Sunday, 26 October 2008

Roll over northern rock: we can build a new movement on twopence a week

Among all the gloom and doom of the credit crisis, my friend Jen claims there is something to celebrate. Not all banks have gone to the wall: the Cooperative and other mutual or friendly societies are thriving up here in the north of England.

This weekend we went to see the last performance of Mikron’s Fair Trade. Reaping the Dividends, which tells the story of the Cooperative Movement from its beginnings in Toad Lane in Rochdale in 1844 when the first Co-op shop was opened. The show was written and produced before the current financial crisis really took hold – so it was interesting to hear that, during hard times in the 19th century, the reason for the success of the Cooperative, in comparison to other schemes, was their decision not to give credit. “Only deal with cash.” Members contributed twopence a week to get the Cooperative Wholesale Society off the ground, to provide affordable basic food and goods to poor families. And, of course, the movement was also built on that fundamental principle that, for some of us, still holds good today: that any surplus should be divided evenly between members, not hived off by managers.

After being away from Yorkshire for a long time, I’m proud to be back, and back to being a Co-op member. In fact, my mum claims that the first Co-op shop was opened in Meltham (in Yorkshire) - where I was born and bred – and not Rochdale (in Lancashire). We recall how, in the 1950s and 60s, Meltham Co-op ran its own farm, alongside a grocery store, a hardware store, a clothes store, a pharmacy and the village cinema. It built affordable housing. It offered interest-free loans and modest overdraft facilities to its members before payday. It also, importantly, acted as a savings bank, encouraging thrift and forward planning through the scheme to put away a small sum every week towards Christmas, family holidays - and funerals. Truly it provided ‘cradle to the grave’ security.

In contrast, today’s high street banks have made, and continue to make, their unique contribution to heightened insecurity. I’ve had personal experience of this over the past few months. (Mortgage, madame? Of course, but for not less than £25,000. Costing £2,000 in ‘administrative costs’. On condition that you employ a solicitor. Yes, we acknowledge that you are legally entitled to do your own conveyancing, but if you intend to do so you can’t have a NatWest mortgage. Oh and look, our statistics show that fewer people are taking out mortgages. This is clearly a client driven crisis!) And on the backs of these fleas are smaller fleas to bite us – viz the increase in modern day loan shark cold calling, with an insistence on speaking to the owner of the house: “we’d like to offer you debt advice” aka “let us get you deeper into debt.”

See Cristina’s blog on globalisation and cooperativism in

Fair Trade highlights the growth of the co-operative movement beyond Britain. There are more than 750 million co-operative members in over 100 countries today. One notable example: the 900
rural electricity co-operatives providing energy for 40 million people across the United States. Another: there is a Co-op for employees in the Emperor’s palace in Japan. Strangely enough, the day I picked up Mikron’s leaflet in Holmfirth, I was with my friend Mary, who comes from Warrington but for many years has been living in Mali. “Oh yes,” she tells me, “the French version of cooperativisme used to be very big in West Africa.” And apparently everyone in Mali knows about the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

Across countries in the south, on a small scale, farmers are benefiting from Fair Trade agreements, workers’ cooperatives and credit unions - all of which initiatives are seen as providing more autonomy and better security to the poor than World Bank loans with its crippling conditions attached. Cooperativism is increasingly seen as an
alternative world order . Also see an earlier post on women and 'the gift economy'.

I’ve picked up a related idea recently from south Wales: that of ‘time banking’. This is a mechanism promoting volunteerism in community development, which enables people to feel valued and to value each other for their contribution ‘outside paid work.’ The impact assessment report on this system, from the Wales Institute for Community Currencies, emphasises that “it is important to treat people as assets.” A concept western society largely seems to have forgotten.

The Mikron Theatre Company, itself a co-operative, provides a good example of operating on a human scale. Now 37 years old, supported by the Co-operative Membership and working out of the Mechanics Institute in Marsden, the company performs across the north of England in local venues – pubs, village halls, community theatres and even sometimes on their own barge – bringing culture, politics and solidarity to ordinary people.

Read more about Mikron at

and the Wales Institute for Community Currencies at

Note on the Tolpuddle Martyrs:
This was the group who, in the 1830s, set up the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, operating as a trade-specific benefit society. But as friendly societies had strong elements of what are now considered to be the role of trade unions, the organisers were jailed and subsequently sentenced to transportation to Australia...

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