Popular Politics Project
Interview transcript: Paul Tinnion
Date and place of birth: not given
Interviewer: Kath Connolly, Transcriber: Maureen Dickson
Date of interview: 13 June 2012
Location of interview recording: Tyne and Wear Archives
KC – Good morning Paul. We are sitting here in 1 Exeter Close and I’m interviewing Paul Tinnion for the Popular Politics Project. It is the 13 June 2012 and I’m going to talk to Paul this morning about his involvement in the Co-op.
PT – Right. Well, em my mother was a member even though my grandfather was an independent trader so I suppose like everyone who , all these boring people who give fraternal greetings at Co-op Party conferences – however they are not boring people but this is the boring bit that everybody of a certain age says and everybody groans <><> and they do which is to give their mother’s card numbers
KC – Mine was <>
PT – [laughter] Mine was 3428 which became 75428 when it[Cambridge Society] took over the Saffron Walden Society. Anyway, I remember that and I’ve now done what I’ve criticised other people of doing. But um, serious involvement was when I lived in London and I joined in the machinations to try and remove the then Board of Directors which was run by an organisation called the 1960 <>
KC – Which society was this?
PT – London Society – London Co-op Society (LCS) and so I went to a few meetings, got to know a few people in the late 60s and 70s very early 70s.
KC – Where you living down there Paul
PT – Yes I lived in London
KC – Oh, you lived in London
PT – and – during the week in any case, I went home at the weekends to Saffron Walden and I saw a job advertised in the Weekly which was for a Political Affairs Officer North Eastern Co-op and I applied and there were only two serious applicants, myself and Terry Ashton who was later the London Regional Oganiser of the labour party and I had an interview in Buckingham Palace Road with Terry <> then general secretary of the labour party and I think with Terry Whitehead who I’ll come on to and I think was there anyway I then had another interview in Gateshead with Terry Whitehead again and the Chief Executive of the North Eastern Co-op which was I think <> <> and a man called Colin Dougherty and who had had a brief life in my memory and I got the job against Terry Ashton.
KC – Can I stop you. You said you got involved with the machinations to remove the Board in London. You obviously had had some political education beforehand, where do you think that came from? Was that your home, your family or?
PT – Well it is vaguely my home although not <> <> I came from a strong non Tory family. My grandfather on one side was an <> liberal and I think he once stood for council, but not sure about that; anyway they were all very strong npn conformist liberals and my other grandfather and his family were Cumbrian, Cumberland, miners very strong labour so that’s the atmosphere I grew up in. Strong non conservative non-conformist background.
KC – That made you <> <>
PT – Yes, that’s right. <> same as Gordon Brown actually. And that’s the atmosphere I grew up in so to join the labour party was very natural for a person with my background and who went to university with people of similar backgrounds.
KC – What university did you go to?
PT – Bristol. So joined the labour party etc, and <> <> that’s where I was. So in London if you met certain people at the theatre a man called Eric Deacons, John Gilbert, and old friend of mine called Terry Wheeler and we were all in this group of people who were trying to remove the 1960s committee which was not entirely but partly a communist party front <with> control of the London Society, but some good people in a 1960s who were not just communists Stan Newington was one for instance still with us I think. But some of them were hard faced <> in the communist party so they were quite <> <> so we had this vote to get rid of the and so got more and more into it. <> <> we all suffered from the backwash of John Stonehouse who had briefly led the London Co-op Society, had managed to be <> 1960 committee. Before 1960 actually I think because the 1960 was set up in reaction to him but he was pretty much a charlatan I think as was subsequently proved [laughter]
KC – John Stonehouse that went missing?
PT – Yes one of the delights of my life is that when his clothes were found on a Florida beach at work everybody said isn’t it sad, because a man like that <> <> <> obviously committed suicide. I said he’d not committed suicide don’t be silly he’s away with his girlfriend and they all thought I <> <> <> but I had inside knowledge I knew what the bloke was like [laugher]. I never met him, but I knew his reputation and anyone and other people chatted about it, knew where he’d gone, but the press those days, we didn’t have the Sun, were a bit more respectful of politicians. Anyway, I’m digressing massively, but
KC – That’s fine Paul
PT – We were trying to rescue the legacy trying to recover from the legacy of John Stonehouse and effectively take the London Society back to the Labour party. But that’s not how everybody saw it, but that’s how we saw it. But in 1971 I left anyway so there was only three years left that I was involved, less than three years.
