What has Italy got right?

At a time of heartache, it is still possible and natural to be heartened by those around us. Italy has been at the centre of the COVID-19 pandemic and some of the responses I hear from my calls and contact with co-operators there add up to a moving and meaningful story to share.

Co-operation is written into the constitution of Italy. Article 45 of the Constitution of 1948 states specifically that the Republic recognises the benefits of co-operatives operating for mutual benefit, free from private speculation. It goes on to prescribe that Italian law should assist and promote the development of co-ops and ensure their integrity.

It is not the only country to write co-ops into the national constitution, although it is less common in Europe. Ifigeneia Douvitsa teaches in the School of Law at Democritus University of Thrace, Greece. She has trawled through constitutions worldwide and concludes that around 1 out of 3 national constitutions internationally refer explicitly to co-ops.

(The first, by the way, in the research she has sent me was the 1917 constitution of Mexico, a product of the 1910 revolution and a beacon of radical intent, including social and economic rights and the protection of labour rights and working conditions.)

In Italy around ten per cent of the economy (gross domestic product) is organised through co-operatives, with around eleven per cent of the workforce employed by co-ops, including many large-scale worker co-ops of course.

The response of co-ops in Italy to the health, social and economic crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic has been to draw on their values, for sure, but also to find ways to co-operate between co-operatives.

The retail co-ops, for example, have seen revenues increase as essential services. Yes, they have faced increased costs too, but their decision was to gift the proceeds, millions of euros, in support of Italian public hospitals and community co-operatives that are playing a crucial role in supporting local communities.

In Lombardy, one of the regions worst affected, my friend Stefania Marcone tells me that through her national co-operative alliance, Legacoop (working alongside Confcooperative and AGCI) there is support for worker co-ops of cleaners switching to working in hospitals, social co-operatives delivering food and taxi co-operatives providing free transport for people who are over 65.

With support from the wider sector, twelve co-ops have come together to start production of 400,000 face masks per day, with a design I am told is innovative in being able to be re-used up to 100 times. Design of course is another strong sector for Italian co-ops in pre-crisis times, bringing together small firms and connecting to financial co-operatives to be able to compete at an international level.

In small villages, community co-operatives like the “Biccari” community cooperative, in the province of Foggia have turned on a sixpence to provide a local home delivery service for those who need it.

This solidarity is international too. The Bulgarian retail co-operatives were able to respond to a national shortage of disinfectants and cleaning detergents, because Coop Italy responded with deliveries, despite themselves being in the most critical situation with challenging and complex logistics.

And the international solidarity comes back too, like a boomerang. The outstanding freelancer co-op SMART, who I have written about before in supporting members in crisis, has launched a Plan Corona to sustain freelancers who have lost their jobs due to the virus. Starting in Belgium and France, it is now being extended to Italy.

Of course there are other international examples that are outstanding in terms of co-operative action – as no doubt can be found in other sectors, of civil society, social enterprise and wider corporate action. After all, this is not a competition. Co-ops don’t claim to be better than others on values – they simply claim to live up to their values and so often when I look, I find that to be true.

Here are examples that I have come across that I appreciate:

  • French co-operative banks around Paris have opened up lines of credit worth €100 million for hospitals and healthcare centres.
  • German co-operative banks have led on increasing the limit for contactless payment for customers to 50 euros – practical and helpful.
  • In Spain, Lionel Messi helped to lead a 70% pay cut by players at FC Barcelona, the iconic football co-op, in order to ensure that lower-paid workers receive full pay and protection from being laid off.
  • Desjardins in Canada has announced a discount for car insurance customers who are driving less in a lock-down.
  • Irish credit unions have remained open when bank branches have closed, offering new emergency loans.
  • Co-op insurers in Sweden have placed investments of US$235 million in new bonds to finance public health actions not just in the Baltic region but worldwide. Ylva Wessén, CEO, promises that “Folksam Group is actively seeking investment opportunities that alleviate the social and economic consequences of the coronavirus.” 

In the UK, Nick Crofts, President of the Co-op Group has commented that:

“co-ops have consistently set an example that other businesses and even the Government have subsequently followed. It was Co-op Food stores that were the first to promise help to food banks struggling because of panic buying. Co-op Academies were the first to announce that no child should go hungry because schools were closed.

In Wales, co-op taxi drivers are offering free rides to key workers. And right here in Liverpool a co-op bakery is baking fresh bread for food banks and delivering pies to ambulance workers. I know that co-operators are up to this challenge and that our co-operative movement anchored in the communities that we serve will always back those who need it most.”

You can read about new examples here and abroad, including recent posts on USA, India and Brazil via Co-op News, in Europe from Co-ops Europe and more widely from the ILO. Co-ops UK is collecting evidence from our members on the impact and the response too so it is worth signing up to receive our newsletter too, or checking out our latest specialist advice.

