Snake catchers co-operative

Meeting round a table on the top floor of solar panelled coop offices in Manchester today, I had my first meeting as a member of the Board of the Co-operative College. Lively, unpredictable and very international.

My favourite post from the College website, by Stirling Smith, tells the story of the Irula snake catchers co-operative inTamil Nadu in India. To make a serum against snake bite, you need the venom and to get venom, local people formed a co-operative.

The snakes are looked after though, as if not, they would eat the rats.

Then you’d need a rat catchers co-op.

A ‘why not?’ workplace

Together with colleagues, Zena and John, I have been visiting the most inspiring workplace I have ever seen, which is SUMA Wholefoods in Yorkshire.

SUMA is a democratic business, run by the people who work there. There is no job titles as you mix around and choose what jobs you want to do for the weeks ahead, in the warehouse, on the roads or in the office. There is no boss.

And it works. SUMA pays sixty per cent higher than their comparators, people sort things because it is their cooperative and they are innovative because they can follow their interests. SUMA has just pioneered the first ever food packaging that is both recycled and recyclable, for example. The mindset is ‘why not?’

With 150 staff, they have learned and innovated their way to success. The culture encourages caution but also resilience. The result is the most democratic experiment on working life in Europe.

And it feels so natural, when you are there. Every organisation needs the spirit of SUMA – the why not workplace.

One in three bottles of wine


by Kelly, under Creative Commons 2.0 license

Tim Atkin writing in the Times estimates that around one in three bottles of wine now sold is from a wine co-operative.

The Union Champagne, for example, produces ten million bottles a year, from thirteen member co-operatives.

The fact that wine is produced co-operatively doesn’t necessarily make it better wine, but what you taste gives a better deal for the producers.

The top eighteen co-operative wines he recommends are: Plaimont, Buxy, Union Champagne, Roquebrun, Tain-l’Hermitage and Turckheim in France, the Cantina di Soave, Araldica, Settesoli, La Guardiense and Produttori di Barbaresco in Italy, Martín Codax, San Gregorio and Capçanes in Spain, Monção and Pegões in Portugal, Swartland in South Africa and La Riojana in Argentina.

TUC time

In almost Italian weather, with smiles and sunglasses all around, I met Brendan Barber today to talk cooperation and the labour movement.

Spires and spokes

I was out in Oxford today, visiting Professor Jonathan Michie and the Centre for Mutual and Employee Owned Business and then on, with Dan and by cycle rickshaw powered by Jonty, to visit one of our members, the Oxford Cycle Workshop.

This is an inspiring and energetic recently formed worker co-operative, recycling bicycles in the city of dreaming spires – plus running a shop and training a dozen or so new apprentices, who I was ever so pleased to meet.

This is my photo diary of the trip. Thanks to all those featured!

Dan and Jonty from the Oxford Cycle Workshop turn up outside Kellogg College

Jonty officially NOT out of breath when we arrive

Cycles for recycling

Garry and a rescued coop CWS bicycle

Orbea - a thing of beauty made by Mondragon worker coop in Spain

Jonty, back at work, aiming for those Oxford spires...

Clan gathering

In Edinburgh, for an uplifting staff trip to visit the Scottish Parliament (thanks Emma) and meeting one of our key members, the independent cooperative retailer Scotmid on the way.

The mismatch between parties now in terms of UK and Scottish political representation is keenly felt, but I have had time to read about clan Cameron as I go – Scottish roots and a rallying cry of ‘unite’. I guess that how Scotland will unite in the context of cuts will play out in a prominent way over the months and years to come.

Goodbye Gordon

Gordon Brown is a giant among politicians for what he did for global justice. That is what I told him in the public setting of the closing conference of the five year Jubilee 2000 campaign on December 2nd 2000.

 It was the day my father died, hearing the news as I wandered out into Trafalgar Square, so the details are frozen like crystal in my mind.

