Sharing holiday accommodation on the basis that you can have it for some weeks and I’ll have it for others is such a sensible – and cooperative – way of arranging things that it’s maddening that timeshare has developed into an often highly dodgy commercial business. So I’m delighted to have received an email which enables me to mention the narrowboat Jemima D which putters its way round England’s canal system in the best cooperative way possible.
Jemima D is, as a cooperative, owned by its various owners who arrange between them who will be using it when (and, given that canal boats move slowly, where). I was once treated by one of the coop members to a day’s cruise down part of the Rochdale canal, and I warn you that lock gates can be bloody hard work. But don’t let that put you off. There are, I’m told, one or two shares in the coop now available. If you’re interested, contact them via their website.
A thousand words to pick out the key dates in the history of the British coop movement… that was the brief from The Guardian, and my effort is now up on their Social Enterprise website here, accompanied by some really excellent illustrations from the National Co-operative Archive.
I am, of course, now a sitting target for everyone who feels that I’ve got it all wrong. Oh yes, there’s plenty of alternative dates which I could have included. Why do I mention, for example, the Hull ‘anti-mill’ coop but not the earlier cooperative mill in Woolwich? Why don’t I mention that the coop was the first to introduce supermarket shopping after the last war? Where’s any mention of Wales – what about the successful Tower colliery coop for example?
Well, feel free to comment and criticise all you like. The most important thing in the present troubled times, I’d argue, is to remember that the coop movement does have a very long history – and undoubtedly a future, too.
Look only just a little below the surface – at least in this part of the north of England where I live – and there is plenty of evidence to find of the cooperative movement of yesteryear. There are the easy-to-recognise former cooperative stores, of course (one near here has a fine stone with Union is Strength carved just above the door), but there are also some slightly less obvious reminders as well. I found out earlier this week that, in the late nineteenth century, it was the local cooperative society that had built the two small rows of terraced house a few hundred metres from my home. The streets’ names are Neale Street and Mitchell Street, and – having learned their history – I now realise that (of course!) they were named to commemorate two major cooperative leaders of the time, Edward Vansittart Neale (General Secretary of the Co-operative Union and ‘Mr Legal’ in relation to coop rules) and J.T.W. Mitchell, Chair of the Co-operative Wholesale Society for over thirty years. I’ve passed these streets innumerable times before without spotting the significance.
Two good news cooperative stories in one day.
The first reaches me indirectly via Le Monde, which ran a major feature in its paper yesterday on the success of the green electricity distribution coop EWS, based in the south German village of Schönau. EWS, set up by a local teacher Ursula Sladek who had lived through the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, took over the electricity distribution network for the community of Schönau itself in 1997 and now has grown to have customers throughout Germany. Its electricity is 100% renewable and comes from a variety of sources, including wind turbine and hydro generation… but definitely not nuclear. Turnover (2012) was 140 million euros, profits over 4 million euros, and the coop’s members earn a 4% return on their money. The Le Monde article is currently available online here.
Here, just to brighten up my blog, is a picture of their Board, lifted from the EWS website. (I’m not entirely sure what they’re holding.)
And closer to home an email brings news from the Phone Coop, which has just announced record profits for last year, at a little over half a million pounds. Dividends on customer purchases are in line to go up from 2% to 2.5%, and I understand that the Phone Coop is also planning to increase the contribution it makes to the development of other cooperatives through its Co-operative and Social Economy Development Fund. The Phone Coop also demonstrates the possibility of utilising capital from members, having now around £4m in members’ capital invested in the business.
An interesting bit of news comes in from across the Pond: the Canadian cooperative financial institution Desjardins, a federation of linked cooperative savings banks focused historically in Québec, has done a deal with the US mutual insurer State Farm to buy the latter’s general insurance business in Canada.
This represents a major expansion of Desjardins’ current insurance business and demonstrates how ambitious its CEO Monique Leroux is at the moment in wanting to extend Desjardins’ business reach and influence. Assuming the deal is given regulatory approval, Desjardins will overtake The Co-operators as the largest general insurance cooperative in Canada (it is already the largest cooperative life insurer).
And there’s another interesting aspect to the deal, and that is that the French company Crédit Mutuel has also been brought into the party. Crédit Mutuel, which already has some small-scale partnership arrangements with Desjardins, is investing 200m Canadian dollars in the business.
Little by little, cooperatives are becoming international in their ways of working.
The news announcement is here.
What are we to make of yesterday’s announcement that the Co-op Group is no longer looking to offload its remaining insurance operation?
