Monday, 30 March 2015

Co-op Docs Next Chapter in Island Story

After a recent at meeting at Co-ops UK we where chatting about who should be co-op of the year. I said my nomination would go to the Channel Islands Co-operative (CIC) Society.  Founded in Jersey in 1919 having survived the occupation it is a credit to the movement and shows how co-ops can genuinely support the communities which they serve.

With 34 percent market share the CIC is the biggest retailer in the islands. That dominance has to be won everyday and it has never rested on its laurels. With a finite customer base it has always sought out new ways in which it can bring value to its members.

In some ways the people of the Channel Islands (population 165,000) and the CIC (membership 120,000) are one and the same as almost the entire adult population are members of the society. That relationship has been consolidated in the last three years as it has paid out over £8 million per year in dividends to its members.

Clearly there are limits to growth in any one business in such an enclosed economy so CIC has an amazing breadth. Its £160 million turnover came from food, furnishings and leisure retailing, travel services to both individuals and businesses, the provision of financial services to its Members, the sale of petrol, Post Office services, funerals and pharmacy.

So pretty much every consumer service you would need is provided by in twenty seven different stores across the islands. Apart from the quality of service and the tremendous member dividend, it is integral to island life, employing a thousand people, spending over £11m on local produce each year and £200,000 supporting local good causes.

It has not all been plain sailing whilst the type of competition they face is different to the mainland there is still stiff competition particularly in food but also on other products. They are not immune to the arrival of internet shopping. So they have had to take some tough calls on reducing costs in wharehousing.

Making the decision to end their local wharehousing facility and rely on the mainland proved to be real test of their democracy. With over seven hundred people packing the egm to discus the issue before it was finally agreed

Their latest move to support members however is quite extraordinary. This is their move into medical services. In the Channel Islands there is a patchwork medical service a mixture of subsidy from the different islands, Jersey and Guernsey Governments and private insurance schemes. Basically you are charged every time you visit your GP and as doctors practices are private businesses the fees charged vary tremendously with them being free to charge what they wish.

Colin Mcleod CEO of CIC says, “I have been asked about the rationale behind our decision to offer a new, more affordable GP service and the answer is really very simple: we have listened to our members. They would like their healthcare to be more affordable, transparent and easily accessible. A survey conducted by the Jersey Consumer Council showed us that a lot of islanders felt the same way.”

Co-operative Medical Care, which consists of three GP practices, spread across Jersey, is focused on helping islanders pay less for high quality healthcare, particularly families with young children. A standard consultation fee is £30, and Society members will receive free healthcare for children under five and lower prices for children aged five to 18.

To form Co-operative Medical Care, CIC has bought two established GP practices. Four doctors, a practice nurse and eight existing surgery staff are now employed by the Society which plans to engage more healthcare professionals as demand for the service increases.

As Co-operative Medical Care is owned by Society members, rather than GP partners, profits will be shared by members in the form of and 4% dividend on healthcare services.  Since launching in November, Co-operative Medical Care has attracted almost 600 new patients with growth exceeding expectations. To support the strong uptake, two new doctors have joined the practice.
Phil Romeril, Head of Healthcare at CIC, said, ‘We are very pleased that there has been such a positive response to Co-operative Medical Care. It was always our intention to grow if the demand was there.”
It maybe surprising to get a divi from a visit to the doctors but this Co-op is taking primary care out of the private sector and bringing it into social ownership. This co-op has done something that Aneurin Bevan failed to do that is turn GP’s into employees instead of businesses. To say this has stirred up GP services on the island is an understatement.
The lesson from Jersey could be a look to the past or a pointer to the future maybe it is something we may need to do here on the mainland. What happens on May 7th could well be the decider in that.


El Sistema @ 40

I am lucky that I have easy access to two world class state supported arts institutions within easy reach of where I live, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
On leaving recent productions of Loves Labour’s Lost and War and Revolution in Stratford and Birmingham I was a better person my the experiences had added immeasurably to the quality of my life.
A lot of working class people are educated to believe this sort of art is not for the likes of them. As if Shakespeare had nothing to say to working class people or that the Shostakovich in the CBSO concert was just for toffs.

William Morris describes how the production of his art left him “ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich”. Here we are over a hundred years later and we are still at it with the working class pacified with a tidal wave of celebrity pap. And don’t get me started on Clarkson the cultural wing of UKIP.

As a precocious teenager I used to read the Listener (OK I was a bit pretentious) I read about classical music, theatre and poetry helping me to understand what I found on Radio 3. Like Robert Hughes I became, “an elitist in the cultural but emphatically not in the social sense.” I appreciated the great craft that went into producing great art and hated the fact that many talented people where denied the opportunity to develop that craft.

I thought that by the time I grew up, everyone would listen to Radio 3, read poetry and broad sheet newspapers and of course watch films with sub-titles. In stead we got the X-factor, Hollywood films with a reading age of eight, Damian Hurst and the Sun.

Then for a while half the adult population seemed to reading children’s books like Harry Potter and Neil Postman’s thesis that we where ‘amusing ourselves to death’ seemed to be coming true.

There are ways to hold back this cultural decay. We could take the best of what we know to everyone. That is what Jose Antonio Abreu did in 1975. At that time there where two professional symphony orchestras in Venezuela employing largely Eastern European musicians.

To day there are dozens full of local talent. A far cry from when Abreu gathered eleven youngsters in an underground car park and told them they where making history. The next rehearsal saw 25 turn up and the ball was rolling. Now 40 years later the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras, El Sistema, has hundreds of thousands of participants.
The basics of the Sistema are simple. Children as young as two are given daily instrumental tuition in return they are expected to join an ensemble. Public performance is an integral part of the program including family and community members in their progress.
Get them before any one tells them this kind thing is not for them. Now hundreds of thousands of youngsters the majority from poor homes are engaged in a process of human development. As Abreu says, “An Orchestra means, joy, motivation, teamwork, the aspiration to success. A big family dedicated to harmony.” 

“El Sistema gave our society two priceless gifts: the gift of appreciating beauty, and the gift of striving for artistic excellence,” says conductor Gustavo Dudamel just one of the great talents it has produced.

He features on the prestigious Deutsche Grammaophon CD, El Sistema 40, A Celebration a delightful compilation of recordings of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra. I whole heartedly recommend it but only as a starter. The vigour and attack by both the Orchestra and the String Quartet on these mostly live, recordings will I am sure leave you wanting more.
They deliver such gusto to the Latin American sounds of Revueltas and Ginastera but also show they can do Beethoven as well. One to savour for classical aficionados there is also their earlier recording of Mahlers Seventh.
Having discovered its self-confidence under the inspirational leadership of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela has reappeared on the radar of the ‘Empire’. Whilst preoccupied with events in the Middle East the USA disengaged from what was happening in its back yard becoming isolated from the rest of the Americas.
It has made a tactical shift with regard to Cuba but make no mistake the USA is trying to regain control over the lands south of the Rio Grande. In declaring Venezuela a threat to US security Obama is trying to turn the clock back. This throwback can not be allowed to stand clearly Obama has not read, the ‘Open veins of Latin America’ by Edwardo Galeano, presented to him by Hugo Chavez.  
Meanwhile you can show your solidarity by listening to the open heart of Venezuela and its unique musical community with EL Sistema 40!

Monday, 23 March 2015

Is it Time for a Fresh Look at Co-op Politics?

When I was young I had a clear trinity of values. At work I joined the union, at elections voted Labour and I shopped at the co-op. The intertwining of these activities, I was a union, Labour Party and Co-op member meant never having to think about the quality of representation this formula delivered for its components.
Today these relations are under severe strain as each part of the triumvirate reacts to the changes driven by neo-liberalism. The Tories saw this on coming into office and sought to exploit it by promoting the social economy, seeing it as having a role in job creation, improving public services, and even in reforming the role of government itself. Remember all the talk of the John Lewis model, mutualism and the Big Society?
It did sound nice, and some co-operators did try hard to engage until it became clear just how little the right understand, or in fact really care about, the social economy.
For the Cabinet Office co-operatives and mutuals where a cover for privatization, public sector workers, coerced into joining some pseudo-mutual is a travesty of co-operative principles. Membership must always be voluntary, governance democratic, and the whole purpose is to serve their members and their communities for their common benefit – not as a transit lounge into the private sector.
For the Right, the social economy is often viewed as a final refuge for the discarded victims of capitalism. This is why they advocate charity as the proper response to poverty never solidarity or equity.
Tragically the truth is the previous Labour government did not really get the social economy either.
It is composed of civil organizations and networks that are driven by the principles of reciprocity and mutuality in service to the common good – usually through the social control of capital. There are co-operatives, non-profit organizations, foundations, voluntary groups, and a whole range of associations that operate both inside the market, as many successful co-operatives and fair trade groups do, or in non-market provision of goods or services.
These include in cultural production, the provision of health or social care, and the provision of food, shelter, or other necessities to people in need. In its essence, the social economy has the potential to be a space where economics is at the service of social ends, not the other way round.
I suspect in a neo-liberal world these ideas just do not compute. The Right has used the social economy as a proxy for the promotion of capital and markets, and the Left has consistently viewed the social economy as a vehicle for the delivery of what should be state functions through a form of clientism. Look at how many of our largest charities are now dependent on state funding.
This has both stunted the growth of the mutual and co-operative sector and turned workers away from seeing them as a genuine vehicle for social change.
So imagine my delight and surprise when I read the Co-operative Party’s agenda for Britain. Karin Christiansen, the General Secretary, and her team have produced a very substantial piece of work. Many of us thought she was a too close to the Labour Party and too far away from the Co-op but this shows that is not the case.
This is a real attempt to take a genuinely comprehensive co-operative agenda into government. I may not agree with every dot and comma but if an incoming Labour Government implemented half of it I would be a well chuffed co-operator.
Sadly this comes as the Co-operative Retail sector has suffered a massive loss of confidence and in drawing in its horns has lost the will to see a role for itself as a champion of a wider co-operative future.  
If I was designing a co-operative political entity at the present time I don’t think it would look like the current Co-operative Party. But let us not pretend that doing without it would end our need to engage politically.
Other large scale retailers spend a fortune on political engagement but do so under the radar. Our crime is one of transparency. In recent years Tesco, for example, have retained at least ten different political consultant firms as lobbyists at any one time.
The current elections for the Co-op Group, in which I am a candidate, will elect the first Council of the new regime. In my opinion dumping the Co-op Party would not be wise as it will be the devils own job to recreate something like it. Yes it needs some radical reform so we need to buy some time after the general election to work out what we best need to drive the co-operative political agenda into the future.
At that point we should seek the members’ endorsement for a sensible program of political engagement. The huge victories for political funds in the trade union ballots should give us confidence in such a strategy.
In the meantime if you support a more co-operative future get your Labour Candidate to endorse this program. Go to:

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Japanese Farmers-Co-ops Under Pressure with Free Trade Deal

The threat from the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the drive for an EU/USA free trade area, widely perceived as an attack on democracy is now well known. Less well known is the parallel deal that is being cooked up between the USA and eleven countries across the Pacific, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).
In Japan the leading opponents of this deal are the Co-operative movement especially in agriculture. JA-Zenchu is one of the world’s largest co-operative organisations, the umbrella organisation of the Japanese farmers’ co-ops; it supports farmers, markets their produce, provides their inputs and acts as banker and insurer for their businesses.
JA-Zenchu has taken the lead gathering other groups including consumers, health care & medical, forestry & fishery, and construction into joining the anti-TPP movement. The consequence is they have become a target of the government of Prime Minister Abe.
The TPP negotiations seem quite advanced; I say seem as all we know comes from leaks. Some details of the trade deal have been published by Wikileaks where they look to include provisions on food safety, intellectual property and copyright issues that are usually outside the boundaries of trade deals.
To those who have followed TTIP this is unsurprising as the TPP negotiations have included 600 corporate advisers, including representatives of Halliburton and Caterpillar.
The whole process is mired in secrecy even the US Congress won’t have access to the details before it is signed.  Senator Bernie Sanders, has called the TPP “disastrous” and said it is “written behind closed doors by the corporate world”, he denounced it as designed “to protect the interests of the largest multinational corporations at the expense of workers, consumers, the environment and the foundations of American democracy.”
In Japan “Abenomics” consist of a set of what the PM calls three “arrows” the usual neo-liberal claptrap, namely ultra-aggressive monetary easing, more fiscal spending and structural reforms.
It is these “structural reforms” that spell danger for Japans Co-op farmers. The Government is keen on “reforming” the co-ops, which it regards as an interest group protected by regulations. The reforms include a plan to strip the JA-Zenchu, as the Central Union of Agricultural Co-operatives, of its power to audit local co-ops and check their activities.

This looks like a small step but is part of a wider attempt to restructure Japanese agriculture.  The Government has a blueprint for increasing the ‘competitiveness’ of farmers through the consolidation of farms, expanding the entry of business corporations into the sector, and the development of products with higher added-value.

This would be accomplished by strengthening the management base of farmers and through closer “co-operation” with food-related industries, including the food processing and distribution sectors.
Japanese farming consists of large numbers of small-scale farms many located in particularly mountainous areas. How “consolidation” would work in these conditions is not explained. Like many mature farming economies farmers are aging and many have no one to take over when they retire.
There are young people interested farming and it would be simpler to help them start farming careers since they could play a part in revitalizing the sector and the rural economy but that would not help the global agri-business industry.
Given the geography of the country a key aspects of Japanese farming is its role in land conservation and environmental protection. Needless to say they have failed to show how the plans will help.
Whilst JA-Zenchu has consistently contributed to enhancing Japan’s agriculture by providing farmers with distribution, financial services, and management advice also it collectively purchases materials needed for farm production and markets their products.
More politically sensitive it the Japanese Agricultural Co-op movement is strictly non-GM and consumers are very particular when it comes to provenance having some of the highest food standards in the world. Backed by strong co-ops this has restricted US agri-business getting a foothold.
JA-Zenchu as well as supporting farmer co-ops is a huge financial services and banking business. As well as bursting open the farming industry to US Agri-business the suspicion is that the Abe Government is after the huge assets the JA-Zenchu has in banking and financial services.
Yoichi Tashiro, a professor at Otsuma Women’s University and an expert on agricultural economics, believes Abe has tried to weaken JA-Zenchu in order to promote negotiations for the proposed TPP trade agreement.
Tashiro says that Abe is trying to play up the political battle with JA-Zenchu because it is the keystone of the whole anti-TPP movement in Japan. The UK Co-op Sector is in solidarity with our Japanese colleagues in this fight.
It is time we all woke up to what is going on here. If these deals are so good for workers and consumers why are they so secretive?