 Gordon Brown was the first minister to enter the Treasury steeped in the writing and critique of the radical economist Susan George – author of tracts on poverty and debt. With his team, he picked up the contact with the campaign I and others had started on the debts of the poorest countries, who were paying more in servicing their external debts than on the health and education of their children. We brought together 70,000 people onto the streets of Birmingham to form a human chain around the G7 leaders, while in the corridors of power, Gordon Brown, paired usually with his ex-City adviser Shriti Vadera, corralled the G7 Finance Ministers into action on debt cancellation.

 The campaign, which I chaired, and involved many colleagues, not least Ann Pettifor and Adrian Lovett, became Drop the Debt and then led onto the Make Poverty History coalition – all of which Gordon Brown did much to back.

 As a result of what he helped to do in cancelling the debt for the poorest countries, twice as many children in countries like Tanzania now go to primary school.

 At that closing event, Brown gave an impassioned speech about poverty. He dealt with many issues over the years, including macro-economic policy, enterprise, venture capital, tax credits, financial regulation and more – often enough in ways that I would personally find myself in disagreement with – but you could feel that with social justice and social mobilisation, this was where his heart was.

 When people do the right thing, they deserve the credit. From the day my father died, I have always thought ‘good for you, Gordon Brown.’

The chance for a new culture

So, a hung parliament it is. It is an extraordinary time for politics, but it is also an opportunity for our national culture and identity.

We are a warring nation still, with concepts of competition, opposition and dispute built into our laws, politics, markets and increasingly our schools. Conflict, stress and competitive consumption all come at a cost and are poor ingredients for the challenges we face as a nation.

There have long been counter-trends, such as co-operative enterprise and the peace movement. Any co-operative entrepreneur could teach our politicians a thing or two about combining practical action with sufficient consensus. But these remain minority patches in the tapestry of our national identity.

A cause for optimism is the rise in recent years of other strands of cultural co-operation – mediation in relationships, alternative dispute resolution in law, co-operative schools, new models of participation, the political experimentation of coalition building in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland assemblies.

My friend Perry Walker contacted me pre-Election to introduce an innovation he is developing, with a technique for deliberation and decision-making based on consensus.

I also recently visited the ever impressive Involve, which has helped to bring the public into policy decisions, from science to responses to climate change. Yes, we have to scale these up, learn what works and make them less expensive to embed in organisational life – including less dependent therefore on the input and expense of consultants – and explore how to redefine the media industry around new business models of engagement and mutuality.

These are exemplars. There is a new culture of co-operation coming. My fingers are crossed for a new politics of dialogue too, because the central issues of our day, such as global justice, climate change and inequality can only be solved through co-operation.

People’s champion

What a beautiful morning, meeting with Arthur Potts Dawson to visit the site of what he is helping to become Britain’s newest food co-operative, The People’s Supermarket. Arthur is energetic, charming, entrepreneurial and could help change your life, or at least the lives of the community on some of the estates in London’s Camden Town where the People’s Supermarket will be. Arthur is, in the phrase, a celebrity chef. He has a passion for sustainability, with restaurants like Acorn House and Mrs Paisley’s Lashings.

“We have had a sense of ownership knocked out of us,” says Arthur “and its easier to wait to be led, rather than getting on and making things happen.”

“Co-ops are part of why I am proud to be British” he continued. In fact, though, his inspiration for what he is pioneering is the celebrated Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn, USA. Members help out by working in store and they get good food at low prices.

The site was a shop that closed down. It is in a state and as we talk, two people come by, promising to be part of a team with mops at the weekend. The site was snatched from under the nose of Tesco, and rather than compete with other shops in the street, Arthur is trying to co-operate with them, so they can all benefit from more trade, from locals and visitors.

It is all coming together, but there’s hard work ahead too, to fit the shop out, get food in, recruit members, turn the basement into a community room and open the doors in June.

He’d love to hear suggestions of how the wider co-operative movement can feed in and connect too.

It is an inspiring ‘before’ and, judging from the volume of people knocking on the door, it is a going to be a great ‘after’ to come.