‘How can West Midlands councils build community wealth?’

In celebration of the Co-op Party centenary this event is an absolute must for all those interested in transforming the West Midlands region by reorganising local economies and supporting communities to help themselves.

                                       First outing at the 2017 Durham Miners’ Gala

Lucy Seymour-Smith writes:

In times of austerity, services, organisations and communities are being starved of the funds needed to survive and grow.

We cannot regenerate or communities by relying on large organisations who can, and do relocate according to their own financially driven agenda.

Instead we need a new approach to regeneration framed around co-operative values of self-help, participation, social responsibility and democratic accountability that is led by organisations that have a genuine long-term stake in our communities.

Panel speakers include:

Liam Byrne MP

Claire Campbell, UNISON Head of Local Government

Anna Birley, Coop party policy officer and Labour/Coop Party Cabinet Member in Lambeth

                                Thursday 14th September, 5.30 for 6pm start.

UNISON Regional Office, 24 Livery Street, B32PA (next to the Old Contemptibles and opposite Snow Hill Station)

                                       *Spaces limited so sign up quickly*

                                                 nibbles and networking






Posted in Co-operative movement, Democratic participation | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Co-op Bank rescue plan

Earlier this month Save our Bank updated its 10,000 supporters – 1,500 of whom have become members of the Customer Union for Ethical Banking:

At the end of June the Co-op Bank announced that it had reached agreement on a capital raising plan, “to secure the long-term future of the UK’s leading ethical bank”. The bank’s announcement is here [PDF].

The deal – and bear in mind it’s not formally agreed yet – means the bank will raise £700m in capital from its existing investors, principally US hedge funds, and that the Co-operative Group’s stake will fall from 20% currently to under 1%, with the relationship between the Group and Bank reaching a formal end by 2020. £250m of the total will be raised through selling new shares, and the remainder through investors agreeing to swap their bonds for shares. The bank will also have a separate pension fund from the Group as part of the arrangement.

How does the deal measure up against our aims?

Our campaign was established with two main aims – to make sure the bank sticks to its ethical policy, and to help it ultimately return to cooperative ownership. This deal is clearly a set-back for the second of those aims. The bank’s cooperative ownership is being reduced to next to nothing. This means that the Co-op Group will lose the right to appoint a director to the bank’s Board and Values & Ethics Committee, that the right of bank customers to become members of the Group will end, and that the Group will no longer market the bank’s products. But the impact of this from a customer point of view may not be that significant. While the Group’s stake made the bank “20% cooperatively owned” in theory, in practice the bank was managed independently of the Group, with no clear channels for Co-op members to try to make or influence decisions at the bank. (In fact we think we’ve had much more influence over the bank as a group of organised customers than we could ever have had through the Group’s democratic channels.) There are upsides as well. The bank’s ethical policy does not seem to be under threat from this deal. We think it would have been had it been absorbed by a larger bank, as seemed likely earlier on in this process. The bank is independent, and we hope the deal will secure its long-term future as promised. We’re also mindful that the hedge fund owners are not in this for the long-term; they will want an exit at some point, and a return to cooperative ownership must be on the table when that time comes.

The Co-op Bank should emerge from this process with less debt, and with a stand-alone pension scheme, making it a more attractive investment for cooperative capital. With shares in the bank at a low price, this would be a good time to move forward with our plans to build a new cooperatively-owned stake in the bank, through the cooperative Customer Union. But we also need to see how the Co-op Bank plans to live up to its commitment to support cooperative values after it severs its links with the Co-op Group.

Co-operatives UK has spoken, and determined that the bank can continue to use its current name, despite the further drop in cooperative ownership. Co-operatives UK has criteria for non-cooperatives like the bank using the ‘Co-operative’ name, and these are not related to ownership. Although it seems jarring for the bank to keep using the name “The Co-operative Bank” while it is not a cooperative (and never has been, in the strict sense), the name can be seen as reflecting its role as a bank for the cooperative sector. Given the bank’s history, its support for cooperatives, and its position as the largest provider of financial services to cooperatives, this is legitimate, although the bank needs to do more to show how it supports cooperative values and principles in light of the ownership change.

What does this mean for the Save Our Bank campaign and the Customer Union? 

