Voting for member democracy

A ballot paper arrives:  there are seven members standing for three places on the Board of Directors of the Phone Co-op.  Good cooperative corporate governance requires among other things active member democracy, and the Phone Co-op almost always obliges in this respect.

(Yes, all right, six of the seven are men, and better gender balance would be helpful.  But just at the moment I want to focus on good things happening in the cooperative sector).

Conviviality all round: the cooperative way to organise a tourism business

Damn, two days late.  Wednesday was, I have now been told, the European Day of Tourism.  If only I’d known in time…

Better late than never, however, I have been looking into what’s going on in the burgeoning area of tourism cooperatives.  I had a brief phone call this morning from Peter Hogbin of the Heart of Argyll Tourism Alliance, a cooperative established two years ago to promote their part of Scotland.  I hope to find out more from Peter about what they’re up to in due course.

Heart of Argyll is one of only a handful of tourism-related coops in the UK, at least according to Co-operatives UK.  But plenty is happening abroad.  A press release in Spanish in my email today claims that more than a thousand worker coops in Europe are engaged in tourism-related businesses, helping to “promote a more sustainable and responsible form of tourism”.

There’s certainly plenty of ways to organise your 2014 holiday the cooperative way, if you’re so minded.  Italy in particular seems crammed with possibilities, with everything from Libera Terra coops managing lands confiscated from the Mafia to the community-based Briganti di Cerreto in the mountain village of Cerreto north-west of Florence, set up in 2003 partly to help prevent a drift by local young people away from the countryside.  The coop brigands of Cerreto offer among other things a good-looking fifteenth-century converted mill to sleep in.

Maurizio Davolio, President of one of Italy’s federations of tourism coops Legacoop Turismo,  gave examples of tourism coops from across Europe at a tourism conference in Benidorm in April this year (his slides are available online). His argument is that cooperative tourism respects workers’ rights, acknowledges the cultural identity of areas, encourages local cuisine from coop producers, and last but not least offers “conviviality and a friendly atmosphere”.

Incidentally, the International Labour Organization’s COOP unit has just announced that it will be undertaking a scoping exercise to explore the extent of tourism coops worldwide.  The ILO is looking particularly at Italy, France, the UK, Canada, Argentina, Malaysia, China, India and Egypt.  Preliminary results are promised shortly.

Calais cross-channel ferry coop hails legal decision

A little cheerfulness has been breaking out over the past two days in a windy and wintry Calais…  or more precisely among the 533 employees of the cross-channel ferry company MyFerryLink which has its main base there.

MyFerryLink operates three boats on the Dover-Calais crossing, and is structured as a workers’ cooperative incorporated under French law (to be technical, it is a SCOP, a société coopérative et participative).  The coop was created two years ago, with trade union support, after the former ferry operator SeaFrance went out of business and the majority of MyFerryLink’s workers are ex-SeaFrance staff.  You can read the piece I wrote at the time for The Guardian here.

When the cooperative was established it did a deal with EuroTunnel, who purchased the three ships MyFerryLink needed and leased them back to the coop.  EuroTunnel also encouraged freight operators with hazardous cargo to use the boats rather than the tunnel. However this arrangement fell foul of the UK Competition Commission which ruled in July that EuroTunnel had acquired an unfair market share. As a consequence MyFerryLink were told they would have to stop using Dover port, potentially putting the fledgling venture out of business.

The Competition Commission ruling was partially overturned at an appeal earlier this week in London. Although the legal battle is continuing, the response in France has been to see the tribunal decision as “a victory and a relief”,  according to MyFerryLink senior management.  “We’re proud of all that the staff have done since the start of this adventure, which has been difficult,” said Raphaël Doutrebente, deputy Director-General for the cooperative in an interview yesterday with the newspaper Libération.

The lurking danger of demutualisation

Vivian Woodell, the chief executive of the Phone Coop, has sent me an email link to a recent article in The Australian.  It begins, “The nation’s second-biggest wheat exporter, CBH Group, is facing calls to abandon its co-operative model amid rising investor interest in the agribusiness sector, with estimates that corporatisation could unlock $5 billion in value for more than 4000 growers.”

In fact, I understand indirectly from the Australian cooperative movement that this story comes from a Murdoch-owned newspaper trying to stir things up.  It’s good to know that there are many who believe CBH should stay resolutely cooperative.

Nevertheless, demutualisation – which has caused such problems in Britain over the past twenty years –  remains a worldwide threat to the cooperative movement, and one which needs to be tackled head-on.  This is yet another reason for the importance of discussing new capital instruments for coops.

So what’s this about cooperative councils?

I was talking earlier this week with the leader of a large local authority who, like his colleagues in some other Labour-controlled cities, has declared his council to be a ‘cooperative’ one.

He shared with me a number of  recent things his administration has been doing to try to live up to its pledge to be genuinely cooperative (or, as the slogan puts it, a ‘Brilliant Co-operative Council’). We talked of his desire to encourage what he called “active citizenry”, whether in the field of education (one community college is a cooperative trust, for example), through the city’s three community-led development trusts, or through the proposal to pass council-run open spaces into a new trust, an idea currently under consideration.

This is such a difficult time to be a local authority councillor, let alone the leader of a major city trying against all the odds to maintain services whilst having to make swingeing cuts, that I can only admire his tenacity. I last wrote about ‘Co-operative Councils’ in March in The Guardian (you’ll find a link on my website), since when the twenty or so councils involved have formed themselves into  the Co-operative Councils Innovation Network.  The Network offers the following informal manifesto for its work: “We believe that the unprecedented challenges facing the public sector and local communities mean that traditional models of top down governance and service delivery are no longer fit for purpose. We agree that we urgently need to create a new approach, and that the founding traditions of the co-operative movement – collective action and co-operation, empowerment and enterprise – offer a foundation for fresh and innovative solutions to help tackle the challenges of today in genuine collaboration with communities.”

It’s difficult to disagree with that, and I’m all for an end to top-downism and for genuine partnership between councils and their citizens.  Admittedly there can be problems in the implementation:  there have already been probing questions asked of the original ‘cooperative council’, Lambeth, in the way it has recently evicted members of short-life housing coops in the borough, an issue reported widely and covered again in The Guardian earlier this week.

More substantively,  I do have a worry over the idea that local authorities can genuinely claim the term ‘cooperative’. The core principle of cooperation is that people voluntarily choose to come together as members of a cooperative – membership is not something which can be imposed on them from on high. Local authorities can be (and should be) lots of things: democratic, accountable, responsive, accessible, good at cooperating.  I’m just not convinced they can be Cooperatives.