A co-operative Europe – please take action

In or out for the UK, the future of Europe is being shaped right now, with the EU Council meeting on 15th of December to set a blueprint for the economy over the next ten years. This is the culmination of work kicked off by the EU President at the start of this year, in a consultation on the Future of Europe.

As I pointed out, in a blog post for Cooperatives Europe, in September, the early founders of the EU in fact envisaged a far more democratic economy with co-operative enterprise and employee ownership throughout. That vision of Europe is still to fight for.

To make an influence, we need co-operators and partners in the wider social economy to raise their voice. So I’d like to ask you to join our communications campaign through Thunderclap to show your support for a cooperative Europe that brings Europe closer to its citizens, values, a fairer society and the future.

The more people sign up, the stronger the cooperative voice is, so please do consider whether you can sign up with your personal social media accounts, organisation accounts, and ask your colleagues to sign up as well.

To support the campaign, please:

1 click on this link: http://bit.ly/2zFjIeu.

2 click the ‘support with’ Facebook/Twitter button.

3 share it with your contacts.

Cooperatives Europe will outline our own vision for a cooperative Future of Europe on December 11, for all the European institutions, inside and outside the European Union (EU) – the UK may leave the EU but we are still a European nation, open to a #CloserEurope through #coops.

Your help would be very much appreciated.


A visit from Japan

We have had a welcome set of visitors, from the co-operative sector in Japan in recent weeks.

The Japan Co-operative General Research Institute (JC-Soken) coordinated a powerful delegation of co-operative leaders, from a diverse range of the country’s wonderful range of co-ops – from insurers to worker co-ops.

Japan delegationKenki Maeda, from JC-Soken, briefed me at the outset on the state of the Japanese sector. Having been writing on the history of the co-operative movement, I was delighted to find that Japan too, as with many other countries, had forerunners of the modern co-operative movement.

Sontoku NINOMIYA was born in 1787 and was an administrator, innovator and philosopher. He saw agriculture as a communal venture, where surpluses could be put to communal benefit, extending farming land, saved for reserves or shared when required. Credit was key, but it needed to be affordable. His lead helped to spread of mutual organisations called “Hotokusha” across communities.

In the twentieth century, co-operative laws helped to establish and underpin the growth of a wide range of co-operatives, including agriculture, fisheries, consumer retail, health, insurance, credit unions and forestry.

In agriculture, for example, JA-ZENCHU operates as the Central Union of Agricultural Co-operatives, with around 660 primary co-ops in the sector. In the consumer co-operative sector, JCCU (Japanese Consumers’ Cooperative Union) estimate that there are 558 primary co-operatives, with a combined membership of 28.7 million people. In the insurance sector, the Japan Co-operative Insurance Association estimates that there are over 2,600 co-operatives, covering 75.38 million members.

While having specific laws with their own focus and link into government and local communities, one unintended consequence has been the lack of a joined up and integrated framework for co-operatives as a whole. Worker co-ops for example lack their own law, while few co-operative leaders are convinced that the current, or new, government of Prime Minister Abe is  sympathetic to Japan’s co-operative traditions. Business governance is high on the political agenda, with a Corporate Governance Code and Stewardship Code introduced since 2013, but this is conventional corporate governance rather than the member-owned or community-oriented model of co-operatives.

The Japanese associations of co-operatives are therefore exploring how to work together more effectively, trying to reorganize the existing Japan Joint Committee of Co-operatives (JJC) and to create a stronger cross-sectoral organization with more human and other resources. It was under these auspices that the Co-operative College in the UK hosted a distinguished delegation of senior co-operators – keen to learn what works and what doesn’t work so well here in the UK.


The new cross-sectoral organization will have three roles

  1. Promotion of, and support for, cooperation among cooperatives in various sectors, at the local, prefectural and national levels,
  2. Policy advocacy and public relations for cooperatives as a whole,
  3. Education and research of cooperatives (gathering, sharing and disseminating information, such as cooperatives’ good practices).

ChallengesIt is inspiring to have this dialogue and contact across nations.

Each has its own deep historical roots and identity. Each has shared challenges and things to learn.

Pirates as early co-operatives?

To be a pirate is to set yourself against society and its rules. To even the odds, pirates come together. They co-operate.

It might sound like an extreme claim, but there is a body of evidence of early mutuality and even democracy among some of the most successful seventeenth century Caribbean and Atlantic pirates.

Bartholomew Roberts, Welsh born, was the most renowned pirate of his day. By the time he died, in February 1722, resplendent on deck in his crimson waistcoat, struck by Royal Navy grapeshot, he and his crews had captured around four hundred vessels. His approach to organising, giving every pirate a say and a share, was described by Captain Charles Johnson two years later in his A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates.

Drawing on my new short book – free to download – which is a retelling of the history of co-operation and mutuality, I have expanded on this, in an article about Pirates, Mutiny and Mutuality on Huffington Post.

Pirate co-ops… is this a tradition we will draw on again?

