A letter from a century ago…I can hear the shells falling

I have been over with my mum and sorting out dusty boxes, one of which turns out to have been sorted well before I was born. It contains letters from a century and more ago.

Who the people are is now mostly long gone, but it was deeply moving to find one pencil-written to someone in the family from ‘Ed’ on the frontline in France in the First World War.

“I can hear Fritz’s shells falling and our own anti-aircraft guns shelling his planes. Tomorrow night we go up to the front line trenches again. May I be saved from harm.”

And then, lower in the box, the connecting thread – an envelope with writing on the back from an earlier sorting of letters to Nellie, “including from Ed, killed 1918.”

If I close my eyes, the world turns and I try to imagine those shells. I open my eyes and the world returns.

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My top five tips on co-operative innovation for 2015

One of the great qualities of the co-operative model is the extraordinarily flexible way in which the simple idea of ownership by those involved in the business can be brought to life. It is true that there are many levels at which you can co-operate in a business – to be owned by your customers doesn’t mean that the workplace is a participative one, just as to be owned by your workforce doesn’t mean that your services are always shaped and led by customers. But the five innovations I would pick out for 2015 all have this simplicity at their heart – they offer a simple but radical shift in the way of doing business.

1. Co-operative education. Co-operation is a far richer and more effective organisational model for learning than competition. The extraordinary success of around eight hundred co-operative schools in England, plans in Wales following the 2013 Commission on Co-operatives and Mutuals and the emergence of ‘schools of co-operation’ in Scotland, is only a start. There is a strong case, if regulatory barriers are removed, for nursery schooling owned by parents and teachers, and for new, cross-border co-operative models of online learning and, in time, universities.

2. Agricultural co-operatives. There is a spring in the step of farmer-controlled businesses across Europe and beyond, as they face up to the giant commodity conglomerates and the result will be of enormous importance for the future of world food markets. At the local level, this can mean new opportunities for farm to farm co-operation and local food links or an upgrading, in governance and strategy, for existing co-ops, but it will also mean stronger and closer cross-border ties, with new forms of member capital and better access to markets overseas.

3. Unions for the self-employed. The idea of co-operative models for freelancers has been around for a while, but in business, timing is everything. The rise of self employment, much of it in the form of a ‘Precariat’ in which the traditional benefits of what James Robertson called ‘own work’ (in his 1980s book, Future Work) are balanced by risk and marginalisation, makes this a model for our times. For the self-employed, unemployed and for unions, this has a clear purpose and meets a clear set of needs.

4. The real sharing economy. The predatory nature and tattered ethics of Uber has helped to expose the fact that the emerging sharing economy has yet to innovate in ways that allow for shared ownership rather than shared service. There is experimentation in new forms of open co-operatives that can achieve this, but to be successful, I would like to see a model emerge for a mass user / consumer buyout as an alternative to the finance of venture capital or corporate buyout. Minecraft, which sold out last year, had so much community ownership that it ought to be a co-operative and it would have been better safeguarded if it were. We need an online model for community buyouts. Wikipedia’s doing it for donations, our community shares work for local enterprises, existing consumer co-ops are experimenting with sharing services, but in 2015 the time is right for a better sharing finance platform for sharing economy businesses.

5. Fair care. With a gently ageing UK population, when it comes to social care, there is a recognition now that you only get the real benefits of dignity plus cost saving if the care user and the care workers are properly engaged. For a while, this has been called ‘co-production’ but it hasn’t yet had an organisational model to embed this. In 2015, we will see the emergence of Italian-style social co-cooperatives, starting in Wales, but spreading, that are businesses that give a voice to users and workers. These are 360 degree co-ops, in that they offer democratic ownership to all the multiple stakeholders involved.

These are my five, and I’d welcome hearing yours.

Later this year, Co-operatives UK will publish with our member New Internationalist a book on co-operative innovation. Under the draft title of “Co-operative Advantage”, this will look at how, in an age of inequality and stuttering or declining productivity, we see that up-close ownership can help transform the UK economy.

Happy new year! It is going to be a hopeful and purposeful 2015 for the UK social economy.