KC – So you came to the north east
PT – I got a job in the north east so I knew a bit about it and I knew a bit about the Co-op ,I didn’t know much about the co-op market never having been to a meeting and
KC – Can I ask you Paul you mention Terry Whitehead and I know that Terry Whitehead was a leading member of the North East society, so what was the relationship between the society and the party. Were you employed by the Society or by the party.
PT – By the society.
KC – If you could just explain that
PT – By the society. Terry Whitehead was a very very important figure key political figure very impressive. Terry was the most impressive person I’ve ever met though perhaps not quite as impressive as Tanya Bond <> <> Anyway I’m not going to say anything libellous but I still got on very well with him all his life until he died and somehow he, but mustn’t digress. Anyway Terry Whitehead was the leading figure in the formation of the North Eastern Society in1971 and he had the idea – might be with <Jen Lamb> though not entirely sure, that they should appoint their own organiser. There had been a co-operative party organiser called Trevor Pugh but when he had retired which was about 1969 or 1968 he hadn’t been replaced so rather than the co-op party replacing the northern national organiser they the North Eastern Society or Terry Whitehead decided they wanted someone with a larger role who would work for the society not just for the party but in other vaguely specified manner in politics and political affairs, planning mainly, an and the idea was that I would run the party as part of my job and I would get myself involved with planning applications and in anything that might affect the trading matters that was affected by administration by things like the Sunday opening we would participate in do what we could, posters <> took some of them round saw they were wen up and all that, so those kinds of things and that would justify a full time officer. Which I think if I add up the balance sheet it did actually but I didn’t. But it didn’t last forever but that was the idea and so it was I think Hedley’s idea mainly and Hedley saw it through, saw it happen and I was assigned to the <> department.
KC – Where was your office?
PT – Jackson Street. In the old Co-op in Jackson Street where I did questions which didn’t get very good answers about what things were like but they were pretty dire still I’m afraid but there we are.
KC – So how did you find the co-op when you came to the north east in terms of the organisation, the membership,
PT – The co-op party was in, em,poor state, its never been in a really good state I don’t think you’d can say . The membership always stuck around the same figure forever whatever happened. It was never going to be a mass membership whatever the general secretary of the party said <> <> so there were there was some disappointment from the sort of vibrant world of co-op politics in London underpinned by an even worse trading situation and still is
KC – What for the actual co-op
Oh yes, gross lack of investment, totally outperformed <> <> the worsat part of the country. It did recover, the Co-op retail services eventually but at that time was you know <> <> both got jobs in shopping <> one where I worked in <Boreham Wood> and particularly <> when I got to the north east, the party – I was disappointed in the numbers. I asked how many members and David Wise couldn’t tell me and I thought that was not very impressive couldn’t , surely should <> <> <> I think I was disappointed almost immediately with the lack of influence they seemed to have in the labour party which never recovered and the numbers were pretty well not very good but the same as everywhere else in the country but some of the branches were not branches you had the usual branches that had last met 10 years ago and had just been kept on the books because no one could be bothered to write them off and I tried to track them down. You had two branches which were guilds meeting on a different night which was still permitted they met as a guild on Tuesdays and as a co-op party on Thursdays because they wanted to have two meetings a week. Billingham was like that and Jarrow was like that. So the labour stronghold at Jarrow or every single co-op party member was an elderly lady. These are not politically important people I’m afraid in the real world.
KC – So can you generalise as to who made up the Co-op party membership in the North East
PT – Well there were – yes, the people you always have which is the important co-op activists the people who served on boards and on<> and who were political as well and naturally therefore joined the co-op party or joined the co-op party first before they became involved in the co-op or did it r both ways round whatever. People like Jim Lamb, <> Doris Starkey a very important figure in the North East at that time with the co-op. They greeted me with the words “Oh, you’ve arrived at last have you” (laughter)
KC – A welcome?