In Italy, as the prospects of loosening lock-down brighten, the cultural co-ops across the country are promising a programme of public engagement, to rebuild the country.

I had the opportunity to meet the President of Legacoop, Mauro Lusetti, on a brilliantly informative trip to Bologna two years ago. The example he has set in Italy has been immense. This is how he puts it – what Italy has got right:

“We are normal people, who try every day with passion, courage and competence to do their duty, to do their job.

We are women and men cooperators who are in places of suffering alongside doctors and nurses, to keep hospitals clean, and to operate, from kitchens to thermal power plants. We are women and men who try to make essential services work in warehouses in the streets, in supermarkets, in offices; we are the ones who in social cooperation try in every way to keep assistance alive for all the people who were fragile before the Coronavirus and today they are even more so.

Continuing to be women and men cooperators , asking to continue working and being able to do so in safety is for us the only way we know of thinking about our future and that of our community.

The infection will end and as we work every day we try to imagine how to face the world that will come, so that no sacrifice has been in vain.”

What can charities learn from co-ops? And co-ops from charities?

Like two different football clubs in one great city, for years charities and co-operatives would have relatively little to do with each other.

Can we learn from each other?

For the charity sector, co-ops are business clubs focused on private gain – values-based, open and entrepreneurial. That is seen as in contrast with a wider public purpose – indeed charity law tends to test public benefit negatively, through the absence of private benefit.

For the co-operative sector, philanthropy is about the public works of private people – generous with their time and money, prosperous, often establishment. That is seen as in contrast with the working class roots of the self-help movement – participatory and emerging out of need.

Each probably think the other is in some way the status quo – charities representing a more traditional, paternalistic approach to service delivery, co-operatives being part of markets that still leave people in need.

In reality, each has always aimed higher, at transforming society through values.

Close your eyes and image you are in society 100 years ago. Open your eyes and you would find little democracy, few employment rights, no votes for women and widespread racism. These most significant changes to our lives have been led by civil society, both charitable and co-operative. Politics rides and shapes the waves. But it rarely, in terms of state action, changes the tide. At our best, we both do that.

I have been involved in both these parts of civil society all my life. I work at Co-ops UK now and in July, I will take up a new role as CEO of Pilotlight, a social enterprise that provides support for small charities in partnership with business.

At our best, we are the free organisation of individuals around issues of need and of passion. This is what generates and regenerates the values that holds society together and takes it forward. When Harvey Weinstein describes himself as a dinosaur, there is an underlying truth. Technology changes, fashions change and you have to keep up. But values change, if you don’t fit, you will be found out.

I joined as an individual member of The Co-op when I left school. I was elected to the board of a national charity when I was twenty three.

In the 1990s, when I was Chief Executive of the charity, the New Economics Foundation, we launched a programme called Values-Based Organisation. Led by Simon Zadek, a profound thinker, the challenge as we saw it was that the reference points for learning in civil society were the wrong ones. Management thinking at the time was all and only about business structure and business strategy in the private sector.

Interestingly, one of the tools we helped to develop through this programme – social auditing – became in time part of triple bottom line accounting, reimported as learning into the world of business through the lens of corporate social responsibility.

So, where are the current intersections and opportunities for co-ops and charities to learn from each other?

Intersection 1: Open Membership

Co-operatives are all about membership. Co-ops are businesses owned by those involved in the business, called members to distinguish them from the more distant investors that own shareholder companies.

Co-ops themselves can be formed under any corporate form, so it is not unlike the diverse legal mix open to charities. You just have to set the articles or rules for open membership, in line with international co-operative principles.

A huge swathe of charities too are based on membership. In the disability field, over many years, membership has been a practical tool in the move away from a tradition of paternalism, acting ‘for’ people with disabilities, to a culture of participation, in which action is led by people with disabilities.

In England and Wales, the Charity Commission estimates that are around 80,000 charities that have a membership structure. There will be uncounted thousands more in the low-flying heroes of the UK’s community sector, often unincorporated associations where participation is based on a presumption of equality. Think too of churches, trade unions, sports clubs, building societies and membership associations…

So, how many members of this form are there in the UK?

My estimate has been a minimum of 91 million members: more members than people in the UK, because enough of us are members many times over. But still, this is a dramatic number. It is ten times the number of individual shareholders in the UK. Can we imagine the television news, where member ups and downs were treated with the same profile and respect as stocks and shares?

But it varies, of course. There are many forms of association. Some are one-way models only. Having a loyalty card for a coffee chain gives you no voice. Being a friend of a museum gives you no vote.

Good membership is a two-way relationship between an individual and an institution, with purpose at its heart (see for example research of the New Citizenship Project).

But membership is changing:

  • Grassroots, participatory membership has been pushed out by a shift towards consolidation in the charity sector. Scale can erode membership as norms of expertise and professionalism override those of participation and accountability.
  • Conversely, there has been a rise in membership models over the last twenty years around key public services in the cause of ‘co-production’ – mental health trusts are a rather good example, acute health trusts a rather poor one.