As we said at the start of this update, this deal is not yet done, and depends on the agreement of bondholders as well as the success of the new share issue. Once it is complete (assuming it succeeds), we’ll urgently seek a meeting with the bank to ask for more details about how it will preserve cooperative values after its break with the Co-op Group. We want to see the bank develop a plan to grow cooperative ownership when and if the hedge funds sell up, and we want to work with the bank on ways for customers to have a real say at the bank.





Posted in Banking, Co-operatives UK | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Shadow Chancellor: Co-operative Ways Forward conference

“Co-operatives should, I believe, play an essential part in the economy of the future” 

Edited extracts, added information and links (full text here).

John McDonnell pointed out that wealth is more concentrated now than it has been for a century or more, social mobility has dwindled, financial legislation is being unwound and serious attempts at scrutiny scrapped, just a few years after the catastrophic crash that was the bankers’ responsibility.

A succession of governments promised that by unleashing markets, governments would unleash opportunity and creativity. This approach promised new freedom for individuals, free from the dead hand of the state – a “shareholding democracy” would arrive through privatisation. But the promises turned out to be illusory.: today, share ownership by individuals is at the close to the lowest level ever recorded. Just 12% of shares are owned by individuals in the UK, down from 28% in 1982, and pension funds own only 3%. 

The co-operative tradition 

We must look elsewhere. There is a long labour movement tradition of decentralisation and grass-roots organisation, stretching from RH Tawney, GDH Cole and the guild socialists, back to the Rochdale Pioneers, the Society of Weavers in Fenwick, Ayrshire, and even further back to the radicals of the English Civil War.

The expansion of co-operatives in Britain since the crisis, matching developments across the rest of the world, shows the potential. There are now more than 7,000 independent co-operatives throughout the UK, contributing £35bn to the economy. Co-operative businesses are more stable. Whilst only one in three new businesses makes it through the difficult first five years, four out of five co-ops do.

Preston, inspired by cooperatively run communities in Cleveland, Ohio and the world’s largest co-operative group, Mondragón, in the Basque region of Spain, has developed an extensive programme, working with the Centre for Local Economic Strategies thinktank and an EU network of cities that face similar challenges. Major local employers and buyers – so-called anchor institutions, like the University of Central Lancashire, are driving through a local programme of economic transformation. By changing their procurement policies, these anchor institutions were able to drive up spending locally. They’re looking to shift a proportion of the joint council’s £5.5bn pension fund to focus on local businesses, keeping the money circulating in Preston. And the council is actively seeking opportunities to create local co-operatives as a part of local business succession, working with the local Chamber of Commerce. The aim of the Preston Co-operative Network (includes video) is to sustain high quality local employment, by giving the chance for workers to keep a business in local hands. Read more here. There has been interest in this programme from other councils, including Birmingham, Rochdale and Sheffield.

The great majority of people pay their taxes because they know taxes sustain the services we all need. It’s part of what makes a good, functioning, fair society. Yet we have large corporations and the super-rich apparently viewing tax payments as an optional extra. That can’t go on. Ultimately, it undermines the public services we all need – and forces the burden of taxation onto people less able to carry it. State spending is not the answer to everything: there are clear limits on what can be achieved here. But we can make the system work far better, and distribute the burden more fairly.

A fairer economy requires a fairer tax system. The tax system will be re-examined and simplified so it is fairer to everyone and encourages the growth a fair and prosperous economy, taxing assets in an economically efficient way. 

Co-operatives, like other small businesses face real difficulties in getting the funding they need from high-street banks

We’d work to bring about the conditions for a flourishing of co-operative entrepreneurship. No other major developed economy has just five banks providing 80% of loans. We’d look to break up these monopolies, introducing real competition and choice. Regional and local banks, prudently run and with a public service mandate, have to be part of the solution here. With consortium co-operatives providing an effective means for new businesses to share and reduce costs, we’d look to support these at a local level, working with local authorities, businesses and trade unions. Italy’s Marcora Law, supporting employee buyouts and providing matched funding for those seeking to establish co-ops, is a model worth considering. 

The Tories have offered a “Right to Buy”. Labour would seek to better this. We’d be creating a new “Right to Own”.

McDonnell concludes:

“We will look into the recommendation in Graeme Nuttall’s report on employee ownership, creating a statutory right to request employee ownership and have proposals considered by their employers. We should look to extend this approach, offering employees first rights on buying out a company or plant that is being dissolved, sold, or floated on the stock exchange.