PT – A warm welcome. There was <> Terry Cooney there were two ladies Godfrey and I can’t remember the name of the Middlesbrough – Gladys <Darling> at Stockton and there was a great void called Durham where effectively the party didn’t exist but Teesside and Tyneside there were active people Doris O’Rourke, Frank O’Rourke, I remember, so on the Board at that time you would have had 3 or 4 strong co-op party people on the Board of the Co-op
KC – That’s the North Eastern Society Board?
PT – That’s the North Eastern Society Board. And, effectively dealt with that side of <> ensured there was a grant , there was affiliation, negotiation, and were the kingpins of the co-op party and had some standing in the labour party that disappointed me that they didn’t have more. The representative from the regional labour party executive was Doris and Doris was a wonderful person, but political acumen she didn’t have I’m afraid and she would , she was a bit argh, I don’t know she was set in her ways and was regarded as a little eccentric I would say. Em
KC – So did you have people standing as a co-op party, labour party, a council?
PT – The council is a bit of a shambles. They hadn’t really got it together and this is a national problem at the time which was solved , got a grip on that, in this region anyway, the Yorkshire <> in at that time we was well <> <> , it was a bit er, shambolic not properly organised to get the top candidates <> which was one of my first jobs to try
KC – <> by the co-op party to run a campaign?
PT – That’s right, usually after the event and the same regulars and it was a bit exclusive. It was the people they already knew. For anybody new to come in was regarded as particularly suspicious and they didn’t really want new people coming in and getting <> <> until they knew them pretty well.
KC – And really at that time the society was losing its, er, in common with the rest of the co-op it wasn’t in a good place and it was still going down for quite a long time after the 1970s. So do you think the Co-op party reflected that decline in the way that the
PT – Oh yes, one of the problems within the labour party was how can you really put forward co-operation as the new Jerusalem when
KC – Laughs, exactly
PT – When the existing Jerusalem is going bust before our eyes (laughter) and closing down in my village and you know you used to get comments in the papers from labour party members: they want to build a new store here when they’ve just closed a store over there you know and someone phoning up saying what you going to do about this person and I don’t know what can I do its true. Hard, but you know <> And there were of course good people who used to go along from time to time who were extremely good. However, <P?><> was doing very well at the time.
I mean you’re right about the trade. The trade had stabilised to some extent. The society was formed in 1970 and the steep decline had been <> that the to some extent
KC – During the 60s, late 50s
PT – No during the 70s, very early 70s.
KC – So many factions
PT – Pelaw, CWS, a man called David Hughes known as the hatchet man and I wished I’d got to know him earlier, he really, he closed up d <><> as the hatchet man and he revelled in it actually. He’s got a lovely book (laugher) the real David Hughes and he closed up stores and <> <>
KC – And that was <> in the North East
PT – Oh, no just in the North East. First in the North east did when it started in1970/71 was close hundreds of stores and the closures continued because the – of the 30 societies that came in, some were in CWS administration and <> Durham, , Wingate and all that area and that was in Administration. Stockton was in administration in other words, they were being run by the CWS but they were bust. But four societies were <> <> to keep <> <> because that meant I don’t know that led to <> tensions in the <> but anyway I was joining an organisation that not up and coming, it was recovering, it was saving a lot of money on administration costs and was quite determined to go for what it wanted in a way <> <> On the face of it, you know, could <> <> had a succession of people who came and went they didn’t see eye to eye with Harold Whitehead not necessarily incompetent, just didn’t get on. John Beer was a man I liked a lot, but although didn’t like me, who was controller, had tried various things and they were trying hard advertising campaigns very pretty good at the time, Shaw Taylor was there at that time and Jennie on New Tricks now, she had a reputation , Shaw Taylor was great, good to work with, she was awful, not interested, <> <> <>
KC – Part of the problem is that people don’t have a very clear memory of what actually happened and you’ve made that important point about when the mergers took place when they came into the North Eastern Co-op they were in the main failing societies and to make sure that the societies the North Eastern Societies survived then cuts had to be made. People didn’t see it that way, didn’t realise, they just thought Oh we’ve been taken over and now they’ve closed us down and so, er, but you made that important point there Paul, so there was a lot of resentment within communities because their store had closed. My mother was a prime example. We lived on Sunderland Road and when the Sunderland Road co-op closed it was the end of the world. I used to go there save up the dividend, buy the school clothes at Jackson Street and it was just the end of an era for them, couldn’t understand the financial side of it.
