A diary date for 2015

Jo Bird and her colleagues at Co-operative Business Consultants did a good job in organising the two “Ways Forward” conferences for cooperative activists in Manchester this year, at a time when morale was low and the way(s) forward not at all clear.  I’m pleased to see that CBC have now announced a third Ways Forward event, to be held on Friday 23 January, again in Manchester but this time out at the new stadium built by FC United of Manchester, the cooperative alternative to Manchester United.  More details promised soon at http://www.cbc.coop.

The dangers that lurk in the secret trade negotiations

I try to keep postings on this blog broadly on-topic, and you may feel I’m venturing too far from cooperative matters today.  But bear with me. There is a link.

I have been reading a recently published booklet from the IUF, the global union federation representing food, catering and agricultural workers, called Trade Deals that Threaten Democracy. This focuses on the secretive negotiations going on at the moment between the US and the EU towards a new Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the parallel negotiations between US and Pacific Rim countries for a Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP).  As the IUF puts it “At the heart of these projects is the drive to further expand the already considerable power of transnational investors by restricting the regulatory power of governments and locking the system into place to prevent new regulatory initiatives or reverse privatizations”.

One reason for popular alienation from traditional politics, I think, is because national governments these days don’t have sovereign power. Their power has leached slowly away into the hands of multinational capital. Trade deals such as TTIP and TPP will accelerate these tendencies, making it easier for private investors to impose their will legally over governments (cry for me, Argentina) and to open up public service provision to the private sector. And it’s a one-way street which you can’t reverse back down.

I could argue relevance by quoting the Quebec summit declaration by the young people and their call for cooperative endeavour to “transform an economy based on the individual accumulation of wealth and power into a system that serves the collective wellbeing of people and our planet”.  But it seems there is a more immediate connection with cooperatives. Keisuke Fuse, the director of international affairs at the Japanese trade union federation Zenroren, writes (in the latest International Union Rights magazine) that the TPP negotiations are directly challenging the Japanese system of mutual aid known as Kyosai. Japan’s very strong cooperative insurance sector is based on Kyosai principles and legislation, and it has been eyed up greedily in recent years by overseas commercial insurers.  Other cooperative organisations in Japan come under the Kyosai system too.  “TPP is the imminent threat for Kyosai to be regulated and transformed into private financial institutions under a competitive business environment; these changes will most likely dissolve them,” Keisuke Fuse warns.

On the frustrations of incorporating a new coop

Four years or so back I undertook myself the legal incorporation of a new member-run community organisation (a local development trust), established under the Companies Act as a charitable company limited by guarantee.  The process was a doddle and pretty well cost-free.  We were able to use model rules provided by the Charity Commission, which we amended to meet our needs.

Now I am trying to incorporate a new charitable community benefit society (a local community land trust I’m involved in) under what was the old Industrial & Provident Societies Act and is now the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act.  It is a very much complex, costly and lengthy process, despite the best efforts of various people to speed things along.  A doddle?  Absolutely not.

I’m afraid one reason for this is that Co-operatives UK obtains a useful income stream from incorporations of new cooperatives and community benefit societies undertaken using its model rules (as most are).  This is a practice it inherited from the old Industrial Common Ownership Movement, and ICOM’s reliance on income from incorporations was in my opinion highly regrettable.  I am sympathetic to Co-operatives UK’s funding difficulties, but ultimately this has to change.  We need equality in Britain between Companies Act and Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act incorporations.

Young people: coops should critique capitalism

Censorship at Quebec?  The story is going the rounds that the summit organisers chose not to distribute a declaration from some of the young people who had been taking part in the parallel youth delegation activities because their text included the words (shock horror) ‘capitalist’ and ‘neoliberal’.

I’ve contacted the summit’s press office to see if this can be clarified.  In the meantime you’ll find the Youth Declaration up on the ICA website here. I think it’s rather good.

Here is the paragraph with the (alleged) naughty words:

“Our vision and expectation of the global cooperative movement is for it to transform an economy based on the individual accumulation of wealth and power into a system that serves the collective wellbeing of people and our planet through redistribution of resources and common ownership. We believe that there is an alternative to the capitalist economy. We want to be part of a cooperative movement that critiques the current system and actively rejects its focus on limitless growth. This means not emulating its institutions, looking to its leadership and theory for guidance, or staffing the management teams of our cooperatives with subscribers to neoliberal philosophy.”

Reflections on the Quebec event

I think I have to wrap up the blogs which I’ve been putting in over the last few days from the Quebec cooperative summit with a final posting and, yes, it’s going to be a positive one.  Any large-scale event like this has its good and less good features but in the end something did emerge from out of it all. And the final afternoon concluded with a lively plenary which managed to capture some real energy and creativity and which did offer,  I think,  some hope for the future of a strengthened global cooperative movement.  Not all the faces on stage were the familiar ones, either:  it was good to see a young person, Gabriela Ana Buffa (the representative of the next generation of co-operators on the ICA Board), up there for example.