What membership can do well is to answer the question ‘who are you accountable to?’.

For housing associations for example, the answer to this accountability test has never been sure and simple. It is a successful field but a world to itself, never quite sure whether its reference points are to charity, to co-operatives or to business. Social housing has grown to scale, but rarely has it been a confident voice for its tenants, let alone a platform for their self-organising.

The accountability test is also one that charities with no members to speak of can also struggle with. At its heart, perhaps, this is a tension between stakeholder models, where accountability comes through participation, and wider causes, where no-one can fully represent the purpose at hand. If your concerns go beyond people, for example – faith, the natural environment, other species – then accountability to people may never be enough.

Acting in trust without the complexities of wider accountability (beyond law and regulation that is) can be a way to entrench an enduring purpose over time. But I suspect that it can be harder to ensure that there is periodic renewal.

Charity is associated in the public mind with the call for new money. Yet there are billions of pounds of charitable assets that lie dead and dormant rather than being used to challenge and change society: beautiful paintings; wonderful halls in city centres; legacy foundations administered by banks and accountants. I am told that one penny in every pound traded on the stock exchange is on behalf of the charitable sector.

Yet of course, when it comes to accountability, mutual membership – particularly passive, mass consumer membership – doesn’t always do better. The old saying about building society managers was that their job was easy – borrow at 1 per cent, lend at 2 and be at golf by 3. This was before the shock of demutualisation…

The challenge of accountability and renewal is why governance matters.

Intersection 2: Participatory Governance

In both the charity and co-operative sectors, there have been high profile governance failures and scandals. And there are similar efforts in both to drive up quality.

Co-ops UK hosts a Co-operative Governance Expert Reference Panel. We operate a governance code updated from the start of this year and produce a range of governance support tools, from how to design democratic process where you need Boards with a balance of expertise, gender equality, work on conflict, values and culture, training and development as well as a range of templates for the use of Boards.

Our view of good governance is summarised in a Co-operative Governance Wheel that I helped to introduce. It is a one page reference point for good practice.

One of the great innovations in the co-op sector recent years, thanks in part to solicitors such as Anthony Collins, has been the development of a robust model of what we might call a ‘multi-stakeholder’ governance. If you are a worker co-operative, what about the customers? If you are customer-owned co-op, what about the workers? The multi-stakeholder model, still one member, one vote but within weighted constituencies, operates as a 360 degree co-operative.

In Wales, one of the leading social care charities, Cartrefi Cymru, has converted to a multi-stakeholder charitable co-op, because giving a voice to users, people with learning disabilities, carers and to staff can give them back their dignity. As Adrian Roper, Chief Executive of Cartrefi Cymru says, decrying the marketisation of care based on competition and a race to the bottom:

“if you feel that behaving like rats in a sack is a deeply inappropriate and resource-wasting way for social care providers to act, and you see no evidence that charitable status is any guard against rat-like behaviour, then co-operative principle 6 (co-operation amongst co-operatives) calls to your soul.”

In Italy, this model – multi-stakeholder social co-operatives providing care, health and employment services – has grown from 650 in 1985 to seven thousand today, with 244,000 staff and 35,000 volunteers.

Even so, where you have the self-selecting governance model of many charities – trustees of today choose the trustees of tomorrow – that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily cut off from wider stakeholders. LSE Professor Howard Glennister once suggested that the distinctive nature of voluntary organisations is their ambiguity – meaning that people can play different roles, including as trustees.

Naturally, this includes volunteers. In the most professionalised charities, the trustees are the only true volunteers left. But more widely, as some excellent recent NCVO research shows, volunteering still plays a foundational role in the participatory life of the nation. Seven in ten people have volunteered at some point in their lives.

Combining voluntary and paid efforts is an art and some, like the National Trust, do it brilliantly. At the intersection of co-ops and charities is the Plunkett Foundation. This is a specialist charity, 100 years old this year, that supports rural co-ops. Typically, these combine paid and volunteer staff in the context of a commercial business, with around 800,000 volunteer hours each year.

There are close to 350 community shops across the UK, supported by Plunkett, serving 1,400 remote rural communities. The long-run survival rate for these – part of a wider array of over 9,000 community businesses according to Power to Change – is outstanding given that all but a few were shops threatened with outright closure when local people took them on. After thirty years, only five per cent are not still running today.

Part of that success can be put down to the commitment of those involved, which is not just their time but also their money.

Intersection 3: Social Investment

Alongside membership and governance, the third area of intersection between charities and co-operatives is money. Here, the point of learning is not about traditional forms of giving but new ones, blending the motivation of donors and investors in a genuine form of social investment.