The life and hope of William Hazell, Ynysybwl, South Wales

William Hazell, who died in the year I was born, was a miner and co-operative writer and activist from South Wales. His biography has been published recently, written by Alan Burge. It is an extraordinary read, full of the hope, integrity and compassion that has sustained the co-operative sector as a social movement over a long period of time.

Of himself, Hazell commented that he had been ‘on the anvil for most of his life, and taken many a hammering’. Alongside his work as a miner came his participation and writing as a co-operator, involved through the local co-operative society and in networks from South Wales to the national federal associations, the Co-operative Wholesale Society and the Co-operative Union, where I work today.

The greatest wonder of Wales and Glamorgan, he believed, was “the co-operation of a million of its people in the co-operative soceities of its towns and cities. Confident in the principle of mutual help and communal effort, they go forward, amid conflicting currents of individualism and state-dependence, to be a commonwealth of sturdy, thrifty, neighbourly, kind men and women who believe, not only in themselves, but in their fellows also.”

These practices and principles of self-help and mutual aid also underpinned his views on national politics. While he always saw an embedded and overlapping relationship with trade unions and the Labour Party, Hazell’s writings also offered a critique of the twentieth century ‘turn to the state’ of the political left. A miner himself, he criticised state ownership of the mines he had worked in, arguing that the creation of the National Coal Board was a top-down model that did nothing to change conditions and character of those involved. In 1953, he asked “how much wiser, better and happier the world might have been” if it had turned towards the ideas of Robert Owen rather than those of Karl Marx.

“We in the valleys”, he said “are community-bound. Cords of friendship and understanding, and knowledge of each other’s problems, attainments and limitations, bind us together in bonds more firm than any Act of Parliament could ever prescribe.” The dynamics of voluntary mutual aid, he predicted, would outlast many of the schemes of the national state.

Passionate about his co-operation, open to new ideas, he was never partisan in his politics. When asked in a meeting whether he was a left or a right winger, he answered: “My friend, I think more of the bird than the wings.”

Hazell’s views reflected a tradition of radical economic thought, focused on human scale, economic democracy and a critique of market and state, that remains wonderfully fresh, in today’s age of networks and participation.

Russell Brand on co-ops

A Christmas gift is Russell Brand’s book, Revolution. Charismatic or controversial, comic or serious, I don’t know, but it is certainly full of passion, hope and far more humility than I would have imagined.

It is also the first bestselling book for a while to quote the seven principles of co-operative identity, and associated co-operative values, that form the Statement of Co-operative Identity of the International Co-operative Alliance.

The principles are the open source coding for democratic enterprise that has evolved and been tested in organisations dating back to the 1844 Rochdale Pioneers (they had an additional one, though, not to forget, which was political and religious neutrality).

First the values. Co-operative values, he says “sound a bit airy-fairy but these ideas would’ve prevented me squirrelling away the donated offcuts of well meaning celebrities for some imagined reason.”

And then, this is what Russell Brand (UK comic, actor, bohemian, ex-addict and ex-husband of Katy Perry) says about the principles of co-operation:

Principle 1 – voluntary and open membership “voluntary? Do we get paid for working in these places or what?”

Principle 2 – democratic member control – “okay…we could vote on whether or not to make money. See, I’ve gone into a capitalist frenzy and we’re only on point 2″

Principle 3 – member economic participation – “I see. We have to foster a different attitude to property.”

Principle 4 – autonomy and independence – “I’m beginning to see that these principles are explicitly designed to inhibit predatory people like me.”

Principle 5 – education, training and information “….the entrepreneurial spirit could still thrive, but not at the expense of more important collective values.”

Principle 6 – co-operation among co-operatives “these kind of organisations could now be communicated and collaborate on a global level using the incredibly technological advances of the past few decades.”

Principle 7 – concern for the community “these suggestions don’t just amount to ‘play nice’, like some equal opportunity PC crap to hold out a hand to the disadvantaged; they work better. The German economy works is the strongest in Europe, perhaps because its workforce feels invested in its efforts, instead of trolling around like eunuch mannequins, castrated and hopeless, waiting for a two week holiday.”

“The answer to the quandary of how to reorganise society isn’t new leaders” he concludes, but perhaps “the answer isn’t leaders at all.”

Nicely put, boss.

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.