Desjardins backs British co-op competition

Co-operatives UK are inviting us to vote for our Co-operative of the Year, the choice this time being between the Channel Islands society, East of England, FC United of Manchester, the Foster Care Co-operative, Jamboree, Midcounties, Oikocredit, the Phone Co-op, and Unicorn Grocery. You vote for your fave co-op here.

What interests me is that this year the Canadian banking and insurance co-operative Desjardins is sponsoring the competition. Good… but why? Desjardins is a highly successful co-operative, but one with no business operations in Britain.

Perhaps because it doesn’t hurt for Desjardins to remind British co-operators that it will be staging the third biennial Co-operative Summit in Québec city next year. But perhaps also because it could just mean a little extra international good will for Desjardins’ charismatic CEO Monique Leroux. Leroux’s fixed term as CEO finishes next year, and she is still only just in her sixties. The next step for her may well be in the international co-operative arena. As they say, watch this space.

Employee-owned business goes under

It’s disappointing to read in today’s Financial Times that one of Britain’s best-known employee owned businesses, the paper mill run by Tullis Russell, has gone into liquidation. This business was converted into employee ownership in the 1980s and 1990s from the family business owned by David Erdal, who has been a strong advocate of employee ownership over the years.

According to the FT, 340 employees have lost their jobs and are eligible only for statutory redundancy pay.

On apples and activism

Illness prevented me from attending Saturday’s Co-operative Group AGM in Manchester as I’d intended, unfortunately, so I can’t offer you any first-hand reportage of the occasion. But two observations.

Firstly, just the fact that for the first time the Co-operative Group had an AGM like this which was open to members is a real step forward. It was always nonsense that the Group’s AGM was previously only open to those enmeshed in the complicated internal regional and area governance structure. This is a valuable reform. This year’s AGM is something to build on.

And secondly, I’ve been mulling over a recent quote from the Group’s Chair Allan Leighton. Leighton, according to a Guardian article, claimed: “It’s the apples, not the activists, that will turn the Co-op around”.

I think Leighton has it half-right. I’d love to see better fruit and veg in my local Co-op store. I never did understand why, every Autumn at the heart of the harvest time, English apples were nowhere to be found in the shop (actually, to be fair, a few English apples crept in last year).

But I’d change Leighton’s quote in one fundamental way. The advantage the Co-op potentially has over its commercial rivals is exactly its membership base and its latent democracy.  I’d say that it’s the apples and the activists that will turn the Co-op around.

Beyond the capitalist crisis

The UK newspaper The Guardian has run a valuable full-page feature for this May Day with the headline ‘Co-ops emerge from capitalist crisis’. The piece focuses on moves by workers in France, Spain and Greece to turn failed businesses into workers’ cooperatives. This is a welcome reminder of the energy and creativity of the cooperative movements elsewhere in the world. The piece is online here.