That 10% student discount at the Co-op

The Co-op Group has introduced a 10% discount for students on their food (and, it seems, drink) purchases.  Good idea,  students need all the help they can get these days.  And good idea, too, to introduce a new generation of people to the idea of the consumer cooperative movement. Except…

“Don’t talk to me about the 10% discount”, said the NUS Extra card-carrying student in our household yesterday.  She has been trying to claim her discount four times over the past few days, with a success rate so far of 50%.  It has not been easy.  Each time she’s arrived at the till the authorisation card has had to be found from the office at the far end of the store, the supervisor has had to be summonsed, and the queue of (increasingly impatient) other customers has built up behind.  On Thursday, she took pity on the queue and walked away without the 10%.  And yesterday the supervisor told her that the discount wasn’t available as she had already proffered her Co-op membership card.  (Really? I find this heard to believe. I will see what I can find out).

We ask a lot of our coops.  We expect them to be ethical, we expect them to sell good quality produce at good prices, and we hope that they treat their staff at least as fairly as the competition.  But we also legitimately expect them to run their businesses effectively and efficiently.

Should I mention the Co-op own-brand Red Leicester, complete with a large £2 sticker on the pack, which was in my basket last week.  At the till, it rang through at £2.05.  Oh well, what’s fivepence?

Food security on agenda for 2014 coop summit in Québec

I was reminded last week, in a conversation with one of the members of the conference’s official Validation Committee,  that there is only a year to go until the second International cooperative Summit in Québec, hosted by Canadian cooperative bank and insurer Desjardins.  The dates are fixed (Oct 6-9), and the themes chosen.

Desjardins’ CEO Monique Leroux pushed the boat out last year for the first Québec summit, one of the main events organised for the UN International Year of Co-operatives.  Nothing daunted, she has agreed to do the same again next year.  She has talked of Québec becoming a kind of cooperative equivalent to the World Economic Forum’s annual Davos bash.

I was interested to hear that one of the themes focuses on agriculture and food security.  There are big agricultural coops in the UK but by and large we don’t hear much of them:  with one or two honourable exceptions, they tend to keep apart from the rest of the British cooperative movement.  Regrettably too, agricultural coops have historically tended to lead the way when it has come to demutualisation.  This is what happened, for example, to Ireland’s once extensive agricultural coop movement.

But internationally agricultural cooperation remains a central part of the movement (35% of all coops are engaged in some way with food, say the Québec organisers).  With food security increasingly on the global agenda, it’s right to be reminded of the role that coops can potentially play in trying to tackle the issue.

Better stats on coops needed

You know (of course you know) that the Nineteenth Conference of Labour Statisticians is taking place next month for ten days in Geneva.  Ah, but do you know that the conference will also be discussing proposals so that employment and labour force statistics can cover the cooperative sector better?

There’s a broad feeling that the current ways that data are collected at national and international level on cooperative businesses aren’t up to scratch.  As the report puts it, “It is often said that cooperatives are resilient in times of crisis and that they are essential for small enterprise development. Such statements, however, are drawn from ad hoc studies that cover a limited set of industries for a few countries. Only quantitative evidence that covers the whole economy for a large number of countries can verify that such statements are generally true. Unfortunately, statistics on cooperatives that have these characteristics are missing in most countries of the world.”

It will be interesting to see what emerges from the conference deliberations.  The paper offering proposals is here.  

Can coops save the local press?

What are we going to do about the dire plight of local newspapers?   As I mention today in a piece posted in The Guardian’s social enterprise site my own union the National Union of Journalists has been talking of savage cuts in both the number of local newspaper offices and the number of journalists working in them.  The local press is now a ‘war zone’, according to one NUJ official.

You can argue that strong local newspapers with professional journalists who know their patch and know how to find out what’s going on are a necessary part of every thriving community  – as essential, say, as the much-loved pub or the local shop.  So, just as communities are increasingly looking to cooperative options as ways to come together to save their pubs and shops, should they also be exploring cooperative options for local media?

As you’ll see if you click through to my piece, Dave Boyle has been doing some interesting work in this area as part of a Co-ops UK and Carnegie UK project.  Dave’s report Good News is well worth a look.

Incidentally, when researching the piece I was intrigued to see a passing mention in Good News of a fascinating if short-lived 1930s venture in Bristol.  The Bristol Evening Post was launched in 1932 after a public share issue, to provide an independent alternative to the established Bristol newspaper owned by Lord Rothermere. (There’s a small post about it on Wikipedia.)  So perhaps there really are no new ideas under the sun…

Building society members: Why can’t we have more choice of auditor?

An interesting comment comes through from the Ecology, Britain’s youngest and most democratic building society.  The AGM this year had a lively discussion about why KPMG had to be chosen as the society’s auditor.  Wasn’t there a choice of auditor more in line with the Ecology’s ethical principles, some members asked?

Well, unfortunately no, not really, was the reply. The latest issue of the Ecology’s members’ newsletter has just come out, and it includes a summary of chief executive Paul Ellis’s response to those member concerns:

“There is a very high degree of concentration in the audit industry,” he writes. “There are, in fact, only four firms that we can approach for external audit, not all of whom are interested, and only five firms that we can approach for internal audit. Our regulators would not be happy if we tried to use a small local firm, even if we could find one that was willing to take on the task”.

But Ellis is clearly not comfortable with the present situation: “We need reform of the structure of the industry,” he argues.

The Ecology has its own blog discussion covering this issue in more detail.

Co-operatives and sustainable development

Based upon a four point rating scale, how would you rate the potential of cooperatives and the cooperative movement to the achievement…. Of ending poverty?  Of empowering girls and women and achieving gender equality?  Of managing natural resource assets sustainably?  Of ensuring stable and peaceful societies?

