On ‘phoenix’ coops. And Tony Benn.

Tony Benn’s death in March has failed to be adequately acknowledged in cooperative circles, I think. Benn, when he was Secretary of State for Industry in the 1974 Labour government, helped facilitate a number of attempts to establish worker-controlled cooperatives to take over major companies which had failed, including motorcycle manufacturer Triumph Meriden and white-goods manufacturer KME.

This was at a time when the old productive cooperative wing of the movement in Britain was more or less invisible and when the new wave of collectively-run workers’ cooperatives in sectors such as wholefoods and bookselling had yet to arrive on the scene.

Benn’s contribution to the re-emergence of worker cooperation in Britain (partly I think inspired by the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders) has tended to be played down probably because none of the ‘phoenix’ coops he was associated with managed to break through to enjoy a commercially profitable second life. There were things done wrong in those experiments, too, albeit often for the best of reasons. Tony Benn was very sound, though, on the importance of cooperatives being genuinely member-led and bottom-up. He wrote, in 1976, that “the impetus, the imagination, the energy, the organisational ability was coming from the people on the shop floor itself”. And he added, “Unless a Labour Government can find some way of discovering and encouraging, harnessing and working with this sort of feeling, it is inevitably going to be driven back on to a plan for industry thought out at the top and imposed from the top”.

I’ve been reminded of Tony Benn’s engagement with coops because I’ve been writing today on some successful very recent initiatives in France, which – partly through trade union involvement – have seen insolvent businesses brought back to life as workers’ coops. These include the 150-year old textile company Fontanille in the Auvergne and the printing company Hélio-Corbeil in the Loire region, both significant local employers. (You’ll find some interesting short films about both on YouTube).

It’s always hard to turn around a failed business and create a successful genuine cooperative. But it can be done. And Benn’s pioneering efforts in this respect should not be forgotten.