PT – I mean how Terry Norris came in to <> structure
KC – Was it trying to bring in new practices within the co-op
PT – They were. I mean they were trying to co-ordinate the CWS more especially <> <>
KC – <>
PT – Yes, that’s right. The weakness of the whole movement was the lack of connection between procurement and marketing. CWS did the procurement but didn’t do the procurement for everybody because some people wouldn’t join in so that reduced your market base and your buying power and then they couldn’t control the marketing of those goods so you couldn’t therefore say to a supplier we will promote these goods and we will take so much on the basis that we know we can sell them because we can promote them <> that connection wasn’t there and it was a fatal thing it really was. It was – it was epitomised in a phrase somebody mentioned to me once he went to a Board and told them the CWS Thomas Hedley that they wanted them to sell this brand of shirt or something and they said people have said don’t buy those kinds of shirts when for many years Marks and Spencer had been selling St Michael’s shirts everywhere to everyone and it was the people who drive have two heads syndrome and therefore don’t buy the same sort of things that people who <> but they do and that already been shown to anybody’s satisfaction that still on co-op boards wanting to say <> <> I know my market is but they don’t
KC – Is that from people who don’t understand the way that the co-op existed at that time. Can you explain how a different society operated
PT – Well the society had its own controller and had its own marketing and decided what was sold in their shops and how they advertised it. The CWS had limited influence on that. So you could buy goods from the CWS very cheaply maybe but gradually of course as your market share was lost, your buying power was lost and you were not buying things at competitive prices the CWS found and so the whole thing became a circle of decline. Meanwhile, TESCO were coming in and simply taking our share, opening, selling cheaply. Wider variety of goods, bigger stores, many of our stores were too small because of <> <> in almost every case.
KC – During your time what was the philosophy of the board of the North Eastner Society about the size of shops. Nowadays kind of concentrate on
PT – At the time they would take anything. In the middle of the 70s, the superstore took off and clearly to build a store and sell cheaply and <> <> say to some extent called our stores and you had Morrisons based in Yorkshire, TESCO and Sainsbury all were going into this field but we were going into this field as well. A man called Sid Stott who was the general manager of Leeds who started this in theCco-op and moved around a bit and they opened and there was one opened in Glasgow, in Morrison Street, and so we had a number of these stores and we tried to build everything that was <> <> <> but at the time we thought the future’s in larger stores so we built anything. We didn’t stop building smalls stores, where the opportunity arise but we did build everything up to Hypermarkets, we built two hypermarkets in the north east and other societies. Leicester Society was particularly – thing called <?Thirlingstone?> I don’t know whether that’s there or not still and Nottingham so dynamic societies were building super stores. Not just ours. As we were also taking anything we could get, any opportunity we would build a store of any size. The <?medium size?> Brandon was the first one in my experience and Shildon, Crook, Simonside, lots of them. There was one in Richmond of course, one in Chester-le-Street, <?Benton Hypermarket?> Terry Norris was a friend of local George Bowman. Usually we had to have some sort of advantage otherwise we’d get out xxx the site. This was one of the problems. We didn’t have enough development capital. We were good at raising capital but not quite good enough – financial controller called John Cuthbert a famous person now and perhaps North East’s most famous business man Chief Executive of Northumbrian Water, a great and good man but he was our financial controller for a couple of years and raised money very well in fact. Bonds!
KC – You attracted capital?
