Lost: a small part of coop history

An email arrives today from Richard Bickle of the Society for Co-operative Studies who has noticed that Watford Printers Ltd has gone into voluntary liquidation, having amalgamated with another local printing firm. As Richard points out, Watford Printers is – was – probably the last of the traditional productive cooperative societies (‘co-partnerships’). It was registered as a cooperative society in November 1921.

Watford Printers had a rather fine logo, although it seems long ago to have stopped identifying very much with the wider cooperative movement. Still, it’s always a pity to see a small part of coop history disappear.


Co-operative Energy encounters turbulence

Midcounties, Britain’s 2015 cooperative of the year, has been enduring some hostile press coverage in the Guardian over customer service problems at its subsidiary Co-operative Energy.  A piece in the paper’s Money section earlier this month recounted a catalogue of unhappy customers complaining of unissued energy bills and problems with the new online portal. The Guardian suggested that customers might want to switch to a new supplier.

I can vouch that the online facility for customers logging meter readings has gone doolally. My own attempt to enter recent gas and electricity meter readings was rejected with a ‘computer say no’ type message. Actually, dear computer, I am in this instance right and you are wrong.

Energy companies are above all customer service companies, who stand or fall not by the quality of the gas or electricity they supply (as if), but on the quality of the service they offer. Ironically, Co-operative Energy has suffered from being too successful and running out of capacity. Nevertheless Midcounties does need to get over these current problems. And it might want to think about writing to all its customers soon with a sensibly drafted apology.

Invisible (co-operative) histories

It is more than twenty years since I was commissioned by the GMB union to visit the Working Class Movement Library (WCML) in Salford for a feature for their members’ magazine. I was blown away by the wonderful collection of books, newspapers and ephemera from all strands of radical political activity assembled there, the life’s work of two remarkable people from a past generation of activists Ruth and Eddie Frow. Their collection is now held under the auspices of a charitable trust and is housed just across the road from Salford Crescent station.

I strongly recommend a visit if you haven’t been to the WCML before. The WCML tells me that it will be marking this year’s Heritage Open Days initiative with ‘behind-the-scenes’ tours on Thursday 10 and Friday 11 September.

But you’d also be welcome on 30 September when, as part of the WCML’s regular series of free Wednesday ‘Invisible Histories’ talks, I’ll be there talking about early productive cooperatives in Britain and elaborating on some of the themes I explore in my new book All Our Own Work. The talk starts at 2pm (details here).

Back to the future

I’ve been working this morning on the presentation I’ll be giving in a couple of weeks at the Society for Co-operative Studies’ annual conference, being held in Leicester on September 5th and 6th.

I’ve titled my presentation Britain’s early productive cooperatives, why they were forgotten, and why they’re relevant today, although it’s fair to say that my focus will be mainly on one particular cooperative, the fustian mill in Hebden Bridge which was in its day considered one of the exemplars of manufacturing cooperation and which is the subject of my recently published book All Our Own Work.

I’ll be suggesting that the experiences of bottom-up worker self-management in those nineteenth century pioneering businesses could be worth re-examining.  (And, you know what, that this could be surprisingly relevant for those of us currently completing our Labour Party leadership ballot papers…)

An unlevel playing field for co-operatives?

In recent years I’ve been involved in two local community projects and have in each case taken on the responsibility for arranging for them to be legally incorporated. The first we registered as a charitable company limited by guarantee, using the model articles of association which the Charity Commission makes freely available on their website and adapting them slightly to meet our own requirements. We sent off the forms to Companies House together with, I think, a £15 cheque, and all was done and dusted very quickly.

This time we chose to register under the Co-operatives and Community Benefit Societies Act as a community benefit society (‘bencom’) and the experience has been altogether different. It cost very much more, and we had to make do with model rules which ideally we’d have slightly altered. And the process of registration as a charity with HMRC (bencoms do not fall under the Charity Commission’s remit and have to be separately registered with HMRC) was exceptionally tedious, taking in the end over seven months.

I’ve drawn (although only indirectly) on these personal experiences for a piece in this week’s issue of Co-operative News, which has come out with the headline The co-operative disadvantage: why the movement needs a level playing field. My opening sentences were designed to be provocative:  who would voluntarily choose to register a new co-operative business or a new community organisation under the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act when other legal models are arguably simpler, cheaper and more flexible?”

I expect my piece may be controversial with some, and I’m looking forward to seeing what letters come through in reply to CN.  You can always start a debate here too, by commenting on this blog

GUEST BLOG: Karin Christiansen, Co-operative Party

Following my blog on July 19 on the Co-operative Party,  I offered Karin Christiansen the party’s General Secretary the right of reply here.  This is Karin’s contribution. I think it’s interesting and useful.

On the 19th July this blog argued that the announcement that I was standing down from my role as General Secretary of the Co-operative Party ‘should be seen as an opportunity for the movement to reconsider whether it needs a political party’.

Firstly, I’m absolutely with Andrew on the need for a thorough, open and engaging dialogue about the role of co-operative politics and the Co-op Party.

But over the last 3 years of listening to and being involved in this debate, my main conclusion is we keep coming at this from the wrong direction. The question really isn’t: “Should the Party exist” or “what are the rights and wrongs of the electoral agreement between the Labour Party and the Co-operative Party” or “does the movement needs a legally constituted political party registered with the Electoral Commission”.

What we should (I think) be asking is this:

  1. What are we trying to achieve collectively as a movement? 

It is probably something along the lines of a flourishing, vibrant, growing co-operative movement that is delivering tangible member benefits to consumers and workers, challenging and innovating across a wide range of sectors, and contributing to the creation of a more equitable and co-operative society.

  1. What are the barriers to achieving that, and what tools we need to overcome them?

To which the answers are of course many and varied. But we know that political indifference is a major one.  Politics can help or hinder us.  Political discourse shapes how our economy and society interacts, it makes policy, regulation and legislation.  Andrew’s recent piece set this out very clearly.

Only after we’ve answered these questions, and only then, it is worth asking about the role of the Party.   It the Party isn’t contributing then frankly it shouldn’t exist.

It is clear to me that in a huge number of areas where co-operative and mutual solutions are not yet fulfilling their potential in providing some of the answers to the fundamental challenges facing our country – from housing to childcare to football and energy.  You only have to flick through Ed Mayo’s Co-operative Advantage book to see the potential.

We often hear warm words about the power of co-operation, but what we need is real action to unlock our true potential in what Paul Mason recently described as “post capitalism” – changes that present huge opportunities for the co-operative movement, but also threaten many of the assumptions we’ve worked under.

In terms of the relationship with Labour, for me this is less about ideology and much more about whether it delivers for us.  When you read the proceedings of the 1917 Co-operative Congress which took the decision for the co-operative movement to seek direct political representation, you see that in considerable part the decision was a pragmatic one.

It was a decision driven by the experience of powerlessness.  The electoral agreement with Labour signed in 1927 was also largely driven by pragmatism. It was based on the certain knowledge that under the ‘first past the post’ voting system, progressive parties need to work together or risk splitting the vote, and to get a hearing by all sides in politics, you get more impact not from being “politically neutral” but being inside the tent.

While I am sure the Party could have done more over the last 100 years, there are very real successes that have resulted from the partnership between the Movement.  It is no coincidence that every piece of co-operative legislation that was consolidated into the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2015 was passed by a Labour & Co-operative Government.  Add to this  much of the early environmental protection legislation and consumer rights legislation.

Just because the Party has done some useful things in the past does not of course mean it should just continue.  Nothing should ever be set in stone (particularly not in ‘Ed stones’!). After almost 100 years, these are decisions that warrant evaluation and review.

The Co-operative Party does not and should not claim to represent the sum total of all co-operative politics. It’s self-evident that there are co-operators in other political parties, as well as many who are in none.  The movement and the Party should, and already does, work with co-operators of all political stripes to advance our objectives – and for our part the Party will do more of that.

In that sense the movement can and is having its cake and eating it – a political party we created, own and which is accountable to us – but with friends of the co-operative ideal across the political spectrum.  What’s not to like?