Commonwealth the baton has been passed onto our generation. So it is our turn to, ‘Start again now’!

Midcounties triumph in Co-op of the Year

It was great to see one of the shortlisted candidates for Co-op of the Year given the full page treatment in the Morning Star. Following a process where nominations where generated by Co-operatives UK members, nine Co-op’s where shortlisted for the accolade.

They included, and real footie fans will be delighted that the Northern Premier League Champions, F.C. United of Manchester are included on that shortlist, as well as The Channel Islands Co-operative, East of England Co-operative, the Foster Care Co-operative, Jamboree, the Midcounties Co-operative, Oikocredit UK, the Phone Co-op and Unicorn Grocery.

This year we opened up the process to member nominations and received 65 of a very high standard from all parts of the co-operative economy making the short listing process really difficult.  We have had some fantastic nominations supported by some very passionate members.

When we got to the business end we opened it up to an online poll and there where thousands of votes cast. With such a large number of votes cast whoever came out on top, must have tremendous popular support.

Last years winners where Suma Wholefoods, Secretary General of Co-ops UK ED Mayo when he presented them with their award last year said, “Suma, as a leading worker co-operative, shows what the power of true employee ownership can be, lifting the bar on business innovation and performance.”

There where some real stars on this years shortlist and it will was hard to choose between them. I nominated the Channel Islands Co-op as I felt their move into healthcare was an important innovation for the Channel Islands Community and there all round co-op performance is pretty impressive too.

East of England Retail Co-operative is distinctive for its commitment to local sourcing and providing their customers with the best in regional produce. Many of us believe that social care co-ops are the coming thing and the Foster Care Co-operative shows the potential for this type of co-op it has been recruiting and expertly training foster carers for the last fifteen years, which has provided vulnerable children with safe, caring and loving homes throughout England and Wales.

Jamboree is a very special co-op owned and operated by adults with learning disabilities commissioning their own support and running CafeH2O at the Key IQ visitor centre on the Malvern Hills. It is a great example of how co-operation can work for everyone. They are a great team and if you are in that part of the world they produce great teas!

Another candidate Oikocredit International is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year it is a worldwide co-operative and social investor, providing funding to the microfinance sector, fair trade organizations, cooperatives and small to medium enterprises. They were ethically investing before it was fashionable.

The Phone Co-op have had another great year giving great service (and a dividend) to their members and what a year they have had retailing the Fairphone the first smartphone that puts social values first, built with conflict-free minerals and made in a factory with a worker-controlled welfare fund.

Then there was Unicorn Grocery a worker co-operative, the shop is controlled, directed and owned by its workforce. Even as they approach 60 members, they all get the same flat pay, everything is decided in fortnightly meetings with consensus decision-making, and they share manual and administrative tasks. The harnessing of this talent and energy generates a turnover of over £5million from a single shop!

Next year let’s hope the Peoples Press Printing Society is doing well enough so it too gets a nomination. That would be a great way to end to the 85th year of the Morning star.

Well there could only be one winner and with a clear majority it was Midcounties Co-operative. They have been consistently innovative over the last few years doing the usual retail things, food, pharmacy, travel and funerals but also launching the fast growing Co-op Energy and also developing a significant presence in child care.

Midcounties first amongst equals.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Co-op Party Lives to Fight Another Day

There was a letter in the Morning Star recently asking what had happened to the Co-operative Party? Well at the recent Co-operative Group AGM they won a spectacular victory to maintain the Group’s subscription to the Party.

Given the size of the Group the loss of this subscription could have been catastrophic.

There is no doubt that the Party ran a very imaginative campaign in favour of keeping the link. Under the strap line Not Just Shoppers Pioneers it was simultaneously informative, entertaining and serious. It stood out compared with Labour’s limp general election campaign which ran at roughly the same time.

One former Labour and Co-operative member must wish that instead of the Co-op Party fighting for its life with the Co-operative Group membership it had been running the election campaign in Morley and Outwood.  One wonders what the skills and resources expanded on this campaign could have contributed to winning the just 422 votes needed to retain Ed Balls seat.

This result in the Co-op Group is a tremendous achievement for Co-op Party general secretary Karen Christiansen. She has made some bold decisions and the whole process has raised the profile and significance of the Party within the co-operative movement and in politics generally. She more than held her own when being quizzed by Andrew Neil on the Daily Politics.

The debate at the group AGM about political funding was quite interesting there is clearly a resistance to simply donating money to political parties. There was a lot of passionate support however for the link with the Co-op Party. Most of the serious criticism was not about whether the Co-operative movement should have a political voice but hat form it should take.

Given the contemporary political fragmentation the link with the Labour Party is clearly an issue. Particularly in Scotland where there exists a quite effective cross-party group supporting co-operative and mutual enterprise.

Some of the issues raised should really be raised at the Co-op Party’s own conference. When that takes place later this year it will surely be a lively event with a rich agenda. And most importantly the Co-operative Group now needs to play a full role ensuring that it gets out of that relationship what it needs both in support of co-operation generally and in the interests of its own businesses.

Something that stands out given the intellectual self-destruction of the Labour Party is for the Co-operative Party to have a more substantial input into how we develop the Co-operative message and take it into the UK Parliament, the other devolved administrations and into local government.

At Co-ops UK we have done some thinking about this message. When we looked at Co-operative identity in seeking an overarching narrative that won the support of our members and offered external audiences a persuasive argument for co-operatives by far the strongest element was ownership. Ownership rather than fairness, ethics, community, or even membership is seen as the USP for co-operatives.

Research shows us that we live in an economy over which people feel they have no control, they have little influence in their workplace, they think big businesses are out of control and they feel they have no influence over the economy.

Co-operatives as businesses run by the people who own them offer a way to regain some control over what is happening in their communities and workplaces, and to have a say in how they are treated by businesses and in the wider economy.

Clearly the promotion of collective or social ownership has been a long way from the Labour Party’s policy agenda in the last few years. What is more it will have to be backed up by a serious policy framework if it is to have any hope of success.

That framework must include a level playing field for enterprises using the Society legal form whilst looking for further improvements including an asset lock on bone fide co-ops. We also need to ensure an enabling regulatory framework that balances flexibility and innovation with protection of both the public interest and co-operative values and principles.

We also need a fair slice of the available business support so the co-op option is not overlooked. Finance is also a big issue so how we come up with public policy that enables co-op’s gain access to capital is critical.

Lastly the public understanding of co-ops is not as good as it should be and policy makers are no exception we need an ongoing dialogue with them to keep the co-op option on the table.

This is a substantial agenda which I hope the Co-op Party will consider. If we are to make a significant increase in the Co-op economy we will all have to work together to deliver on this agenda in the coming years.