PT – Yes, we attracted capital and did build stores. Benton Hypermarket was build – Terry Norris’ friend was called George Bowman, he had a garden centre there and the garden centre was failing I think and George said to Terry do you think you could build a hypermarket on my garden. Which was why we then had a hypermarket and a garden centre eventually – half the garden centre remained which was initially still run by George Bowman. Anyway, planning permission was unlikely. I played some part in it, I remember a phone call from a Councillor in North Tyneside saying” is this true this is going to be a co-op”. I said, “Yes, of course it is”. He said “Oh well, I heard a rumour that it’s just to get planning permission and then you’d sell it on”. He was suspicious. I said “no, I assure you we are going to build a hypermarket”. And he said, “Oh well we might let it through then” . (laughter). It went through. Then we sold to ASDA.
KC – Some years later
PT – Some years later <> <> Although that’s the one I worked the hardest on.
KC – What at Benton?
PT – No, at <> Farm. We had a farm at Stockton, and I don’t l know whether we still have or not I should ask sometime. Anyway it was farmers both sides of the road Durham Road going into A177 going into Stockton and we put in planning permission for that and we worked hard on the councillors and all that John Scott was the leader at the time
KC – You used your political connections?
PT – That’s right. And I ‘d just been the European candidate so I was held in some regard at the time. I mean you couldn’t bribe people but you can make your case. We got that planning permission and the whole thing, I don’t know why no one shopped there. Sold it to Sainburys. No one shopped in Sainsburys shopped in Tescos, still there. So Kath, I don’t, know can’t explain that because Benton always made a profit right until we sold it. And sold at £15m because to make £ 15m profit in the future we weren’t going to do.
KC – It was too good an offer, grabbed the opportunity. So the work you did when you were employed by the Co-op Party and the North Eastern society it generally in terms of the balance, how did it balance out in terms of your time
PT – Well I used to pretend that I did a lot but Bill Fish my boss used to ask me that. I mean actually most of it was party work because what do you do. These opportunities only come up occasionally and are not predictable. So onnly working on a particularly development which might be a garage that we wanted to turn into a funeral home for instance so I’d write to the local councillors because funeral homes are unpopular in prospect and totally inoffensive in reality. No one wants to have a funeral home next to them when its not already there. Once its there, its perfectly OK – blends into the background. If it’s a shop not much change of use if it’s a garage, by the very nature of things we had quite a few garages (laugher). Anyway I digress.
KC – You
PT – That’s one of the other little things I worked on. But for most of the time I was working for the party.
KC – You mentioned that you used your political connections. Would you like to talk a little bit about how you got involved in local politics other than through the organisation of the Co-op party. The council, you mentioned European candidate
PT – Yes I was European candidate, I was chair of Housing in Gateshead for 15 years. I was a local figure and so people knew who I was. That was useful. So yes, I think wasn’t directly connected.
KC – I think if people could put a name to a face
PT – That’s right. It wasn’t calculated or anything. But it meant that I didn’t have to justify being a councillor in the way that others employees had to. The em
KC – So the North Eastern Society were generous with your time off if you needed to go to council
PT – Yes Joan (what’s her name) Personnel Director – Joan Straker who was the Director of Personnel. Initially when I became a councillor I had to fill in the usual forms that people had to keep. Eventually,she said, I’ve been thinking about this in your case this is ridiculous isn’t it. I don’t want them anyone. That was sensible because it <> <> <>
KC – And they would recognise that
PT – Yes, until Neil Holland came along
KC – Coming to the present time Paul, you are a member of the Area Commirttee pf the Co-op so you are still very much involved. You’re not involved with the Co-op party are you?
PT – Yes, I’m still the Treasurer but that’s quite back seat now.
KC – But not in any permanent or paid role. And what about the area committee
PT – Well I was secretary of the area committee for a while
KC – Did you chair the committee
PT – Secretary of three. Tyneside, Northumberland well North Northumberland when they existed for a while I was available and they had a re-organisation and then that was part of my duties for the North Eastern Co-op which was very sensible. I mean I would like to have done more I would have liked to be secretary to be honest but the
KC – So, something like the modern democratic services that was your role in the
PT – Well it became my role because of the re-organisation and it was a job I
quite liked, I volunteered
KC – That was a paid role. But as a volunteer you don’t have a paid role in the Co-op now. So what is your role now in the Co-op, Paul
PT – Area Committee member
KC – Which means?
