Monday, May 22, 2006

One of us / Co-op comments

John Stuart Mill celebrated his 200th birthday the day-before-yesterday.

Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling has a timely reminder of Mill's liking for worker co-operatives: He says

"Mill's vision ... is not that of state-owned enterprises. Government management, he said, is "proverbially jobbing, careless, and ineffective.". Instead, it's a vision of worker co-ops. And what's more, of co-ops that compete against each other:"

He quotes Mill saying...

"While I agree and sympathize with Socialists in [the] practical portion of their aims, I utterly dissent from the most conspicuous and vehement part of their teaching, their declamations against competition...They forget that wherever competition is not, monopoly is; and that monopoly, in all its forms, is the taxation of the industrious for the support of indolence, if not of plunder. They forget, too, that with the exception of competition among labourers, all other competition is for the benefit of the labourers, by cheapening the articles they consume."
I'd suggest that there is a common model of worker co-operative that privileges indolence at the expense of the industrious. This was one of the problems that I heard discussed a few times at the annual Co-operative Congress in Manchester at the weekend.

And one of the most important challenges that the left can address itself to, is how can industrial democracy demonstrate it's potential to be the most effective way to provide services and organise production.


Prejudice alert

I'm not a journalist - I suspect that I could find answers to some of these questions in annual reports if I had time. But I've tried this line of reasoning out with a number of people who are paid to defend the Co-Operative Group's corporate position, and I've never had anything like a decent reply. So here goes.

I'd also raise a few questions about consumer co-operatives as well (while I'm on the subject of the congress). Here's a little exercise for you to try.
  1. Find your nearest Co-Op shop
  2. Ask for details of membership. Ask "how can I join?"
  3. Keep asking until you find a member of staff that has the first idea of what you are talking about. This will involve speaking to a completely baffled store manager in many cases.
If you can't find anyone who knows what you are talking about, (and this is the case with my local Co-Op shop) you can conclude that this retail chain is likely to provide a poorer service - even - than shops that are owned by normal groups of shareholders.

In the case of my local Co-op, they are slightly more expensive, the staff don't ever last long and the standard of staff training is clearly below that of other supermarkets.

The product range is fairly shoddy (my local corner shop often offers more choice - and someone I can talk to about what I'd like the shop to do). They just survive because they don't have to fork over dividends to shareholders - like, say Tesco. They can pay this cash (if there are any profits) to their managers instead.

These co-ops aren't even having to provide any noticeable value to anyone apart from the senior managers who are largely unaccountable. They do the reputation of co-operatives more harm than good.

I wonder if anyone has ever compared the quality of management in the major retail co-ops with the other large chains? I'd like to see that report.


Delescluze said...

I'm afraid that my own experience of my local Co-op is exactly as described in your very good post. I'm deeply sorry that this is the case as my grandmother was a stalwart of the Co-operative Party from 1921 [when she was 28] to her 90th year, chairing Women's and Education Committees for her local branch. Trying to convince myself that the Co-op Party is the anarcho-syndicalist wing of Labour doesn't cut a lot of ice. They could be a major force in that direction, as they were in the 19th century, but they have a desperately long way to go.

samrocha said...

I just posted a great quote by JS Mill on conservatism… Love your blog by the way I got here on a blog search… Come on over to sometime I’d love to add someone like you to our dialogues…

Sam said...


The management are accountable to the democratic structures of the Co-op - the most local level being the area committee. If you're dissatisfied with the quality of service, why not run for elected office yourself? Nominations close on 1st July, so you'll have to get a move on. Go to to find out how.

Oh, and the profits aren't distributed to managers. They are distributed to community or co-operative projects, reinvested in the businesses, and distributed to individual members.



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