The Christmas story is a story of struggle and hope

Christmas time can be so depressing, says our local vicar, Tim Yeager. It brings out some of the worst features of capitalism and rubs them in our faces – advertising to buy the right consumer products for the ones you love, creative financing so that lenders can make more profit, and it is an environmental disaster…more plastic, cardboard and packaging is produced, carted about and dumped into landfills, vacant lots and incinerators than at any other time of year.

Yet beneath all that, nearly smothered by the gift catalogues, he says, burns a persistent flame – hope for a better world, a more just society, where the social order is turned upside down so that the poor are fed and the rich relieved of their ill-gotten gains.

The story he tells, of the revolutionary hope of Christmas, is of a young unmarried girl in a land far away on the edge of a great empire, occupied by foreign soldiers and ruled by corrupt local despots. When she becomes pregnant, out of wedlock, her response is not one of regret or despair but of joy and hope.

She sings an ancient song of liberation, the Magnificat: ‘my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me — He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.’

What follows with the birth and the life of her son, a carpenter, is a story of struggle, one that in turn became, albeit with its own priests and pontiffs, a great movement for social and economic change.

When you look at the Christmas story closely, says Tim, “you find a story of working class people living in difficult times, in circumstances not too different faced by millions of people today. Mary, the young mother in the Christmas story, is supremely confident that the future will be better. Her song, the Magnificat, is nothing less than revolutionary.”



The most co-operative country on earth

It is not just Father Christmas.

Finland’s Professor Salme Näsi is a fellow Board member of Co-operatives Europe. She welcomed me on my first visit to the country, earlier this month, and as she says of her countrymen, “we are the most co-operative nation on earth.”

Whether Santa has opened up ownership of the gift business to the elves or not , I can’t report. But I have written a feature for the Guardian on Finland’s co-operative success story, and a little of what we might learn.

Social Economy: the curious incident of the UK going European?

I have had the luck over recent weeks to see something of the emergence of policy in a number of European countries in relation to the idea of the ‘social economy’.

Co-operatives certainly have a proven role across Europe. There are something like 160,000 coops across Europe, owned by 123 million people and providing jobs to 5.4 million citizens. Co-operatives Europe reports that in Finland, 75% of the population are members of a co-operative enterprise. In France, co-ops provide more than 1 million jobs, representing 4.5% of total employment in the country. In Germany, cooperative banks have more than 16 million members. In Italy, 7 million people are served by social cooperatives.

Alongside this, though, we have the separate traditional pillars of the social economy: mutuals, associations and foundations, or charities. More recently, the more hybrid models of social enterprise have been included as a welcome addition.

Recognising the potential of coops and the wider social economy, Antonio Tajani, as Vice-President of the EU Commission in charge of Industry and Entrepreneurship, set up a working group to develop a roadmap for EU policy. This is still in the process of development, but offers an important opportunity for dialogue around European and national level policy.

Three main subjects have emerged as important i) co-operative education, ii) financing and iii) business support for co-operatives..

There are some great European examples to draw on. In France an agreement was signed between the education minister and the social economy network to develop a social economy class in primary and secondary schools. A co-operative school of management, Coeptis, is developing programmes for worker cooperatives and managers in close partnership with co-operative organisations.

In Poland school co-operatives are active in all types of schools (primary up to high school), being managed by students they contribute to develop certain types of transversal skills as well as entrepreneurial skills.

In terms of finance, there is interest in the examples of countries such as Spain, that have dedicated financial funds for investing in co-ops. This would mean working with the European Investment Bank and Fund to explore the opportunities. In a number of countries too, finance is linked to business support.

In Sweden, the Coompanion network of support agencies is funded centrally by the Swedish Government Agency for Economic and Regional Growth, with an annual budget of just under £4m, which is distributed to the regions on a per capita basis, and is then matched with regional funding and with other sources of finance. The specialist advisers have played an important role in the development of new co-operatives and the continuing success of existing ones.

Italy offers the example of national co-operative development funds. To comply with the law, and in exchange in effect for a differential taxation rate, co-operative enterprises in Italy have to transfer 3% of their net surplus to funds, which are then used to support the development of co-operative business and employment.