Say Cheese… or how Gruyère got co-operation going over six hundred years ago

We are launching now a fresh re-telling of the story of co-operation, in a short book which tracks early cases of mutuality around the world. The book, available free to download and in English and Spanish editions, is called A Short History of Co-operation and Mutuality.

Drawing on this, I have also put together a slide deck of twelve early co-ops, with design support from colleagues at Co-op News.

One of the examples, that came to me courtesy of colleagues in France, Coop FR and the international social economy journal RECMA, is the case of cheese.

In rural Switzerland and the Franche-Comté region of France, cheese-making societies, termed Fruitière (ripening) started in the fourteenth century, then spreading to other European countries. From informal reciprocity, exchanging milk between neighbours, these developed into full mutual societies. Each round typically lasted for a year, starting in February with the first milk coming in March or April. The accounting system was in urns of milk – the farmer that took the cheese was then debtor to others who had contributed milk – and the product, and dividend from its sale, was the cheese.

In these mountainous areas, it is possible to trace the lines of mutuality from these neighbourhood associations, present in different forms and with different functions across medieval Europe, through the development of self-governing quality standards and charters, such as the Appellations d’Origine Protégée, to the co-operatives that are responsible for the production of Comté and Gruyère cheese today.

Writing in the late nineteenth century, George Jacob Holyoake declared “it is clear that Gruyère should be the favourite cheese of co-operators, as it is the first cheese made on their system.”

There are many more stories in the book. Thanks to the International Co-operative Alliance, around two thousand delegates coming to Malaysia from around the world will get a copy. My hope is that we learn more about and take confidence from the enduring way in which different cultures and different generations have harnessed co-operation as a way to live and work together.

What if it is co-operating and not competing that’s key to getting ahead?

Business, careers, even education… we are increasingly told that to get on is to get ahead, to compete. But what if it wasn’t competing with others that powers success in business and in life, but co-operating with them?

Co-operation in the economy is not often talked about, but it has always been there.

The first powered flight took place in December 1903 by the Wright Brothers. What followed was then a bitter rivalry for the next fifteen years between them and a rival airplane maker, Glenn Curtis. Come America’s entry into the First World War and no American airplane was viewed as good enough to go into combat. The Wright brothers and Glenn Curtis were willing to see the airplane industry grounded than to see the other win out in terms of setting standards for airplanes to succeed.


Orville Wright, 1911 – U.S. Army Air Service photo collection ID# in caption above Photo Courtesy of the Unites States Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Photos are from the national archives (NARA). Source: http://www.afhra.af.mil/photos/mediagallery.asp?galleryID=5585 


In 1917 US Congress forced the formation of the Manufacturers Aircraft Association. This was a way to set shared standards and pool the critical patents needed for airplanes and the aeroplane industry to take off.

The same idea of a patent pool is used today to cut the costs of HIV retroviral drugs in Africa.

Sometimes you have to co-operate, to get ahead.

Knock Twice – can stories can point the way to a sustainable future?

It feels like a good time to launch a book of modern folk tales that are entertaining, surprising and troubling. And not just because it’s Hallowe’en.

Knock Twice is a collection of new stories. Folk tales throughout history explore the extremes of human experience and help us make sense of them. 

The image below comes from Norway, drawn by Theodor Kittelsen, born in 1857. From the folk tale hero Askeladden (Ash Lad) to the water sprite Nokken, stories were a way to connect up Norwegians under the impositions of Danish rule.

These tales are far our modern times but Knock Twice continues the tradition with modern folk tales, from mobile phones to the refugee crisis, celebrity, climate change and banking. 

I have contributed one story, drawing on tales I have picked up on my travels in the world of co-operative enterprise. And that’s what makes the book interesting is that the other authors too come from a range of settings on the frontiers of sustainabilty and social change – including leading authorities on the earth sciences, the environment, finance and economics.

Philip Pullman has commented, on the first collection in this series, There was a Knock at the Door, that “stories are one of the most ancient and most effective ways of making sense of the world… When we try to live a good life in a world we seem to be simultaneously destroying, there is nothing more valuable or worth encouraging.

Knock Twice is curated by Andrew Simms, author of Cancel the Apocalypse and co-founder of the co-operative think tank the New Weather Institute

The book is published by the Real Press, as a paperback, an ebook and a Kindle edition.

Are you ever bewildered by the modern world and the prospects for a sustainable future? These are modern folk tales for troubling times because we’re unlikely to get a better world without using our imagination. 

Knock twice, open the covers and see what happens…

Is this the happiest co-op video ever?

We have been running a series of short videos of inspiring stories of co-ops in the UK, with backing from the Co-operative Bank. The first was Leeds Bread Co-op, which was a wonderful introduction to worker co-operatives.

Now, our short video turned to Bristol, filmed by Blake House Co-op, itself an enterprise which has benefited from business advice via The Hive. 

The subject is Bristol Wood Recycling. This is surely the most sunny and happy co-op video ever. So far, we have had 1,800 shares and an astonishing 200,000 views via Facebook. 

For great communications, there is nothing like a good story. And when it comes to people, it seems there is nothing like a co-op story.