Phone Co-op correction

Let’s try to be accurate in these blogs, shall we Andrew?

The motion I mentioned in my blog a moment ago is from Simon Blackley, not Toby Johnson as I said.  (Toby has put forward a separate motion, on income differentials and CEO remuneration, which is also a significant issue for discussion).

Tut tut, this blogger is supposed to be a professional journalist…

Questions to be asked at the Phone Co-op’s AGM

The Phone Co-op’s AGM in Sheffield on Saturday February 3rd looks set to be an important occasion for the exercise of co-operative democracy and member participation.

I blogged more than a month ago about the Phone Co-op, one of the jewels in the modern British co-operative story. Vivian Woodell, who was the co-op’s Chief Executive since the start of the venture, stepped down during 2017 in circumstances which are, it has to be said, opaque.

As I said in my blog, “For any business, the resignation of a key person is a moment of greater uncertainty and risk.  If the Phone Co-op were a plc and not a co-op, institutional investors would by now have been interrogating the Board in detail to find out exactly what the strategy for the future would be – to see if really the Board knew what it was doing.”

I’m not sure that I know what the Phone Co-op’s Board does plan for the future. There is upbeat rhetoric in the documents I’ve received of increasing profits to £2m in 2021-22, but there is also talk of losses in the interim. I’m not sure I’ve been persuaded that the £2m figure is anything other than wishful thinking.

It is now clear that other members of the society share my uncertainty. There is a long, and important, motion for the AGM proposed by Toby Johnson which interrogates in detail the information the Board has supplied and asks among other things for the Board to specify at the AGM “the upper and lower limits of the range of projected profits and losses for each year of the 4-year strategy, and the assumptions underpinning these projections.” I think members would be well advised to support Toby’s motion.

The Board (who are of course elected Phone Co-op members who receive only a very small allowance for their role as non-execs) may at this stage be feeling a little beleaguered.  They shouldn’t feel this. Member engagement (in the way that Toby Johnson’s motion is doing) is a positive advantage of the co-operative business model. It means that it is more likely, not less, that the co-op follows a strategy which will allow the business to prosper. Any Board of a co-operative that understands the way to tap into the experience and good sense of all its members is a Board that is demonstrating confidence, not weakness.

We’ll have to see what happens in Sheffield.  It’s very unfortunate that the date clashes with another commitment I can’t avoid, but I hope that he meeting is well-attended, that members ask probing questions, and that the Phone Co-op is as a consequence set on a firm footing for the future.

News ways towards social ownership of business

How is an incoming Labour government – when it arrives – to restructure the British economy so that it is run as much as possible for the public good rather than to meet the short-term demands of private equity companies and shareholders?

It was an issue which was debated ardently at the end of the nineteenth century, when there seemed real hopes that the twentieth century would see an end to rampant capitalism and a move towards more social forms of business ownership.  The co-op movement was of course actively involved in these debates, as were trade unions.  To take one example, in the debates about the need for public control of the railways (then, as now, run by a host of private sector companies) all sorts of options were discussed, including quasi-cooperative solutions involving workers and users of the railways.

Plus ca change. We need to have some of these same debates today, because I’m convinced that the way forward is not simply to revert to the twentieth-century model of state-ownership through nationalisation. Other, broader, forms of public ownership need to be considered.

This is a lengthy way of getting to the point of this blog. I had an email yesterday from Jo Bird of Co-operative Business Consultants, one of the organisers of next month’s Ways Forward conference Co-operative Solidarity. She’s keen to get the word out about what will be the sixth such event organised by CBC. Labour’s shadow business secretary Rebecca Long Bailey is one of the speakers, and I hope she’ll be in listening mode too. There’s thinking going on in (parts of) the cooperative world which could potentially help Labour.




Bruno Roelants is ICA’s choice

The International Co-operative Alliance has appointed Bruno Roelants as its new Secretary General.  Bruno, who has been the Secretary General of ICA’s sectoral body for workers’ cooperatives CICOPA for many years, can be considered as something of an insider and he should know all about the challenges which are about to face him. The ICA, like other global bodies of its kind, has a diverse membership and, of course, never enough funding.

But the ICA is at least in a better state today than it was twenty years ago, when it was on the brink of collapse. I think Bruno Roelants will be well placed to build a much stronger office team in Brussels, where CICOPA is already based and where the ICA is also nominally based. Good luck to him.

Kettering and co-ops

If you were to name one English town which, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, led the way in terms of manufacturing co-operation (what we would now refer to as workers’ co-ops) it would probably be the Northamptonshire town of Kettering.  The traditional boot and shoe production areas which included Northamptonshire as a whole as well as Leicester were the heartlands of productive co-operation.

Rather late in the day I’ve been told that the Kettering local museum The Manor House has a small temporary exhibition on the town’s links to co-operation. Late in the day, because the exhibition has been running since October and closes on Saturday.  Still, who knows, you may have the chance to get to Kettering in the next 48 hours. Details here.