Remote democracy at the Phone Co-op’s AGM

The members of the Phone Co-op have overwhelmingly voted to transfer engagements to Midcounties Co-op – or, to put it bluntly, to be taken over. It’s a move (which admittedly now has to be formally ratified at a second SGM) I personally think is the right decision. The SGM in Sheffield was well organised and good humoured. The main vote was 202 in favour and 17 against.

I took part remotely, using live streaming and an online voting facility. Well done to the Phone Co-op for making this possible. There were, it is true, technical glitches but they were overcome.

This was an interesting experience for me, the first time I have participated remotely at a co-op general meeting. It is, I think, much better if at all possible to attend an event like this in person – there’s a commitment involved which isn’t necessarily there is you’re sitting at home online at risk of all sorts of other distractions (I had to momentarily dip out of proceedings when a friend came round wanting to use my printer for an emergency printing job for his youth group…) There’s a need for some etiquette for online participants too.  Some people (in usual social media style) were passing running comments (not always complimentary) as speakers were in mid-flow, and I’m not sure this is something which we should encourage.

But participating online did mean I could attend an AGM of a local coop I’m involved in at 11am this morning and still be enfranchised for the Phone Co-op meeting. So – good work.

The future at the Phone Co-op

I can’t get to Sheffield on April 28th for the Special General Meeting of the Phone Co-op, but I have today registered to participate (and vote) at the event online.  It’s commendable that the Phone Co-op makes this facility available (although I guess that you’d expect a telecoms business to be able to organise this, if anyone could).

The SGM is pretty significant. There’s a proposal on the table for the Phone Co-op to merge itself into Midcounties Co-operative, one of Britain’s regional independent coop societies. (The technical coop term is a ‘transfer of engagements’).

Midcounties has a deserved reputation both for its commitment to cooperation and member democracy and for running an effective business. As well as its retail stores in a large chunk of the south Midlands and Welsh borders, Midcounties also runs the Co-operative Energy subsidiary as well as a national network of childcare nurseries. It’s demonstrated, I think, that coops can be coops but also business-savvy when necessary.

I’ve written in the past of the importance of the Phone Co-op, Britain’s only significant independent consumer coop of the past twenty years. I’m afraid, though, that I am not convinced that the current Board’s quite risky business strategy for the coming years – if the Phone Co-op was to continue alone – will keep the business viable. I see that the Board is itself arguing for support of the Midcounties proposal.

So my view is that Midcounties will be a very good fit for the Phone Co-op. (In fact, you could go so far as to argue that Phone Co-op members are fortunate that Midcounties has been prepared to get involved.)  We’ll see what member democracy decides in less than two weeks.

Travelling the co-operative way

One of the less impressive acts of the Co-operative Group before the great Co-op Bank meltdown was the time it allowed Thomas Cook in as majority partner of its Co-operative Travel operation, meaning that the ‘national co-operative brand’ established with so much effort and expense almost immediately included a business which was not co-operatively owned at all.

At long last this is to be resolved. The Thomas Cook/Co-op Group joint venture (which also included some outlets from what is now the Central England society) is being wound up with Thomas Cook buying out its co-operative partners. The shops will also be rebranded as Thomas Cook outlets – although not necessarily until the end of 2018.

In the meantime the Midcounties society gets in touch, keen to remind me that they never participated in the Thomas Cook partnership and that their travel agencies remain a direct part of their business. “We are not part of the Joint Venture and are proud of our travel business, proudly boasting the Co-operative name,” they say. Ironically for a time these genuinely co-operatively owned travel agencies were unable to use the national brand. They now boast a slightly adapted version of the brand, something which would no doubt horrify the original graphic designers but which seems to do the trick.

Caveat emptor at Co-operative Energy

I blogged back in August on the problems and the bad press which Co-operative Energy (part of the Midcounties Co-operative society) had encountered.  How are they doing now?

My own gas and electricity account is with Co-operative Energy and I had a long conversation with one of their staff this morning. I couldn’t fault her customer service: we were talking for probably twenty minutes or more, and the end result is that I am transferred on to a new tariff which should save me a shedload of money over the next twelve months. So well done Sharon for your efforts and I hope your bosses get to read this.

But there is a downside. Co-operative Energy started with just a single tariff, called appropriately enough after the Rochdale Pioneers. It was simple, and it was a welcome alternative to the traditional practice of energy suppliers who entice new customers with new tariffs and rip off loyal customers who don’t think to change from the tariffs they’re on.  But Co-operative Energy has now joined the rest of the industry by introducing new (and better value) tariffs, leaving those of us still loyal to the Pioneers account paying more than we need. I’m sorry that they felt the need to do this – and I also feel they didn’t adequately let their existing customers know of the change.