Well, given that Britain has had a cooperative insurance business for 147 years, it’s hard not to welcome its continuation (even if the Co-op’s life and pension operation has already been sold, so we’re talking now only of general insurance). Internationally, insurance is one of the strongest – arguably the strongest – business sector in the cooperative family, and if France, Germany, Japan, the US, Canada and most of Latin America (to give just a few examples) can have successful coop insurers, why not Britain?
But I also have to add that I don’t think yesterday’s announcement necessarily represents a change of heart by the Co-op Group, so much as a pragmatic response to the fact that they couldn’t find a buyer offering as much money as they wanted. The Group was adamant under the previous management regime that insurance was no longer part of its long-term strategy, and I’m not convinced that it has suddenly been seen as a core business area after all. And without the bank and life business, the remaining part of Co-operative Insurance is at risk of being seen as something of a poor waif.
So ultimately the Group may well be looking to sell this business. Here’s a thought to ponder: could the capital be found from within the coop movement to relaunch it as a stand-alone cooperative insurer, fully mutual and there to service its customer-members’ needs?
If you’re interested, my report of last week’s conference Ways forward for the co-op movement is now up on The Guardian’s website (here) and awaiting your comments. (Or of course you can also respond here on my blog).
Picking up on one of the points I took from the event, I think there is an urgent need for the UK cooperative movement to learn from (larger) coops abroad about how they handle their corporate governance and member engagement. I don’t necessarily think that large businesses can’t be run cooperatively, but it would be extremely helpful to know which coops have developed the best practice here. My own – very initial – thought on this is that there are a number of Canadian and French coop insurers which would be worth a close look.
One welcome side-effect of the Co-operative Group’s move into its new Manchester head office, I understand, is that a spring clean has been going on in the office accommodation which it has vacated and as a consequence a large number of old archive boxes have been making their way to the nearby National Co-operative Archive.
The Archive has a unique collection of material from the early days of Britain’s cooperative movement. It’s a resource which I have been using on a number of occasions in recent months for research purposes and I commend its helpful and knowledgeable staff.
Using an archive brings home the importance of ensuring that more recent records from the cooperative movement are not lost to future historians. I’ve been concerned for some time that material from the wave of workers’ cooperatives started in the 1970s and 1980s may be being lost. I recently ensured that the records of a cooperative I worked in in the early 1980s in Milton Keynes are now secure in the Buckinghamshire County Records Office and I’d encourage others with boxes of similar material from that period to get them to an appropriate professional archive. Ideally I’d like to see these held centrally in Manchester, but frankly any record office is better than a skip.
That applies to today’s material too. Sometime in the future, somebody will be looking high and low for adequate information about what we’re all up to today.
Friday’s conference in Manchester, Ways forward for the Co-op Movement, was well attended and valuable, I thought. I have just filed a piece about it for the Guardian’s Social Enterprise pages, and will draw your attention to it when it appears. Well done to Co-operative Business Consultants for organising the day.
There was much discussion at Manchester of ways to improve the Co-operative Group’s governance and internal democracy including a number of quite radical ideas. It’s perhaps worth mentioning, therefore, that last Thursday (the day before the conference) saw the terms of reference published for the corporate governance enquiry which the Group itself has commissioned, chaired by Lord Myners. You’ll find the press statement here.
Myners will be looking first at the Board structure, before moving on to consider ways to strengthen links with members. Some people at Manchester thought that this is a back-to-front way of doing things: shouldn’t you begin with member democracy, they asked? So Myners’ eventual recommendations may well be contested territory.
My prediction on what is likely to emerge from Myners includes (a) a smaller Group Board (generally considered a good idea) and (b) much more use of non-elected non-executive directors, an altogether more controversial proposal.
I have argued before that, following the Bank crisis last year, we’ve seen a growing attack (led by some MPs and some newspapers) on the very idea of cooperatives as member-controlled businesses. Potentially the coop movement could be at risk of losing not just its Bank but the very core of its being. The Myners enquiry is as important as that.
The world’s most powerful people – well, quite a lot of them anyway – will be jetting off to the Alps this week for the annual Davos shindig. Davos brings together businessmen (OK, business-people, but you can bet that most of them are men) and politicians. Even the occasional trade unionist is there too. It is an important forum for taking stock of the issues facing the world and its leaders.
The International Co-operative Alliance has contacted me to invite me to write about what the ICA would like to contribute to the Davos debates (the two particular topics they’ve identified are the need for decent jobs, and the role of cooperatives in the delivery of social services). But I think the real story is that the cooperative business world, despite contributing over two trillion US dollars to the world economy, is not being invited to join the Davos party. With the possible exception of the Korean agricultural cooperative NACF (the ICA isn’t sure whether they will be there or not), coops are not represented at Davos this year.