Here the community benefit society model has been a ‘game changer’ in that it is a model that encourages communities of people to come together to support charitable projects, through their time and fiscal investment, on a democratic one-member one vote basis. This uses traditional co-operative models of equity capital raising from members in a new setting, called ‘community shares’. Over the last decade, around 150,000 people have co-invested over £150 million in over 500 community businesses through this approach.

Equity like this is what most social ventures need – patient over time, asset-locked equity capital that can be crowd-funded from your supporters. It is not a pushing of expensive short-term debt, which is sadly what a fair amount of social investment passes for.

As a member, you don’t see capital gains and your money is at risk, but you can be paid interest on your investment and you benefit as a member from the success of the society – whether it is Equal Care Co-op, developing social care solutions, or Awel Aman Tawe, spreading solar power across Wales.

Again there are hybrids. The charitable community benefit society model has been used widely by communities that are looking to conserve heritage assets. This week, we have launched an offer of £600,000 of equity match funding for community businesses running heritage projects. This is through the Community Shares Booster programme, set up in partnership with Locality and Power to Change and now the Architectural Heritage Fund.

Creating or converting to a charitable community benefit society is becoming a real choice for a wide range of initiatives including local examples here where I work in Manchester: Projekts MCR, Ancoats Dispensary and Stretford Public Hall.

Conclusion – learning fast

Civil society is a big values-based tent and within it, there is ample scope to work with each other and scope to learn from each other. Our core traditions still stand apart from the dominant ideologies both of state-led and of market-led power. So I suggest that:

  • Charities can learn from the best of co-operatives how to make a virtue of accountability via open membership.
  • Co-operatives can learn from the best of charities how to make a virtue of purpose via open participation.
  • The best of both are champions of an increased voice for users, communities, workers and volunteers.
  • More widely, we have both something to teach the wider world of business, as well as something to learn.

And this is our shared condition. In a world of need, risk and opportunity, we all have to learn fast if we are to succeed.

Egg Mayonnaise and other adventures over ten years at Co-operatives UK

I always find it hard to say goodbye, which is why my last few months at Co-operatives UK are going to be an emotional one for me.

Having worked all my life in the social economy, I am leaving to join a social enterprise, Pilotlight, in July. The mission of Pilotlight and its network of business and individual members is to help more charities help more people more effectively. In short, it is a multiplier for social justice (I’ll write more on this in time, of course).

I remain a co-operator. We are a cause and not a post and we are multi-generational, arguably indeed the UK and the world’s longest running social movement. And in the humanity that connects the co-op sector, you can find a strong sense of humour…

And when you are called Mayo, you are called to be made fun of. So I have enjoyed many moments of quirky connection over the ten happy years I have worked at Co-ops UK.

Presenting last week at the Board of Scotmid, Scotland’s leading independent retailer, CEO John Brodie reminded me of when he’d pointed out an Egg Mayo sandwich on a store visit with him and thanked me for naming it.

Of course, plenty of ‘no mayo’ photos too… Colleagues in 2017 sent me the front cover of The Grocer, the retailers essential weekly read, which declared ‘Mayo overtakes ketchup to become UK’s favourite‘.

In terms of places, I spent time in the Plaza del Mayo in Buenos Aires when visiting the Argentine co-operative sector. I have never visited County Mayo, but I have been promised a welcome from credit unions when I do.

With international contact, sometimes the sense of humour can get lost in translation but sometimes it is in the translation.

Visiting the Czech Republic, I was introduced to person after person described as co-operative ‘undertakers’, dozens of them, and only after the event did I find out that the correct translation would have been ‘entrepreneurs’.

Andreas, my counterpart in Bonn contacted me, tongue in German cheek, when I’d shared that I was leaving Co-ops UK and Co-ops Europe to say “This is a significant loss for both bodies. It is too bad and I strongly deplore your decision.”

With Simel from the International Labour Organisation, we have taken photos and selfies in various co-op locations, including Malta and Paris.

It has been hard work and so much fun.

Inner city heritage

“No-one will comprehend the mine of national wealth that is the children of Deptford.”

Started in Flood Street, South London above a skittle alley in December 1844, a propitious month, the Deptford Ragged School was started to serve the children of the area, between creek and river. The police reported it too dangerous an area to patrol, the “lowest of the low.”

This was thirty years before the state started to offer education to all children.

The original institution was one of a number known as ragged schools – serving children in rags and connected through the efforts of the Victorian reformer Lord Shaftesbury. It offered teaching and a wide range of other social activities for the community of all ages, from day trips to the hilly fields of Brockley through to a ‘slate club’ for local adults, as a mutual insurance pool in case of sickness.

By 1862, there were 160 children coming each day, 64 in the evening and 140 on Sundays. This was the ‘mine of national wealth’.

I’ve spent the evening with a volunteer archivist at the building, now the Bear Church in Deptford, London, hearing about the lives of local children over time. Katharine Alston has a PhD in museum education and is taking the stories that she finds, along with her volunteer team, largely churchgoers as were the founders, to the school close by today.