“And as our policy development process rolls out over the next few years we will ask ourselves time and time again how the practical, everyday-socialist principles of the co-operative movement can be applied. In an uncertain world where a laissez faire market approach continues to fail, co-operation is an idea whose time has come again. This is the start of developing a new, positive economic alternative for Labour – the new economics”.





Posted in Banking, Co-operative movement, Democratic participation, Employee buyouts, Employee ownership, Worker co-operatives | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Locally based, small-scale social care co-operatives

Last year the subject of social care and the way forward offered by the co-operative model was considered in this column:

“The care system is in urgent need of reform. Private companies profiteer, whilst older people, (and all) who rely on social care and the staff that deliver it, pay the price. The market in social care services is broken – incentivising a race to the bottom on quality and workforce conditions, a lack of accountability, and de-personalisation of services”.

Could the active membership and co-operative ownership of workers, service users, volunteers and family members rebuild public trust in services through a socially inclusive solution where the system of care is owned by the recipients?

It was surprising to find no mention of this sector in the Social Economy Alliance  post-election outreach (below) – but there were four passing references in its manifesto (above, left).

As Pat Conaty has frequently pointed out, in a growing number of countries co-operative models of social care are expanding; many will agree with him that these approaches can be further developed in the UK. More in this video.

Personal experience leads the writer to advocate that such co-operatives will provide optimum care if locally based and not large. Conaty finds that social co-operatives “celebrate and prove that small is beautiful, and do so through dynamic forms of democracy” He adds that most Italian social co-operatives have fewer than 30 worker-owners and less than 100 other stakeholder members.

A further search led to the website of Wales’ Social Co-ops Forum which has, as one of its aims, the encouragement and support for the sustainable development of local co- operatives. It was no surprise to find that David Smith was one of the founding members.

The writer has seen at first hand the advantages of co-operatives employing local people to give care in the home, rather than in a communal setting. They will have the same background as the person being helped and see him or her as a neighbour in need of help, to be treated with respect instead of indifference, neglect or – at worst – active cruelty.

The performance of larger, profit-driven companies can fall short, giving only a fraction of the care stipulated in contracts. If the individual scheduled to receive help is deteriorating mentally and unable to complain effectively it has been known for notes to be pushed through doors saying that carers were unable to gain admittance.

A local care provider would be far less able to ‘get away’ with such neglect; the neighbourhood, as well as ’the active membership and co-operative ownership of workers, service users, volunteers and family members’, would informally oversee the care, adding another dimension to that formally exercised by the co-operative.






Posted in Worker co-operatives | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

News received about East of England and Midcounties co-operatives

In a recent post we quoted MEP Molly Scott Cato: “The Co-operative shops have not been as successful in(sourcing locally) as I would like because of their centralised distribution system, but my own Midcounties Co-op has been building up its Local Harvest offer (below) in recent years and I’m surely not the only customer who looks to see whether the vegetables on the shelves have been grown on the Co-operative Farms”.

Ed Mayo of Co-operatives UK, commented If you want to see an inspiring example of a co-operative retailer sourcing locally, and many of the independent co-operatives do, have a look at the work of East of England Co-op with one hundred local suppliers on https://www.eastofengland.coop/sourcedlocally.

This website (header below) is really inspiring and members and would-be customers in the food desert of many co-operative retail areas can only look on with envy.

Today we received quite a detailed account from a Midcounties member who had just attended the AGM with around 500 other members. He wrote: “In the shops they’ve started a locally sourced brand “The Best of our Counties” and lots of local producers were there with stands”.

The Midcounties Co-operative website expresses the belief that one of their main strengths is the fact that they support local farmers and suppliers where possible and are therefore able to offer their customers the best quality local food and drink: “Products from our Best of Our Counties range is only sourced from the home or neighbouring county of each store. This not only reduces food miles, it also means that our customers know exactly where their food comes from and how it has been produced providing peace of mind that it is of the highest quality as well as sustainably sourced”.

Our correspondent added: “Midcounties is doing well, and has solved last year’s energy website problems. When GB energy went bust, the regulator transferred their customers to Co-op as they knew we’d already put our house in order and had expanded capacity. We jumped from 300 to 400 (thousand) customers. It (from GB) now includes pre-payment meters, which are often used by the less well off”. Read more here: https://www.cooperativeenergy.coop/why-us/GB-Energy/

Returning to the subject of food we end with a quotation from a paper called ‘The co-operative path to food security‘. In it, co-author Molly Scott Cato pointed to the increasing volatility of global food prices as speculators moved their gambling activities from financial products to commodities markets, saying: “It never was enough for me that the food I bought in my local Co-op was ethical and fairly-traded; as a green economist I also wanted it to be as local as possible”.

