Austerity: Who needs it and why don’t we focus on collecting all our tax liabilities?

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Sponsored by the Scottish Co-operative Party – the inaugural Scottish Co-operators Lecture.

An increasing number of commentators, including Will Hutton, are calling for corporations to be legally required to behave more ethically – to act in the best interests of a wider collection of stakeholders and to be accountable to them.

The Co-operative Movement has argued this case for centuries and continue to press the case for more diversity of ownership across the economy and especially in financial services.

Prof Prem Sikka (Essex Business School) has been a consistent advocate of more mutual and community focussed financial services such as credit unions. He has also frequently made the point that if more of our big businesses acted like responsible citizens and carried their fair share of the tax burden then there would be no economic argument for austerity. Prof Sikka will be expanding on these themes in Glasgow on Saturday 18th April 2015 @ 12.00pm.

If you would like to participate in this critical discussion, register at info@cets.coop. Attendance is free but limited and places will be allocated on a first come basis.

McCance Lecture Theatre
University of Strathclyde
16 Richmond Street
Glasgow
G1 1XQ
Saturday 18th April 2015 @ 12.00pm

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Collaboration Prize – pair up to pitch big

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Collaborating with other businesses can help you reach new markets, share resources and improve creative thinking.

Co-operative Development Scotland’s Collaboration Prize aims to encourage companies to work together and will this year be making £40,000 available for new collaborative projects.

Open to all Scotland-based companies with a collaborative idea, the competition welcomes proposals around:

  • Collaboration to gain scale in selling/buying
  • Collaboration to share resources, premises or equipment
  • Collaboration to enter new markets

Four winners will be chosen by a judging panel and will receive £5,000 cash to implement their idea as well as up to £5,000 of consultancy and additional support to set up the consortium.

The deadline for applications is Saturday 3 August, and workshops will be held through June and July for businesses to find out more.

The competition will be delivered in association with Creative Scotland, Scotland Food & Drink and the Scottish Tourism Alliance.

For further information or to apply, visit:

www.scottish-enterprise.com/cds-collaboration-prize

Community and Place – UKSCS conference

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Diarmuid

The UK Society for Co-operative Studies (UKSCS) showcased its tradition as an independent voice in the movement at its annual conference in Lincoln this past weekend (1-2 September). The theme was ‘Community and Place’ and was aptly demonstrated by our keynote speaker, CEO of Lincolnshire Co-operative Society Ursula Lidbetter. In a polished yet passionate speech, Ms Lidbetter highlighted the various ways in which the Lincolnshire Society has embedded itself within its communities throughout the county. She used an interesting term, ‘benefits stacking’, to describe these community engagement activities; through its work with community groups, the University of Lincoln, and various local suppliers, Lincolnshire Co-operative Society has created a community with strong ties and respect for the co-operative model.

The rest of the conference produced equally interesting topics, :

  • A radical and progressive education initiative in the form of the Lincoln Social Science Centre co-operative;
  • A proposal by academic Dr Rory Ridley-Duff of Sheffield Hallam University to produce a theoretical framework for understanding workforce participation in organisations, including co-operatives and social enterprises;
  • A humourous look at an interesting and comprehensive archive of co-operative material held in Bishopsgate Institute, London.

UKSCS is not an organisation that remains rooted in the past however. It has recently embarked on a radical program of modernisation and innovation, with the aim of establishing the society once more as an informed commentator on the state of the movement. Member recruitment drives, rebranding, and a modernisation its internationally renowned Journal of Co-operative Studies (enabling online access) are some of the more recent and important activities but work remains. In this matter members of the co-operative movement have a part to play.

I implore any co-operators with an interest in critiquing the current state of the movement using relevant theory and best practice to get in contact with the society through their website:

http://www.co-opstudies.org/

In the interest of fairness, I should declare that I am a (very proud) board member of this organisation.

Review of UK co-operative economy 2012

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Diarmuid

Co-operatives UK’s publication, The UK co-operative economy 2012: Alternatives to austerity, has improved year-on-year since I first got my hands on the 2009 edition. It has gradually become more detailed and interesting. It ceases simply to be a dry record of co-operative performance and has morphed into a manifesto for the co-operative ideal.