My wonderful friend Jani Llewelyn was a nursery school teacher at this school and it was thanks to her many years ago that a charitable trust was started to support education in Deptford and far away in Mozambique, the Merry Trust. When Jani, still young, was given a short time to live, her pension was commuted and entrepreneurially she bought her council flat, a stones throw away, and left them in her will for reinvestment in the community. The education work of the Deptford Ragged School Archive is funded today by her spirited activism.

Not all were model pupils, then or now, but often spirited. One nineteenth century report Katharine shows me is of a child who “came into school and rushed up the chimney and after rubbing his hair well in the soot, suddenly descended and, dancing round the room, shook the soot all over it.

But it served.

By 1886, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury commented that “there is no institution in England more worthy of support than the Deptford Ragged School.”

Values – the most overlooked quality of the world’s most successful organisations

Around the world, 85,000 credit unions in 118 countries improve the lives and communities of 274 million members.

So here is a question: what is the most overlooked quality of the world’s most successful credit unions?

The answer is their values.

They are not overlooked because values are seen as unimportant in credit unions. Quite the opposite is true; it is the values that typically explain why people are involved.

Values are neglected in many credit unions precisely because they are assumed and taken for granted, rather than nurtured and put to work.

It is as if a gifted up and coming footballer were encouraged to train and focus on their image rights and sponsorship deals, rather than their free kicks, their passing and their goals.

I have written a guide to values for credit unions published this week by the Centre for Community Finance, a European research centre inspired by the work of the Filene Institute in North America.

I am pleased to acknowledge how much I have learned in recent years from fellow members of the UK Values Alliance – originators of the World Values Day. There is something special, something deeply collaborative about the people who work as coaches and organisational development facilitators on values and culture.

Mark Hayes – an appreciation

That you can not simply buy fair trade products but also invest in fair trade producers is down to the life and work of Mark Hayes, who passed away just before Christmas 2019.

Mark was the founder of the fair trade financial co-operative Shared Interest, which provides trade credit and finance to producer co-operatives overseas. A distinguished economist, he was also a noted commentator on the work of John Maynard Keynes, completing a book on the work of Keynes which was launched at Robinson College in Cambridge on December 5th 2019.

Starting work in 1978 with the Industrial and Commercial Finance Corporation (renamed as 3i in 1984), Mark developed his skills as a banker. In 1987, together with Robert Oakeshott, the father of the Employee Ownership Association, he visited the Mondragón network of co-operatives in Basque Spain, a trip that helped to point him towards alternative economic options.

A few years later, Mark and family made the move up to Newcastle to start a new partnership with Traidcraft, looking to establish a finance arm for the fair trade pioneer. The direct link with Traidcraft fell through but Mark could see a way to move ahead with a new entity, what became Shared Interest. As he would tell the story to me, “it came to me that what we needed was not a bank but a financial co-operative, bringing people into an ongoing relationship based on values.

Starting in 1990, Shared Interest was run out of a spare bedroom in the house of Mark and Andrea, his wife, both working to make it more than a dream. What made the difference was a stroke of luck, although it could also be called providence – Mark was a man of faith throughout his life (and latterly holding the St Hilda Chair in Catholic Social Thought and Practice at Durham University, from 2014-2016).

Mark had undergone the exams required to become an authorised investment adviser under the financial regulations of the time, with his certification, under Nimloth Corporate Finance, covering his work for Shared Interest. He happened to sit in on a meeting in Edinburgh of the Scottish Churches Action for World Development, which highlighted that the way that the churches were raising funds for their own overseas investment activity was not lawful under those same regulations. What they needed was an authorised adviser and the solution was Shared Interest.

Shared Interest’s first office – a Newcastle bedroom with original sign still on the door

Registered as a society in March 1990, Shared Interest went on to attract £750,000 in share capital from 600 members in the first year. In 1991, Mark oversaw the first loans to fair trade businesses, channelling these in subsequent years through the allied networks overseas of the Ecumenical Development Co-operative Society, Oikocredit.

The vision wasn’t necessarily limited to fair trade – there was a wider vision at the start of the scope for finance to play a role in global justice. But fair trade has proved an effective market in which to make a difference.

The need for finance in fair trade starts with the needs of producer co-ops for working capital. To grow the beans that will become the chocolate bars or coffee packs sold in the UK takes time. To process and transport the produce takes time. Finance from lenders such as Shared Interest can cover the costs of all of this, repaid once the revenues come in from sales.

In simple terms then, what Shared Interest typically offers is advance payments on sales for fair trade co-operatives overseas. This is small scale, high risk lending and rarely available from mainstream banks, here or abroad. But as Shared Interest showed over the nine years Mark was Managing Director, it can pay its way.

Today, there are 11,700 members of Shared Interest, typically investing with patience, with average share holdings of around fourteen years. You can join online. In 2019, the society helped to make a positive impact on the lives of around 400,000 people across 55 countries.