In Spain and France, there has been the development of Social Economy Laws, which build on the core legal models that are well established to offer forms of recognition and support. These can include the new forms of social enterprise (at least, where they align with these legal forms, i.e. under a tighter and clearer definition than sometimes holds). In countries that don’t have such strong, unbroken traditions, such as in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, Euricse, the European Research Institute for Co-operatives and Social Enterprise, has concluded that it is better to start with co-operatives, mutuals or voluntary organisations and build from there, rather than start from the open and often confused institutional arena of social enterprise itself.

In the UK, we are doing something of the same, but without any of the flag waving. We have joined up outside of Government in the form of the wonderful Social Economy Alliance. But there has been activity in Government as well in recent years. As a result of some astute lobbying by Co-operatives UK (started by my former colleague, John Goodman) along with allies such as Social Enterprise UK (Dan Gregory can take a bow) and social investors, we have seen the development of tax incentives and concessions, for example around renewable energy but not limited to that, for the three legal forms that operate with a clear asset lock in the UK – community benefit societies, community interest companies and charitable organisations.

It is early days. But it is, in all but name, a very European policy of the social economy taking root in the UK.

Armistice Day and the business of peace

Today is Armistice Day and we have a hundred co-operative entrepreneurs together here in Manchester at our Practitioner Forum.

The co-operative movement is entangled with the great conflicts of the last century and the campaigns for peace, such as complementing the red poppy of remembrance with the white poppy of peace – pioneered by the Co-operative Women’s Guild.

From Factory Floor to Front Line’ is a resource from the Co-operative College, which uses heritage materials from the National Co-operative Archive to tell the story of co-operative employees who went off to fight.

The Co-operative Wholesale Societies had a jam and preserve works at Middleton and they sent out Christmas puddings to troops who were fighting abroad. The goods were shipped out on board the Co-operative Wholesale Societies ship the SS Fraternity.

To mark Armistice Day, I read a short poem, The Peace Poem, by John Moat and Satish Kumar:

Lead me from death to life
From falsehood to truth
Lead me from despair to hope
From fear to trust
Lead me from hate to trust
From war to peace
Let peace fill our hearts
Our world, our universe.

The language of business is often framed in the media as one of conflict – beating the competition – and, like WW1, of generals. Those of us who work in business, and are not the generals, know that this ignores the vital spark of co-operation in team work, partnerships, staff engagement, innovation and customer service.

Peace is an enduring value, because conflict is a zero sum game, in which one party wins, one loses. Co-operation is non zero sum game, where parties can both do better, by working together.

Accounting for peace, communicating for peace, member development for peace, governance for peace – this is what we will be working on today, sharing experience, gaining insights, offering help.


QE is a quantum leap in inequality

It looked recently as if US and UK economic policy would kick the habit of recent years’ quantitative easing (QE) and rock bottom interest rates. We will now have to wait longer for that, as economic forecasts dim around the world. But spending time in London, you could be forgiven for wondering whether there were ever any economic worries – on one estimate, you need to earn over £100,000 to buy a first property, while the numbers working in the City, who might have a chance of doing that, are now higher than before the credit crunch.

There is a direct connection though. There is no better measure of the impact of QE than London property prices.

QE, cloaked in the language of ‘needs must’, is rarely debated and rarely disputed by the main Westminster political parties. Whether it has worked is hard to judge, because we won’t know what the hypothetical alternative, a far tougher, harder correction in economic terms, would have led to. But we do know that it hasn’t worked in the way that was intended.

What is QE? QE is the creation of a new, multi-billion dollar cheque book by central banks, which is used to purchase government bonds and other assets from banks and other financial institutions. The new money is then lent to companies or consumers in the real economy, boosting economic activity and confidence. The central bank creates the money, not by printing but as an electronic account, which it uses in this way.

This has been an extraordinary injection of capital into the economy, over £375bn from the Bank of England into the UK economy in several tranches. But it did not work in the way it was expected to. Very little of the money left financial institutions, particularly in the early years. The banks used it to shore up their balance sheets, rather than lending, or investing instead in other assets that offered more of a yield, given the low cost of borrowing. The wash of money into government bonds and then equities in developed markets served to depress those yields, triggering a hunt then for riskier investments.

This did over time help to restore confidence. The rise in stock market prices fed through into pensions and investment benefits, while the property market, focused initially on London, saw significant price rises.

What do we want? A social economy.

The UK has a remarkable track record of social innovation and action in the economy, but one that rarely touches on mainstream economic policy. As a result, co-operatives and social enterprises, social investment and fair trade are all treated as solutions for when things go wrong, rather than the way to get them right.