One familiar face who is never unwelcome is Pauline Green, the ICA President, who manages on occasions like this to bring out the necessary inspirational words to send delegates away in good heart.    She argued that more has been achieved in the two years since the 2012 UN Year of Cooperatives in bringing together a sense of cohesion between different parts of the very diverse coop community than at any time in its past history – a bold claim which, thinking about it, could indeed be the case.  And I liked Pauline Green’s message for young people:  bring some “edginess and radicalism” back to the movement, she said.

After the summit, perhaps, it’s onwards and upwards…

Pay inequalities and cooperatives

Richard Wilkinson was at the Quebec cooperative summit this morning, sharing some of the findings of his pioneering research into (more) equal and less equal societies that first came out in the book The Spirit Level, and also calling for cooperatives and employee-owned businesses to lead the way in developing business models which promote more equality.

Which I guess leads us on to the issue of executive pay in coops, always a prickly topic and one which you won’t be surprised to hear hasn’t been on the agenda  (the report I was told a year ago by organisers of the summit would be commissioned on the subject clearly hasn’t materialised).  Perhaps such a discussion would be deemed unkind to our host Monique Leroux of Desjardins, whose own pay packet (comfortably into 7 figures – well, she is a banker) has in the past raised some controversy in her cooperative.

Not on the agenda then, but three of us (a US cooperator from Seattle and another British delegate) made up for the omission by talking about the topic of executive pay in coops whilst eating our lunch today.  Conclusions?  That pay policies for coops are not necessarily completely straightforward, but that this is an issue which mustn’t be ducked.

On men, and women, and cooperatives

One of the most striking aspects of the Quebec cooperative summit is how many of the plenary sessions and workshops have had panels composed entirely of women speakers, sitting together in their business attire but without a single man with them to provide gender balance.  Admittedly, there was a round table this morning where there were two men contributing, but the session I am attending as I write this is back to the norm: six women at the front discussing the way forward for the cooperative movement.


This is worth remarking upon, perhaps, if only because the CEO of host cooperative Desjardins is (unusually in the financial services world) a man, as of course is the current President of the International Co-operative Alliance.


Hang on a moment, I think this blog is coming out a bit wrong.  Could I ask you to change the above, substituting ‘men’ for ‘women’ and vice versa?

The cooperative world in 2014

The folk at the European Research Institute on Cooperative and Social Enterprise who each year labour to produce the World Co-operative Monitor have taken advantage of the Quebec coop summit to launch the 2014 edition there today.

The Monitor is best known for bringing together turnover data on the largest 300 coops and mutuals in the world, and the league tables at the back are likely to be the part of the report which most readers turn to. The Monitor also includes, as it did last year, a set of short profiles of a selection of coops from different parts of the world which help put some colour into what might otherwise be a dry document.

I wonder how many of the companies listed in the league tables might be embarrassed to find that they’re there – or in other words, how many businesses with cooperative or mutual structures there are who don’t identify at all with the cooperative movement.  Certainly the top twenty companies by turnover include quite a fair number of firms (including for example some mutual insurers and agricultural coops) who seem happy to hide their roots.

But maybe the loss is theirs, not ours.  Because it’s interesting how coops and mutuals are increasingly beginning to realise that the public might actually like the fact that they are not a standard plc.


Employment in coops: how many jobs?

How many jobs worldwide are provided by cooperatives?  A new report, launched today in Quebec by the international worker cooperative federation CICOPA,  suggests that the answer could be 250 million – though in introducing the report CICOPA’s secretary general Bruno Roelants accepted that the lack of hard data meant that the figure was more of an estimate than a firm statistic.

Nevertheless, he said that CICOPA had accessed information from 74 countries, covering four-fifths of the world’s population. About 15.6 million people are direct employees of coops, and a further 10.8m are worker-members of worker cooperatives and coops offering shared ownership rights, he said. By far the bulk of the 250 million, however, comprise people who work, for example, as farmers, fishermen, and artisans,  as well as doctors and health workers, and who are self-employed but market their services or products collectively through jointly owned cooperatives.

The figure of 250 million represents a big advance of the previous statistic of 100 million often used in the past by the cooperative movement. Actually, the primary explanation is probably a simple one: China.  China’s significant agricultural cooperative sector now shows up in international statistics such as those CICOPA have developed.

Coop summit gets under way

The cooperative ‘summit’ in Quebec City got going yesterday afternoon and is now in full flow, with a session convened by FT economics writer Martin Wolf and featuring nobel laureate Robert Shiller drawing to a conclusion as I type this.

I intend to blog from Quebec as and when I have a chance.  But in the meantime I have been looking at some of the background papers now published on-line by the conference organisers.  Among these are an interesting assessment of our own dear Co-operative Bank’s recent problem by Johnston Birchall and a French take on the same issues from Jean-Louis Bancel of Credit Co-operatif.  Bancel calls for a combination of humility and professionalism from the cooperative banking sector internationally, and a renewed focus on member engagement and governance.  You’ll find these, and several other short papers, at www.intlsummit.coop (studies and articles> scientific articles).