An example is Azucena Quispe Rodas, a member of Cecanor, a coffee co-op based on the northern coast of Peru. The co-operative is playing a key role in promoting the role and voice of women in the coffee sector through its partnership Café Feminino.

Shared Interest has provided finance for Rodas and her fellow members at Cecanor for over six years, providing regular payments for their crops and enabling investments to help the farmers improve their yield on a sustainable basis. What she says is that the finance from Shared Interest “helps us to improve our farms, improve our food and also improve our homes.

Mark set out his approach to co-operative finance in a 2013 discussion paper for Co-operatives UK. He argued that “the co-operative principle of limited return on capital needs to be asserted clearly but also understood more imaginatively.

This is an appreciation of a life that I feel deeply. I am writing this on my way to represent Co-operatives UK at Mark’s funeral.

We first met in the early 1990s and I last saw him in November, courtesy of Patricia Alexander and the team at Shared Interest. Having finished his new book on Keynes, I was looking forward to talk with him on the growing agenda for and articulation of a green new deal, such as in the excellent recent book by Ann Pettifor.

There is a saying that I learned from a farmer co-operative last year that seems appropriate. When someone dies who has given so much to society, it is for society and not just the person that we grieve.

Happy new year, with a community cheer

2020 will be a big year for the UK co-operative sector and it has been a joy to start on New Years Day at Tafarn Sinc – the highest co-operative pub in the country.

In a remote Pembrokeshire village, with a closed train station across the path and a slate quarry in the hills, the zinc clad pub is a warm-hearted and eclectic model of community action. Threatened with closure in 2017, the local community rallied around to save the pub as a local facility.

“When we heard that the pub was being put up for sale, we didn’t worry at first,” says Hefin Wyn, from the neighbouring village of Maenclochog. But then, when no bidder came forward, he joined other members to save the pub through community ownership. The campaign was backed by Pembrokeshire-born actor Rhys Ifans and supported through Co-ops UK’s community shares programme. £400,000 was raised through shares and loans to save a pub first opened in 1876.

On New Years Day 2020, I found traditional dancing over the afternoon, followed by folk music, at least up to the start of Doctor Who on TV.

“We became members because we simply wanted to save the pub” explains Sheila, a community care worker who danced and played today. “As the pub was shaped by the community, so we got involved more.”

Dan works behind the bar, interested in how community ownership works and also a keen Manchester United fan. Peter, who I just missed after stepping out for a walk in the neighbouring hillside park, also community run, is distinguished academic on mining history… and takes photos for the society of music evenings.

Coming up in 2020 will be our activities around two points of history – the 150th anniversary of Co-operatives UK, of which Tafarn Sinc is a member, and the 175th anniversary of the original Rochdale Pioneers, widely recognised as the first modern co-operative.

Looking forward, we will be launching our next round of our Unfound Programme, supporting a new generation of digital co-operatives. And we are campaigning with the Employee Ownership Association for a step change in industrial democracy with our joint One Million Owners campaign.

In policy terms, it is welcome that one of the only financial commitments in the Conservative Manifesto for the December 2019 election was a promise of a new Community Ownership Fund. We will work collaboratively with partners to make the most of this opportunity, which mirrors the success under the last Government of the community housing programme, championed by the Confederation of Cooperative Housing and allies.

The example of community co-operatives such as Tafarn Sinc show what is possible when people come together.

In tough times, that is the enduring hope that co-operatives point to – that we are stronger together.

When the cotton is high

‘Fish is jumpin and the cotton is high’ is of course from the 1935 song Summertime, Porgy & Bess; a favourite of my late father and one of the many wonders that I learned from him. But I’d never been near a cotton field, until today

http://www.antbirlik.com.trI have been with the Board of Co-operatives Europe, meeting in Antalya, Turkey, and then speaking at a Social Economy conference where I met members from two agricultural co-operatives, Antbirlik and Pankobirlik. An invitation followed and this morning I came into a world of cotton.

Antbirlik is a regional cooperative that started processing and marketing cotton from local farmers before the Antalya region became what it is today, a well developed tourist destination, with its beaches, mountains, archaeological heritage and warm micro-climate, with seas warm enough to swim in at dawn in December (yes… I like to if I can).

Today the co-op has ten thousand members and has diversified into a range of products, including oranges, lemons and above all olives. I am told that the Anatolian olive has a heart shaped stone and that the region is said to include the earliest settlement in time to harvest olives.

When the cotton comes in from the fields, it heads for a factory run by the co-op, which can process 200 tonnes every day. From there, the packed cotton, wonderfully soft, heads off across Turkey to be made into products for Adidas, Nike and Puma among others.

I know that cotton can be a water intensive product to grow, but the members I talk to say that in an area still with swamps, that is not yet an issue. They do operate an environmental accreditation system, Better Cotton, and support farmers with advice, but it is not organic; that is something for the future, they hope.