I am quoting four of the questions in a new online Survey Monkey questionnaire,  details of which arrived in an email yesterday.  It seems to me that each of these questions (and there are several more) deserves rather more than the few seconds that most respondents will probably give.  We are asked to complete so many surveys these days that we tend to dash through them in the same way as we tackle those inevitable feedback sheets after courses and conferences: give that a 2, put a 3 there, mark that as 4…

But the aim behind the survey – to focus on the role which coops can play globally in sustainable development – is clearly a worthwhile one.  The initiative comes from the Cooperatives Unit at the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Cooperative Alliance, who are keen to make sure coops’ voices are heard in the aftermath of last year’s Rio+20 UN conference on sustainable development, as the world edges its way to agreement on a set of new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Coop businesses should be leading the way here.  I wonder to what extent they can really set the agenda?

By the way, this is the link you need to that survey.

Thinking about consensus

Queuing in my local coop supermarket yesterday I started talking with a friend behind me about the problems which can come when consensus decision making is wrongly applied.  We discussed the horror stories we’ve both heard from some community groups and collectively run ventures:  those endless meetings,  all that time wasted in deliberations that never seem to reach the moment of decision.

Consensus is a highly effective way of taking decisions jointly, used in all walks of life and often preferable to voting. (Voting can create an unhappy minority).  Consensus doesn’t of course mean that everyone has to agree about everything.

Many years ago, I was involved in drawing up new legal model rules for workers cooperatives which included a definition of consensus: “By consensus is meant a situation where all members present are in agreement on an issue, or where those not in agreement agree not to maintain an objection”.  I think this definition stands the test of time.

But sometimes consensus simply is not possible, and this also needs to be recognised.  Those model rules went on to provide a way out in this situation: “In the event of consensus not being possible, the matter shall be referred to a second [directors’] meeting, to be held not more than fourteen days after the date of the first meeting when, if consensus is still not possible, the matter shall be decided by a majority of votes”.

Incidentally, our advisor on that occasion was the eminent cooperative legal expert Ian Snaith.  Ian blogs regularly on coop legal affairs – well worth a look.

Those Co-op Bank blues

The sad saga of the Co-op Bank drags on.  Yesterday’s Guardian had an update on the moves by hard-nosed commercial Co-op Bank bondholders Aurelius and Silver Point Capital (both US-based) whose aim boils down to trying to wrest majority ownership of the bank away from the Co-operative Group.

My former colleague and friend Paul Gosling has been contributing some quite exceptional journalism on this affair in recent weeks in the trade magazine Co-operative News, and Paul was several week ahead of The Guardian in covering the Aurelius and Silver Point moves.  Have a look at his piece here, for example.

The Co-op Bank says that it weighed up all sorts of solutions to its capital shortfall before plumping for its preferred scheme (which would see the bank – already legally a plc – become quoted, with minority ownership outside the coop movement). I have no insight into the bank’s senior management’s deliberations, but I hope that they looked into possible sources of capital from within the international cooperative banking sector, as well as looking to the commercial London and New York money markets.  A much more satisfactory solution would have been for a listed Co-op Bank plc to be owned collectively by coop banks around the world, in partnership with the Co-op Group.  Europe in particular has some very big coop banking beasts.

If this option was investigated and found wanting, it rather points up the urgency for the global coop movement of addressing the issues of capital.

A co-operative solution to housing needs?

It’s sometimes forgotten, I think, that many of Britain’s early cooperative societies weren’t set up just with the idea of running shops.  The Rochdale Pioneers themselves, for example, had the idea of “building, purchasing or erecting a number of houses in which those members desiring to assist each other in improving their domestic and social condition may reside”.  By the start of the twentieth century, Britain’s local coop societies had collectively spent £1.8m on building or buying houses which they then let to their members.

I know all this because I’ve recently been reading Ernest Aves’ 1907 book Co-operative Industry which I picked up second-hand some time back.  Aves also includes details of a fascinating early (1888) housing coop initiative, the Tenant Co-operators Ltd, which built working class housing in Penge, Upton Park, East Ham, Camberwell and Epsom.  Investor members received 4% interest and surplus profits went to the tenant shareholders.

The housing coop movement in Britain is small but creative (a report I wrote on it a few years back for Co-ops UK can be found on my website).  My own feeling is that there’s a great deal of scope for new community-led cooperative housing initiatives.  One which has recently been drawn to my attention is the Lancaster Cohousing project, a fascinating development on the banks of the river Lune.  If I can, I’ll write further about this in due course.

Co-operative democracy at work

A hefty envelope has just arrived through the letterbox.  It’s a ballot paper and explanatory booklet for me to exercise my right as a member of Midcounties cooperative to vote for members of its Board of Directors.

Midcounties is one of the UK’s regional consumer cooperative societies, independent of the giant Co-operative Group although sharing with the Group the national cooperative branding. (I’ve written previously in more detail about Midcounties and its chief executive Ben Reid.)

Although I live outside the area of England where Midcounties operates its shops, I have chosen to become a member because I buy my electricity and gas through its subsidiary Co-operative Energy.  Midcounties generally has a strong reputation as one of the UK’s more innovative and entrepreneurial coop societies, and its venture into power supply is an example of this.

It deserves a pat on the back for encouraging member democracy.  No less than 16 people have put themselves forward for one of the five directorships to be filled this year.  I’ll have to read the candidates’ statements carefully of course… but what a pleasant contrast with, say, the usual situation with Building Society elections where Board places are generally uncontested.