For sure, from time to time, one part of this becomes a fad. It was social enterprises, then co-ops, now employee ownership. And while the sun shines, we see partial gains – not least the landmark new Co-operatives Act which came onto the statute books this year, the result of a promise by the Prime Minister at the start of the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives in 2012. Even so, we remain a footnote within a wildly distorted contract, in which financial incentives and returns are assumed to explain and sustain economic activity.

It was out of a mixture therefore of hope and frustration that we formed the Social Economy Alliance last year – an open federation of catalysts and practitioners from the field of social entrepreneurs and social enterprise, co-operatives and charities through to the new cadre of social investors. The idea of the social economy, of course, has a long pedigree, particularly in a European context, but our intention was not to look for new names to describe who we were but rather to paint a picture of what we believe the whole economy should be – a social economy.

When we started working around this idea, we were clear that what we didn’t want was a flipchart programme conjured up by another think-tank – now common enough to fall like apples in a windfall. We started from the bedrock of our own practice as innovations in addressing the big challenges that the UK economy faces.

So we spent our first year developing our own manifesto to put to the political parties, working through an intensive and deliberative process to test what we could learn for the UK economy more widely from our own practice and innovation.

The first theme that emerged was that the frameworks that govern the mix of social businesses already trading in the economy add costs rather than encouraging pro-social models of ownership and enterprise. From a perspective of genuine economic progress, we could see the potential for a new approach to land ownership, finance and infrastructure that give citizens and communities a real ownership stake in action to renew our crumbling social and economic infrastructure.

The second theme, building on the work that led to the Social Value Act, was the opportunity for a smarter state, that uses its own buying power to create social value, delivering greater returns for taxpayers’ money while improving the business environment.

The third theme was about encouraging the social behaviour of business more widely, enabling enterprises to make a fair contribution when it comes to tax, wages and environmental stress and to turn social value into competitive advantage.

For each of these, we found a wealth of social economy entrepreneurs and teams trying to do just that, even if they are often swimming against the tide of conventional thinking – such as Co-operative Energy, Belu Water or the leadership at Knowsley Council, who encourage local labour in every contract they can.

This led us to a Social Economy Alliance that we launched to politicians in September, with advertising raised through crowd-funding, up for three weeks in Westminster underground station and in social businesses across the UK. Among the 25 calls we are making include:

– A Royal Commission on Land Reform

– A levy on unused commercial properties and rates discount on new use to beat the blight of empty properties

– Community ownership to be included at feasibility stage as a percentage of all large infrastructure projects

– Activity co-operatives, allowing people out of work to pool benefits and taper their income to create their own team-based enterprises

– Entrepreneur ‘L’ plates, to simplify and encourage the path to entrepreneurship.

Meanwhile, the practical social economy example of garden cities, as a new way to meet housing need and create better ways to live, is covered in a wonderful issue of New Start magazine this month, after an event we ran in partnership in Letchworth on the day of the launch of the Social Economy Manifesto.

What emerges is neither left nor right, in a traditional sense. In the right conditions, capital and labour, collaboration and competition, society and economy work together to drive the growth in the social economy.

The social economy is creating wealth, jobs and social capital right now. We are not content to solve the problems thrown up by today’s reckless, financialised economy, because we see solutions and the chance for a more sustainable and fair economy, spreading prosperity. What we will do is to commit to be a partner and a champion for a new model of wealth creation.

Autumn of the mind

I’m not sure I have ever seen a maple tree in full orange and gold Autumn glow before I came here to Quebec. This week, I will be participating in the global Co-operative Business Summit hosted by Desjardins.

Today, though, I travelled to Toronto to see my uncle George in hospital. His is a brilliant, gentle brain – one of the foremost actuaries in Canada – now diswired, with dementia.

I hadn’t known what to expect, didn’t know what I could bring except that to be there could be a token of love from my own side of the family. What I experienced was a deep and moving sense of an Autumn in our lives – the culmination, the colour, the cycle, the anticipation of loss.

No, he couldn’t recall what he’d had for breakfast, if anything, even when my cousin, Peter, talked through it all.

But there by his bed, with Peter and Michael, I started an old London music hall song that my father would sing when the family was together. Four words in, ‘A mother was bathing….’ and George and I were singing the verses, word perfect, together – perhaps to the amazement of the small ward.

I have many blessings in my life – and to have moments truly to appreciate what I have and may lose feels like being paraded by all the colours of Autumn.