The cotton is loaded into a mini mountain at the entrance to the works. The cotton is high.

Then, within the factory itself, cotton is everywhere, as the threads rise and fall in the air, hanging like artwork on ladder steps and machinery frames.

The beauty of the cotton, soft and grey-white (with the remnants separated out to make animal feed) is a point of pride for the members that show us around.

They had made this. Together.

What’s your favourite picture of co-operation?

I have been at an event this week in Rochdale Town Hall to mark the work over 100 years of the Co-operative College.

Education has been a principle of co-operative action throughout and the combination has been an extraordinary accelerator over time for working class talent.

The second day of the conference has been focused on cooperative education around the world. I had the privilege of chairing a panel of five outstanding cooperative educators from five countries:

  • Dr Cilla Ross (UK)
  • Dr Sonja Novkovic (Canada)
  • Professor Esther Gicheru (Kenya)
  • Mr Noel D Raboy (Philippines)
  • Professor Mohamed M Maie (Somalia)

How are we to make sense of cooperative education around the world? I introduced the idea of co-operative education through a picture.

What pictures of cooperation would you choose? I’d be interested to learn.

Here is the one that I picked, one that I saw first hand in an exhibition at the National Gallery London in 2015.

This oil painting, The Sampling Officials or The Syndics, is one of Rembrandt’s group portraits – think also of the Night Watch and the Anatomy Lecture. It was painted in 1662, so it is one of his later works.

These are elected officials of the Drapers Guild. It is their job to check the quality of cloth produced through the guild.

For me, this is six portraits in one. But it is also one portrait, of a group in harmony.

There is tranquility in the picture, emerging from the composition Rembrandt has used. Look at the way that three horizontal lines suggest balance, the table through to the arm of the chair, the dominant level of their heads and the top of the panel on the wall.

There is colour and texture, light and shadow.

Equal importance is given to each person, the servant in the centre and the five officials. Each has a personality that comes through. Each is lit; as always with Rembrandt he uses light to tell us where to look.

The traditional interpretation of the painting is that the officials are on a platform before the assembly of the Drapers’ Guild and they are giving the assembly – us the viewer – an account of the year’s business. In short, it is a co-operative AGM.

The guilds can be thought of as mutual associations with members and typically a degree of internal democracy. In my book A Short History of Cooperation and Mutuality, free to download, I point out how these early forms of co-operation also underpin the art that we value today.

The word masterpiece – in origin – means a piece of work produced by a member who wanted to be rated as a master of their guild. The Dutch Masters were literally masters: painters who were organised into entrepreneurial guilds. The patron saint for artists was St Luke. But with church patronage in decline in the Low Countries, in Calvinist times, the Guilds of St Luke turned instead to domestic customers, developing an extraordinary market for art.

By the time that the Sampling Officials was painted, 45,000 paintings were estimated to hang on the walls of homes in Delft.

Rembrandt’s painting was commissioned by the Drapers Guild and hung behind this platform, in their guildhall for one hundred years. It is a projection of what the guild is, an act of co-operative education from the day it was hung for all who are part and who join. Through quiet co-operation, you can be immortal.

So, if you want to be immortal, I’d encourage you to explore and perhaps even to master the art of co-operative education.


When Jazz helped a community to come together

On January 14th 2013 a horse-drawn carriage, with trumpeters following and snow flakes falling, carried the coffin of Keith Crombie, proprietor of the Pink Lane Jazz Cafe, on a final journey across the city of Newcastle. This was the death at the age of seventy four of a remarkable local character, known as The Jazz Man, but it also threatened to be the death of the city’s heart of jazz.

From the blogsite of Roger Smith – http://www.readysteadygone.co.uk/geordie-jazz-man/

With permission from Crombie’s relatives, Dave Parker stood up with a small group of fellow jazz lovers, to ask whether the way to keep the legacy of the Jazz Man alive was to form a co-operative of those who wanted to see a jazz club survive. He promised to set up a Facebook page at the end of the wake and asked anyone who liked the idea to like the page. By the end of the weekend, five hundred people had added their name. The Jazz Co-op was born.

Keith Crombie was by all accounts curmudgeonly, eccentric and gifted. He had been involved in the North East jazz scene from the 1960s and around 1990 he started the Jazz Café, a small music venue in Newcastle’s West End which he ran until his death in 2012. He was picky about who came in. He once famously turned away the entire Newcastle FC squad. Actors and musicians though were welcome. The Shakespearian actor, Greg Hicks commented in a tribute at the funeral that:

The Jazz Cafe for me was a place where the world became better. Keith had the lock-in to a Noah’s ark of brilliant music, brilliant camaraderie and straight talk. He was one of the most uncompromising and authentic men I have ever met.

Within a few weeks, a co-operative was set up legally with broad objectives to support the performance and development of jazz, poetry, dance and related arts. During 2013 it established regular jazz nights at various venues in Newcastle while the old Jazz Cafe remained closed. It wasn’t plain sailing though.