This year’s stats throw up some issues that need more analysis and debate amongst the movement:

The number of new co-operatives emerging has been increasing steadily for two years and can be attributed to the quality and quantity of co-op development being undertaken in the UK. It is no surprise that this improvement has been matched by an increased focus on the fifth co-operative principle: education, training and information. We now need to examine how we can stimulate further co-op development by identifying new education channels (university curricula and student enterprises spring to mind).

The movement has a lot of small co-operatives (65% have a turnover of <£250,000) and a stable segment of large co-operatives (12.5% have >£1,000,000). What becomes apparent is the ‘missing middle’, co-operatives that are more medium than small. This opens up debates relating to growth issues for co-ops (lack of capital, increasing divergence of business and member aims, member apathy etc).  Perhaps this ‘missing middle’ issue could be addressed by promoting the Enterprise co-op model. Many organisations have an optimum level, whether in terms of membership, revenue, market share etc. By combining through Enterprise co-ops, organisations can redefine their optimum levels and achieve scale. Mondragón and Emilia Romagna come to mind as successful examples of this strategy in action.

There are 3 times more co-op members than direct shareholders in the world. An interesting statistic but this is an average; far more interesting is the disparity between different continents. Asia/Pacific has 5 times as many co-op members than shareholders, ditto Africa. On the other hand, Europe has only twice as many members than shareholders. What are the reasons for this? A preliminary hypothesis would be that Europe is more advanced economically and so co-operatives, in their poverty reduction guise, are not needed as much. How then do we, the UK movement, promote co-ops if they are not too relevant as a poverty-reduction vehicle? One approach is to appeal to the ethical-consumer base but I believe that the greatest gains can be achieved by espousing co-ops as a more common sense approach for businesses/entrepreneurs.

£30,000 PRIZE FUND FOR BEST NEW CONSORTIUM BUSINESS IDEAS

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Co-operative Development Scotland (CDS) is offering £30,000 worth of cash and support to develop new consortium co-operatives in Scotland.

The inaugural Collaboration Prize aims to encourage businesses to consider working with others to form a new consortium co-operative. Co-operatives are collaborative vehicles that play an important role in creating globally competitive businesses. They enable employees, businesses and communities to work together to fulfil shared interests.

CDS is calling for interested parties to pitch an idea for a new consortium co-operative with up to three winning concepts each receiving a cash prize of £5,000 and a further £5,000 of support to get the business off the ground.

First Minister Alex Salmond, who has backed the initiative, said: “I am determined that the Scottish Government does everything possible to get more businesses thinking about how they can work better together, and the Collaboration Prize is a very valuable opportunity.

“I hope the new prize will stimulate new thinking.”

With a combined turnover of £4bn and employing around 28,000 people, Scotland’s 550 co-operative businesses currently play a key role in driving Scotland’s economic growth.

The deadline for entries is 31 July 2012 and winners will be announced later this year in August.

For more information about the Collaboration Prize or Co-operative Development Scotland, please visit: www.scottish-enterprise.com/cds-collaboration-prize or call 0141 951 3055.

Co-operative capitalism; Cultural Nationalism and Scraggie Aggie’s Co-op Baggie!

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I decided to take the advice of my peers and get out a bit more.  In the past few weeks I have been to a variety of events, some co-op and some general public policy.  However, it was in my more natural repose, on the couch with the remote control and a glass, that the inspiration for this blog arrived.  I was surfing and came upon “Val and Roger just Got In”.  It transpired that Roger had just got in from winning his job back at an Industrial Tribunal and Val suggested a holiday to recuperate but “….. not to the Scottish Islands.  I want to go somewhere where they have restaurants and not just a co-op”.  I regarded this as a nice little piece of observational humour and a pat on the back for the Community Retailing Network CRN in supporting isolated communities.   (I have subsequently been informed that Dawn French (Val) is a supporter of things co-operative and the mention of an off screen character called Pauline Green did make me wonder).   Many of the community co-op members of CRN have been operating for over 30 years and one of them featured in the BBC Series “An Island Parish” (Eriskay, if memory serves) along with local character Scraggie Aggie who has featured with her green Co-op Food “Bag for Life” scavenging for crustaceans at low tide and delivering a hand knitted pullover to the parish priest.  I have previously blogged about coops being referenced in contemporary literature and film but it is heartening to see it continue in the UN International Year of the Co-operative.  There is even a film being made about the Rochdale Pioneers (talk about history repeating itself, not only did Fenwick beat them to title of first ever co-op but also produced their own short drama piece on DVD last year!).  It appears that co-ops are becoming part of the message.

