Cover design for my forthcoming book All Our Own Work has just arrived from the publishers, Merlin Press. Publication is June, by the way.
Two separate envelopes through the letterbox here today, both in different ways bearing encouraging news of the health of the cooperative movement.
One is the Spring 2015 newsletter of Rootstock, the ‘social investment’ cooperative society which offers withdrawable shares to its members as a means of raising capital to help cooperatives (mainly housing coops) working for social change. Rootstock was set up through the efforts of the Radical Routes network of coops and deserves to be better known. Rootstock investors’ money has since 1991 been used to make sixty loans to coops. Their website gives all the information investors need.
Valley Organics is a West Yorkshire based workers’ cooperative running an organic food shop which they purchased two years ago from its previous private owners. Valley Organics’ very attractively produced Annual Report seems to me a model of the sort of way that workers’ coops should share information with their friends and customers, with details of both the business’s financial performance and its ethical policy. The good news is that turnover is 35% up on projections. (“To be perfectly honest, we are a bit surprised to find ourselves running such a successful enterprise!” they say with refreshing candour.) Good for them.
Work Together, the e-newsletter published by CICOPA (the international federation of workers’ and producer cooperatives), is always worth a look and the latest edition arrives in my inbox this morning. Among other stories there’s one about the Mondragon Corporation’s moves to discuss how the cooperative federation should in future combine autonomy and self-management for its individual constituent cooperatives with federation-wide solidarity between the coops. This is an important discussion, one which has relevance outside the particular context of Mondragon.
On close reading, CICOPA’s story is simply a report of the Mondragon conference last December which I covered myself in a blog here on Dec 17th. But it has reminded me that I need to continue to monitor the discussions at Mondragon. I’ll let you know here as and when I find out more.
Cath reminded me of the work which many of the more progressive workers’ coops in Britain are doing at the moment to build the Worker Cooperative Solidarity Fund, an excellent initiative launched last year based on a vision of “a strong, growing and self-reliant network of successful workers’ co-operatives”.
It’s good to see that workers’ coops are getting together, as last year, for another weekend conference, being held in early May. During the fag-end of the later twentieth century when the retail cooperative movement was in dire straits it was the workers’ cooperative part of the movement which provided the energy and creativity. That energy is still needed today.
The behind-the-scenes rearguard action by the Co-operative Party to persuade the Co-operative Group not to leave it financially in the cold (the Group currently gives the Party about two-thirds of its income) has reached the news pages of the Financial Times today.
I want to comment not specifically on the Party funding issue (I may come back to this later) but on a related but more general point. Here’s my question: is the Co-operative Group simply another independent cooperative, with responsibilities just to its members? Or does it, as the largest cooperative in Britain and as the chief beneficiary of 170+ years of British cooperative development, have duties towards the wider cooperative movement?
There were a number of cooperative societies in nineteenth century Britain who chose not to affiliate to the Co-operative Union or to partake in the broader life of British cooperation, but they were always a minority. The majority of societies (including the Co-operative Wholesale Society, CWS) saw the benefits of cooperation between cooperatives and paid their dues to the central body, the Union, as well as to other national cooperative initiatives.
There were well over a thousand independent societies by the end of the late nineteenth century, so a decision by one society to stand aside from the movement was hardly devastating. It’s different today. The vast majority of British retail cooperative societies, and the CWS itself, have over the years been absorbed into what is now the Co-operative Group. A decision by the Group to withdraw funding is therefore of enormous importance.
Commercial businesses spend money lobbying and supporting causes they feel are in their business interests, so I don’t see why the Co-operative Group should be any different. But I also feel that there is a moral case, based on the history of how it has become the business it now is, for the Group to continue to support the British cooperative movement – and this means, to give a few other examples, Co-operatives UK, Co-operative News, the Woodcraft Folk (the youth organisation with strong cooperative links) and the Co-operative College. No organisation should feel it has an automatic right to be supported, of course; but, with this caveat, the Group should reaffirm a principled commitment to supporting the wider work of the cooperative sector in Britain.
I see that the Phone Co-op managed a 21% member turnout in the latest board elections (2,100 ballots returned, out of 10,000 mailed out). In an ideal world, every member of every coop would of course vote in every election. In an unideal world, such as the one we live in, 21% turnout strikes me as not at all bad.
It’s always a treat to visit the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, the quite remarkable collection of books and material from progressive movements of all kinds in Britain and beyond which was the life’s work of Eddie and Ruth Frow, and there was a particular pleasure in being there on Saturday for an informal gathering of cooperative historians, facilitated by the UK Society for Co-operative Studies. Useful discussions, and a chance to catch up on what other research initiatives other people are engaged in at present.
And as it happened the day before I was at the Rochdale Pioneers Museum, in Toad Lane, Rochdale, also talking cooperative history. The museum will be hosting a small exhibition of the story of the Hebden Bridge textile mill run successfully by its workers in the nineteenth century, as a tie-in to my forthcoming book on the subject All Our Own Work. If you want a sneak preview you’ll find a short graphics-led account of this story which I have produced already available online on the Co-operative Heritage Trust’s website.
Oh, a new report on capital and cooperatives… yawnorama.
But no, get those yawns under control. Capitalism seems somehow to have persuaded us that an understanding of finance is something that only well-rewarded bankers and their kin can have, but that’s not true at all. What we do with money (and particularly what we can do differently with money to remake our world) is really rather interesting and important, I’d suggest, and surely no more difficult as a subject than, say, learning to drive a car or to produce an unlumpy cheese sauce.
The International Cooperative Alliance has said that capital is one of the key issues which the cooperative movement has to tackle. (Personally I think it’s the probably the most important of the five themes in the ICA’s current strategic document.) The ICA has quite rightly stressed that the challenge is to develop forms of cooperative capital which enable the maintenance of cooperative principles and member control, rather than which undermine them. Too often in the past the introduction of external capital, particularly equity capital, marked the start of a slippery slope away from cooperation and towards demutualisation.
The ICA has established a high-level panel to work on capital and one of its first steps has been to commission this excellent new report from a Canadian financial writer Mike Andrews. The report may be prosaically called Survey of Cooperative Capital but it is the best analysis of the various forms of capital available to coops, and the ways that different coops worldwide are using these vehicles, that I have read for a long time. The report looks both at the issues facing start-ups and larger enterprises, with a particular focus on the regulatory requirements for banks and financial cooperatives. There’s also a table showing (and I think this is the first time this has been produced) the percentage of external capital held by the top 200 cooperative and mutual businesses worldwide.
The lesson I draw from this study is perhaps paradoxically that our focus needs to be not on the technical features of the various capital instruments which can be employed but rather on the ways these are to be implemented within the cooperative framework. Or in other words, how in practice can you successfully link access to new capital with cooperative governance and member democracy?
The report is here.
In the past few days I have exercised my member’s right to vote for board members of both Leeds Building Society and MEC, the Canadian outdoor equipment cooperative retailer (if you’re asking, I’ve been a MEC customer a number of times while visiting Canada).
Leeds Building Society offers the usual unsatisfactory British building society experience of having uncontested Board elections. MEC by contrast has a lively democracy: ten candidates for three board places. Admittedly only a small percentage of the membership tends to vote (last year 47,000 members voted out of several million), but I reckon it’s a cooperative member’s responsibility to do so… even if I do live several thousand miles from MEC’s head office. I hope I’ve voted for candidates who will help MEC continue to thrive.