“We had hoped to buy or lease the Jazz Cafe premises and we had several meetings with the owners, but that wasn’t possible,” said Dave Parker, who plays double bass himself and learned to play jazz at the Jazz Cafe. Jazz and co-operatives, he describes as his two great passions. “In the meantime we learned the hard way that it’s nearly impossible to make a jazz club financially sustainable. To make it viable you need to get income from bar sales.”

In 2014, after a year of hosting events across different venues, a suitable home came up for sale, The Globe, a pub which was being sold off or closed down by the pub company that owned it. Previous tenants had build up a following for music at the pub and in a non-residential area, it had a rare late night license.

The co-op needed the money to bid, and at this point in the story, Co-operatives UK stepped in, in partnership with Locality with support through a pioneering online platform, now commonplace, to make it easy for existing and new members to invest in ‘community shares’ – equity for co-ops.

Two thirds of what was needed for the sale and the refurbishment was raised from two hundred people – artists, activists and music lovers – with a bridging loan for the remainder coordinated by the specialist Co-operative and Community Finance.

On April 30th 2014, International Jazz Day, The Jazz Co-op was launched at its new permanent home. With an emphasis on inclusivity through the refurbishment, The Globe became one of the few small music venues in Tyneside to be fully accessible.

Over the last year, the Jazz Coop has put on 70 jazz gigs, including both local and visiting musicians, but to widen its revenue base and appeal, The Globe has also hosted over 200 other live music and dance events.

“We didn’t set out to own a pub. We set out to promote learning, playing and listening to of jazz, but in order to make that possible, we have to earn money. We decided early on that we would not ask for grants, because to do so would put us in competition with existing arts bodies and we value all that they do” says Dave Parker, now co-chair of the co-operative.

Newcastle MP Chi Onwurah with members of the Jazz Co-op

The links between jazz and co-operation are natural ones, says the great cooperative researcher Professor Johnston Birchall, himself a jazz guitarist.

You can be an individual and a team player. A good jazz musician can join a jazz band anywhere – a good co-operator can join a co-operative anywhere.

Both are about shared freedom. Just as a co-operative is a device in business to allow different people with different skills to come together as equals and create something new, jazz allows different musicians with different talents to play together within a consistent musical framework. For both, you have to listen to others in the band, to keep the whole in harmony and to help highlight the right themes at the right times.

The musical framework and freedom of jazz, Johnston Birchall tells me, is rooted in a rich theoretical language that is derived from a relatively simple set of rules. George Russell, a jazz pianist, set these down in a 1953 book, The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organisation – drawing on his time playing with musicians such as Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie in New York at the time. 

Both can be seen as complex evolving systems that: 

  • are connected with enough flex and variety not to be too rigid or homogenous
  • can self organise with reference to some simple rules 
  • can change over time, without the results being predetermined. 

Russell’s work found expression in the best selling jazz record of all time, Kind of Blue, released in 1959 by Miles Davis. Before this, jazz was organised within the confines of harmonic progression, chords building towards a tonal resolution. In Russell’s new formula, the rhythm section sustain a harmony sequence, while soloists explore the melodies that each chord allows, improvising with more freedom.

For me, it is indeed reminiscent of the seven principles of co-operatives, which establish a framework of rules and values within which freedom to co-operate can be given diverse expression. As the saying goes, if you have seen one co-op, you have seen… one co-op.

For the two combined, any jazz lover is free to join the Jazz Co-op and invest in it as a member, and indeed my own membership application, after meeting members in Newcastle on Friday, is in the post.

Perhaps not surprisingly, part of the encouragement for the Jazz Co-op has come not just from fellow Newcastle co-ops such as Alpha, an outstanding communications co-op, but also from fellow music co-operatives. These include the Bell Inn in Bath, itself an extraordinary community success story, Hackney Co-operative Developments, which hosts the Vortex Club in London, and more recently the Sir Charles Napier in Blackburn.

There are informal jazz co-ops too now in Brighton, Cambridge and Southend.

Each of these in its own way offer examples of community buy-outs – a democratic variant on what is still common in the business world of ‘management buy-outs’. In Scotland, it has been land that has led the way, with a target to achieve one million acres in community ownership. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, it has been community assets, including pubs.

The story of Keith Crombie lives on through the Jazz Co-op, but it has also been charted through a documentary directed by the film-maker Abi Lewis and supported in part through crowd-funding. The film won a best factual production award at the Royal Television Society Awards and an international film prize at the NorthWestFest in Canada.

As Dave Parker of the Jazz Co-op puts it “we can’t bring Keith back but we can continue the work he has done.”

Or as Keith Crombie himself put it when asked about jazz, freedom and his jazz cafe in the bustling heart of Newcastle,

I never worry what other people think. I just do what I do.