And add that ideally this locally sourced food would also have a certified & verified pesticide regime or be organically produced.





Posted in Co-operative Group, Co-operative movement, Co-operative News, Co-operatives UK, Environment, Ethics | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Co-operative Bank update

As Paul Gosling writes in the May 17 issue of Co-operative News (hard copy only), the Co-operative Bank’s customer numbers and deposits have held up ’amazingly well’ and interest is reported in several parts of the business.

One account holder speaks for many loyalists in a letter to the News (hard copy only, May 17): “I will stay loyal to the Coop Bank as long as it’s possible. I have been with the bank for over ten years after being disappointed by other high street banks and have nothing but praise. So sad that the Britannia debacle has ted to this. Thank you for the brilliant bank you have been”.

Shaun Fensom, in the March Save our Bank newsletter writes:

“We want to see this sale process lead to an outcome that protects the bank’s Ethical Policy and includes a commitment to customer ownership.

“As well as clearly setting out what we expect from any buyer, we’re building alliances and consulting with experts to look for the best ways to make this happen. We’ve met with Co-operatives UK to discuss the sale process and how we might work together, and have contacted the Bank of England to start a dialogue. We also expect to meet with senior representatives of the Co-op Bank soon to discuss the current situation and how it will affect our members and supporters.

“Some people have asked us: “why don’t you try to organise a customer buy-out?”. It’s an appealing idea – between the bank’s 1.4 million current account customers, the £750m that the bank needs is only around £550 each. However, split between our 10,000 supporters, it starts to looks a little less affordable.

“With our limited capacities, we think our efforts are best spent using the influence we have to try to secure the best deal possible, and to persuade the bank to look to its customers to raise capital. That said, we’re happy to work together with anyone with a good plan to make this happen”.

Edgar Parnell of Co-op Pundit.org focusses on maintaining ‘the integrity of the word “co-operative” ‘ . . . we should not allow the word ‘co-operative’ to be misused. We want to get the UK regulator to exercise his power to stop the misuse of the term “Co-operative” ‘.  A petition on this subject will be delivered to Andrew Bailey, Chief Executive, Financial Conduct Authority. It may be read and signed here.




Posted in Banking, Co-operative News | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Could this MEP’s co-operative vision mitigate one of the Group’s most serious mistakes: the sale of its farms?

In 2014 the Co-operative Group sold its ‘strong and successful’16,000ha farms (£7m profit during the last year) for a mere £249m to the Wellcome Trust.

Danny Truell, chief investment officer of the trust said, “The trust’s philosophy is to provide long-term investment for the businesses and property we hold in good times and in bad. We will take this approach to running Farmcare Trading Ltd as a going concern, giving a business that is already strong and successful the support and resources it needs to grow, to the benefit of employees, tenants, partners and local communities”.

Could co-operative retailers sell good quality food produced on their former farms as MEP Molly Scott Cato advocated two years before the sale?

With foreboding in 2012, she saw the depressing comments from the Co-operative Group that the Co-operative Farms are a ‘non-core’ part of the business, and that attachment to them is sentimental, as indicating that the current generation of co-operative managers shared a short-sightedness about their role in providing customers with access to a reliable source of ‘good food’.

In 2010, Molly co-wrote a paper called ‘The co-operative path to food security‘. In it, she pointed to the increasing volatility of global food prices as speculators moved their gambling activities from financial products to commodities markets, saying, “It never was enough for me that the food I bought in my local Co-op was ethical and fairly-traded; as a green economist I also wanted it to be as local as possible”.  She continued: 

Supermarkets that sell the same corporate products as the rest have lost all but the merest token of a co-operative identity

“The Co-operative shops have not been as successful in this regard as I would like because of their centralised distribution system, but my own Midcounties Co-op has been building up its Local Harvest offer in recent years and I’m surely not the only customer who looks to see whether the vegetables on the shelves have been grown on the Co-operative Farms”.

Now that is no longer an option, the writer wonders if an agreement could be made with local Wellcome (former Co-op) farms to provide local food in Co-op stores – and offer some organic options for those who want to avoid food with pesticide residues?





Posted in Co-operative Group, Environment, Ethics | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment