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: www.ylolfa.com

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.