Later this year will be the 170th anniversary of the foundation of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers. The first Pioneers were a group of 28 struggling weavers and other workers who in 1844 banded together to open their own shop selling food that was both affordable and unadulterated.
The Rochdale Pioneers were the beginnings of the Co-operative Movement which for many years was to working people a guarantee of fair prices and decent quality.
Britain was once home to a great array of mutuals that made a huge contribution to our national progress and history. Building societies, friendly societies, co-ops and yes, before they turned to challenging elected governments and turning the lights out on their fellow citizens, the trade unions too.
The principles embedded in them all are golden ones: solidarity and mutual support but also that to take out, you have to put in.
Sadly the mutuals have withered somewhat in recent decades. Post war the state nationalised much of the nation’s self-help machinery. And the financialisation of the British economy put paid to many of our great building societies. But all is not lost. There is enough left from which to regrow and my own borough of Kensington and Chelsea is making its own contribution.
For one thing we are backing a local credit union. If like me, you feel distinctly uneasy about all those TV ads for payday loan companies often followed by ads featuring RADA cockneys urging people “to bet now” then you will probably welcome the new energy being invested in credit unions.
Even here in famously minted Kensington and Chelsea, we have tens of thousands of residents who can’t afford credit card interest rates or can’t get a card at all, and who are paying premiums on debts and bills because of their perceived risk. Our credit union aims to help them by providing bank accounts, affordable credit and good advice. We are not being preachy, or bossy, but there does need to be an alternative to so-called “straight talking money” and that is what the credit union is trying to provide.
At the same time as our credit union is taking root, an entire council department has just become a mutual. Kensington and Chelsea Youth Services has long been respected as the best in the business. And youth services by the way is no more about ping-pong and five-a-side than physiotherapy is just about massage.
The world of the young is these days very complicated and in many ways troubled. Schools aren’t always open and youth workers are one of the most important ways that we local authorities have of understanding that world, and intervening in it in order to help young people towards a constructive future. You can find out more about their work of EPIC as the new mutual is called here including a very effective course for NEETs being delivered with The Prince’s Trust.
As a council department youth services have had the vision to look forward at the council’s likely finances over the coming years. It recognized the risk of a salami slicing away of its achievements through an annual round of cuts and decided to do something about it, something amazing.
And that takes me back to those Rochdale Pioneers because we are mostly talking here about ordinary not especially well paid people taking a risk to maintain something they believe in and value. They have together formed a company and taken a stake in it, become shareholders.
There is no guarantee of success but boy do they deserve it and the Council will do all it can to secure that outcome. I salute them and wish them well and hope that they will prove to be just one small part of a broader re-mutualisation of Britain.