So if we are making some headway in raising awareness of co-operation amongst the general populace can we expect to make the leap to “Co-operative Capitalism”   I can see the general concept gaining credence as a response to “Big Society” (or “co-operation for slow learners” as suggested by Dave Scott) but it implies that we are part of the existing system rather than an alternative, an acceptable face of how to compete ethically within markets.  In terms of the co-operative business model that is fine but, in my limited reading on the subject so far, it doesn’t really get to grips with co-operation as a social movement, with co-operation as a value system or a different way of organising society.  As a trained economist my main concern would be that it doesn’t really tackle the neo-classical model of rational economic man.  There is a growing school of behavioural economics and others who are making the point that co-operation is just as, if not more, natural than competition.  I am delighted to confirm that we have Dr Matt Bell – the Meerkat Man – speaking on this very topic at two IYOC events this year (Aberdeen in may and New Lanark in June).

Finally, I was at a discussion on the need for a constitution for Scotland (in the event that there was a vote for independence?).  I made the point that the Co-operative movement has more constitutions, more discussions on constitutions and more experience in this field than anybody else.  I also argued that when you need to fall back on written constitutions it generally means the culture has broken down.  At their most basic co-operatives only work when there is mutual self interest, a common objective which is not achievable individually but is collectively – the Co-operative Donkeys.  So I have to confess the design of a constitution for an independent Scotland when there is no visible support for the latter does seem an inefficient use of our scarce time.  However, it did set me thinking that independence/devo max wouldn’t really change much in terms of business models in the Global economy.  MacDonalds, Vodafone, Shell, HSBC et al would still sell their services in an independent Scotland.  Most of the profit would still be exported.  So the UK wide co-operatives, mutuals and employee owned businesses would still continue with some minor restructuring in recognition of different tax regimes.  Who knows, it might even end up be beneficial for the Co-op Group to re-locate from Manchester to Fenwick for favourable tax treatment!

Fairly hypothetical, especially if one debates the independence issue solely from an economics perspective.  If one considers the concept of cultural nationalism however the party loyalties and economics tend to get lost and that does take us into the unknown.  The economists might deride this as emotional and irrational.  Maybe but that takes us back to simply accepting that we only make decisions based on perceived economic  outcomes.  I suspect there is a huge middle ground as yet undecided on independence or devo max or whether to make that decision on social, cultural or economic grounds or some combination thereof

The First Minister is known as a betting man but at this stage I would be as likely to correctly guess the contents of Scraggie Aggie’s Co-op Baggie in any future series of “An Island Parish” as the outcome of a referendum.  And I don’t see the First Minister putting his shirt on a runner he isn’t convinced will win.

Scottish parliament launch of Year of Co-op

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Diarmuid

On 9 February 2012, the UN International Year of Co-operatives (IYC) was launched at the magnificent (and slightly odd) Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh. Organised by the Holyrood cross-party parliamentary group on co-operatives, it was an event designed to showcase the political support for the co-operative movement in Scotland and provide an opportunity for co-operators across all sectors to meet and greet.

I am aware that I am biased but I must say that the quality of the event was superb; well-respected speakers (including finance minister John Swinney, who spoke with authority and passion on the role of co-ops in his constituency) and hardy exhibitionists co-operated to create an enjoyable and dynamic atmosphere. For CETS, it was an opportunity to showcase some of our most recent work (a couple of launch dates in the pipeline – we’ll keep you posted) and gain valuable feedback and contacts. Rather than try (and fail) to fully describe the tone and content of the event, I will let the excellent video produced by Glasgow’s own mediaco-op tell the tale.

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