Midcounties has a good track record and is currently Co-operatives UK’s Co-op of the Year. To keep its reputation, its board and senior management need to keep a close grip on what is happening in its Energy subsidiary.

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.

And the winner is…

Midcounties Co-operative Society were announced last night at the Co-operative Congress as winners of this year’s Co-op of the Year award, an outcome which was both deserved and (as Midcounties’ Chief Executive Ben Reid effectively admitted) unfair.

Deserved, because Midcounties is well run with a strong Board, strong senior management team and a strong commitment to co-operation (even if their Co-operative Energy subsidiary is doing something very strange to online access to my account with them at the moment). Unfair, because the award goes to whoever can assemble the most votes cast over the internet and frankly Midcounties has a lot more customers to ask for support than the smaller co-ops that were also in the running.

On the other hand, as Ben Reid went on to point out in his acceptance speech, it’s not every supermarket chain that could get its customers to go home, log on, and cast a vote in support of the business. Midcounties is something of a reproach to the Co-operative Group in this respect – or should I say that it simply offers a pointer for how the Group can sort itself out in the future?

The coop brand: a case of blowing in the wind?

I have on my desk details of the forthcoming Co-operative Group AGM, a leaflet from the independent regional Midcounties society about their AGM, and some material that’s come through from the (also independent) Phone Co-op.

But it’s hard to tell the bits of paper apart. All three use the “The Co-operative” national cooperative branding, originally introduced with great fanfare (remember the hype over the Blowin’ in the Wind soundtrack for the TV advert?) as a way of updating British coops’ (collective) tired image. At the time this seemed to me a sign that things were moving forward.

The shared brand raises issues, however. Firstly, if you shop in a branded Co-operative store it can be very hard to know whether you’re in part of the Co-operative Group’s empire, or in a store run by one of the independents such as Midcounties, Central England or Southern that have adopted the brand. Often only the till receipt will tell you. This doesn’t seem a good way of encouraging member identification with their own society. It’s almost as though all building societies had chosen to dispense with their own signs and agreed to share a collective “The Building Society” identity.

Then there’s the problem that the some businesses (Co-operative Bank, Co-operative Pharmacy and Co-operative Travel) which were once part of the Group but which are now owned outside the movement and in no sense are any longer cooperatives continue to use the branding.

All in all, regional societies such as the Lincolnshire which chose to stick with their own logos may be feeling just a little smug.

I see that the question of the future of the brand – the rights to which are held by the Co-operative Group – is one of the motions up for debate at the Group’s AGM on May 16. The motion calls on the Group to recognise that it hold the brand rights ‘as custodian on behalf of the whole movement’. It’s an important issue: I’ll be interested to see how the debate goes.

Getting energy the cooperative way

I mentioned in a blog a month or so ago the green electricity distribution coop EWS, based in the south German village of Schönau.

I want today to say a little more about energy cooperatives. Britain has, of course, a number of small-scale community-based cooperative generating enterprises, most notably the much-vaunted Baywind.  We also have the national energy distributor Co-operative Energy (a subsidiary of Midcounties Co-operative Society), which is trying to provide a more ethical alternative to the big six commercial suppliers and generally I think making a pretty good fist of it. But in general, Britain is a long way behind many other countries. In the US, for example, cooperatives provide power generation and transmission for 42 million people in 47 states. Or another example: in Argentina, coops provide 10% of national energy production.

The lack of engagement by coops in Britain may because of history: early in the development of local government, gas and electricity generation and supply were usually taken into municipal ownership, later to be switched into national state ownership.  But now power has been privatised, it’s clear that we need to be looking more closely at possible cooperative models.

The examples of the US and Argentina I mentioned above come from a recently published report from the International Labour Organization, Providing clean energy and energy access through cooperatives. It’s an interesting overview of what is happening worldwide with some useful case studies;  it’s available here.

Co-operative democracy at work

A hefty envelope has just arrived through the letterbox.  It’s a ballot paper and explanatory booklet for me to exercise my right as a member of Midcounties cooperative to vote for members of its Board of Directors.

Midcounties is one of the UK’s regional consumer cooperative societies, independent of the giant Co-operative Group although sharing with the Group the national cooperative branding. (I’ve written previously in more detail about Midcounties and its chief executive Ben Reid.)

Although I live outside the area of England where Midcounties operates its shops, I have chosen to become a member because I buy my electricity and gas through its subsidiary Co-operative Energy.  Midcounties generally has a strong reputation as one of the UK’s more innovative and entrepreneurial coop societies, and its venture into power supply is an example of this.

It deserves a pat on the back for encouraging member democracy.  No less than 16 people have put themselves forward for one of the five directorships to be filled this year.  I’ll have to read the candidates’ statements carefully of course… but what a pleasant contrast with, say, the usual situation with Building Society elections where Board places are generally uncontested.