PT – You don’t know. Right. The democratic structure in the society which hasn’t changed all that much, but has got more much more professional and paid, paid much more. The regional pay has fallen a small amount. The region is paid a small amount. Originally it was unpaid, then it was paid a small amount and now it’s paid a modest amount. Yes I mean the area committee is the lowest level of the democratic pyramid and it elects to the regional board and the regional board elects to the national board. And that’s the way it works. And the area committee are the voice of the consumers, the voice of the member and they get much more information now than they ever did in the past including things which <> <> and they get trading reports from actual trading offices which was taboo originally in the North Eastern Co-op you had to work through the secretary and committee who was responsible to the secretary of the society. We still got the same questions and same answers they all come round again like queues at checkouts (laughter)
KC – More face to face now?
PT – Far more face to face now and but better now and well I don’t know, at least that’s our committee. I hear other committees are a little less happy. But
KC – <>People come and you can ask questions and if they can’t answer you at that meeting they get answers for you
PT – I mean I always reported to the committee on a rotational basis. Right from the beginning so I went around the committees and talked to them about political things and ibe of the things I’m modestly proud of is that sometimes I told committees things that they couldn’t get to know about any other way, but the timing about a good example would be a recent development in Felling for instance where the where the committee had not been told about the future (Oh, dear this will get me into trouble won’t it) of the Felling store <> Lane. Well, I mean if I’d have been an employee of the society, I would be given that kind of information as the Politic Affairs Officer. Because naturally as Political Affairs Officer I would know about it and they wouldn’t be told by the management until the whole thing had been cut and dried they didn’t want generally like all management they don’t want the democratic people to know about it until it’s too late. (Laugher). And I used to take some modest enjoyment, although always been very careful not to cross the line, I’ve never prejudiced anything, negotiations like that
KC – But you were aware of what was happening?
PT – I was aware of what was happening and I did tell people things that they wouldn’t have otherwise found out which were not only vaguely political (laughter)
KC – Well, to kind of wind up Paul unless you can think of anything else you’d like to tell me, I’d just
PT – Something that perhaps people don’t know is how the dynamics of the Board because we did have personality clashes which were quite severe and went on for many years and I’m the only person who probably remembers these. And these Terry Whitehead who was a very strong powerful figure but he had a bitter ending
KC – Was it the change in development
PT – I frankly never found out. Everyone has enemies in politics. Your opponents are in front of you and behind you – you keep close to your enemies, but there was a feud going on between Jim <?Laing> and Terry Whitehead but I never knew the reason, never told me the reason but Terry Whitehead was a senior <> representative on the North Eastern Board, therefore could be seen as not being a proper elected member of the Board and the feeling was that well could pay £3m off and get rid of him. But when I joined the North Eastern Society we had co-chairs that was because there had been a coup run by <> against Terry Whitehead to remove Terry Whitehead and the votes being even and they decided to have co-chairs for a year. <> <> so you did have these – and that wasn’t the only little bit, so you did have what you have in every institution you have rivalries and jealousies etc and you know a lot of tales and all that and it shows that we were an important organisation; very important in the region; we had much the larger shares in trade initially when I joined although it was rapidly declining and much the biggest organisation because we were always top of the Journal’s regional employers, employers of many thousands of employees and of course mustn’t forget funerals where we were in pole position and still are so continuously we are the most important funeral operator and we had garages as well which for many years were pretty successful so you know let not say things were too dismal they weren’t and most of the stores we built were initially anyway pretty successful and some of them are still very successful, still with us, Prudhoe, Whitby, Richmond, Houghton le Spring, Shildon, Brandon, they are – some of them are still there and you know let’s hope they’ll be there for many years.
KC – Where you pleased that you came up North <>
PT – Oh yes, I was very pleased to get out of London
KC – So a very positive <>
PT – Out of the south east, yes
KC – Well, can I thank you very much Paul. Very interesting. Thanks a lot.