Developing Co-operation

We believe that the CDA is a symbol of Socialist idealism, an ideal cherished by the Labour, co-operative and trade union movements. We hope that this Agency will help society to move towards that ideal.

Bob Cryer hansard 06 April 1978 vol 947

I once had a conversation with a Lancashire Co-op Development Agency worker in which we both bemoaned the general lack of entrepreneurs. Whereupon she said that they had always seen us at People In Common as entrepreneurs – which sort of caught me off guard. My picture of an ‘entrepreneur’ was of some smart guy in a suit who could wheel-and-deal and make loads of money. I then started to think of us as sort of social entrepreneurs. Rather than taking risks and experimenting in a financial sense as in conventional entrepreneurship we were pushing the boundaries of what was possible in social organisation. Consciously taking risks with each others lives and lifestyles and like all entrepreneurs sometimes we hit on something that worked, sometimes we didn’t and for most of the time we managed to get by much like everybody else.

We first crossed paths with the Preston based Lancashire CDA at a sort of mini come-along-and-learn-about-co-ops gathering that they had organised upstairs in the Kestrel pub in Burnley , We are probably talking 1979ish. We had gone along with our joint housing co-op & worker co-op hats on. Gordon Benson who covered our part of the county for the LCDA introduced himself and said that it was great to finally meet us as we had an almost mythical reputation in the CDA office as the only actual co-ops in the area at the time.¹ I’m not sure whether I was in my dress down working class phase at the time – if so I would have been in T-shirt and workers donkey jacket with AWC Ltd DIY stenciled on the back. ( A look I ditched quite quickly to avoid being mistaken as a member of the Socialist Workers Party.) Or maybe I had moved on to my United-Nations-Blue-Beret-Revolutionary look. Which ever, my guess is we stuck out from the rest of the folk there.

In 1974/5 Tony Benn was very briefly Secretary of State for Industry in the Harold Wilson Government and set in motion a couple of measures that would eventually see a mini-boom in the formation of worker co-operatives in the early 1980’s. The first rather dramatic political gesture was to make large grants to convert three troubled businesses in danger of going bankrupt into worker co-operatives; Kirby Manufacturing, Scottish Daily News and Triumph Meridian Motorcycles. All three attempts to save the ailing businesses eventually failed. But the efforts to save them raised the profile of worker co-operatives.

The Industrial Common Ownership Movement, ICOM, formed in 1971, inspired by the successful worker owned Scott Bader Commonwealth at Wollaston in Northamptonshire, had recommended to Tony Benn that rather than trying to save failing businesses it would be more effective to give grassroots support for workers wanting to set up new co-operatives. This suggestion bore fruit in 1976 with the Labour Governent’s passing of the Industrial Common Ownership Act that provided £ 100,000 to ICOM,to support the setting up of worker co-ops. It also provided £250,000 to create ICOF, Industrial Common Ownership Finance,, to lend money to the new worker owned businesses. Two years later in 1978 London Labour set up the national Co-operative Development Agency. Which then led to Labour-controlled councils across the country setting up and funding some 50 local Co-operative Development Agencies to support exist co-ops and people wanting to set up new co-ops.

This support enabled a wave of new co-ops to get off the ground in the early 1980’s. A directory published by the CDA in 1980 listed 330 worker co-operatives. By the time of the third directory published in 1984 this number had risen to 911. And by 1989 a total of 1400 worker co-operatives were being listed in a directory published by the Co-operative Research Unit at the Open University, Part of this success was due to ICOM running a Co-op registration service with a set of model rules that they had developed. These rules had been draw up by Malcolm Lynch, who worked for ICOM at the time ,based on the pioneering work done by Trevor Howell on the People in Common Housing Co-operative model rules. (See We Fought the Law and the Law Changed.)

Co-ops Fair Poster by Cliff Harper

Many of these new co-ops were in what you might loosely call the ‘alternative society’ sector. Wholefood shops, Radical Bookshops, Printers and Building co-ops. In the North the wholefood shops formed their own Federation of Northern Wholefood Collectives all supplied by a single wholesaler SUMA wholefoods. Which would go on to become the most successful co-op from the era. By 1980 this new wave of co-operatives was confident enough to organise it’s own Co-ops Fair at Beechwood Hall in Leeds which was planned to become a new co-operatives training centre. It was being run at the time by Freer Spreckly a former founder member of the Lifespan intentional community nr Holmfirth. As well as Lifespan there were a number of other intentional communities who had stalls at the Fair including PIC and Laurieston Hall. The Fair was such a success that one was held the following year. There is a good collection of photos of the 1981 Co-ops fair here.

While we had set up Altham Workers Co-op without any CDA support we were keen to support other co-ops being set up and to get support for our own development. Over the next few years through Gordon Benson at LCDA we managed to access funding to do research into ideas we had for businesses we were interested in setting up once we moved to the mill. These included making insulated roller blinds, setting up a small youth hostel and eventually the research and writing of the business plan for the successful setting up of Altham Hardwood Centre as a worker co-operative.

The Conservative government wound up the national CDA in 1990 and some local authorities started to close down the local co-operative development agencies to save money. ICOM and ICOF struggled on surviving various crises of their own. Over the following couple of decades the number of worker co-operatives began to dwindle for various reasons and has never yet recovered to the peak of numbers that were around in the 1980’s.

I heard Tony Benn speak at the Co-operative College in Loughborough at a Co-operative History conference in the mid 1990’s when I was doing the research for what eventually became Utopia Britannica. He is the only speaker I have seen who was so clearly respected and appreciated by his audience that he got a standing ovation as he walked through the hall towards stage before he had said a single word. At the conference one presenter put forward a paper suggesting that as the original aim of the High Street Consumer Co-op movement had been to “establish co-operative communities on the land” and that it should consider selling all its supermarkets and co-op shops and do just that.

People in Common had always referenced the early co-operative movement as part of it’s inspiration. After all the Rochdale Pioneers were only a Pennine hill or two away from Burnley. What might have been if (and it is a big IF) the older Co-op movement had embraced the new co-operatives in the 1980’s as fellow travelers instead of giving them the cold shoulder and treating them as risky upstarts? The Co-op Bank wouldn’t lend to many of the new worker co-ops and the High Street Co-ops at the time would rather buy wholefoods from private companies than from SUMA. Would more of the new co-ops been able to survive? Would the whole Co-op sector be in better shape than it is now?……

It is not all co-operative doom and gloom though today. A fair few of the new co-ops survived and one or two have thrived. And the Consumer Co-op movement is now more supportive of all forms of co-operation. In Lancashire a partnership between local government and academia has conceived of a new model of economic regeneration that incorporates co-operatives as a key component and is trying to put it into practice in Preston.

Notes: 1. The only other Workers Co-op in Lancashire at the time was the Single Step Wholefood shop in Lancaster who are still going strong some four decades later.

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