Co-operative bid could keep production of Colman’s in Norwich, says former UN adviser

Mark Seddon believes a co-operative could keep production of Colman's of Norwich where it belongs. P

Mark Seddon believes a co-operative could keep production of Colman's of Norwich where it belongs. Picture: Mark Seddon. - Credit: Mark Seddon

The name of Colman's of Norwich could live on if enough support gets behind a bid to make it a co-operative, writes journalist Mark Seddon.

For some years I worked as a TV reporter at the United Nations in New York, before going to work for the then-UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon.

Travelling the world, I would often ask friends in different countries – usually homesick Brits or friends from Commonwealth countries like Canada or India, if they wanted me to bring anything. Invariably the answer would come back: 'Some Colman's mustard please!'

The shocking decision of Unilever to shut the Carrow Works plant has sent reverberations around the world. Colman's is synonymous with Norwich.

Those same people who used to ask me to bring them a jar of that famous Norwich mustard were unlikely to have given a second thought to that great wrecking ball of a conglomerate, Unilever. As likely as not they wouldn't have heard of them. Colman's though… Well, that's different.

The Norwich Evening News and Eastern Daily Press have spearheaded a spirited campaign to keen Colman's in Norwich as rumours swirled. Eleven thousand people signed the petition to do just that. If it were to go national or international now, just imagine how many more there could be.

Yet the news, semi-expected, has instead given rise to a glum near-acceptance that the deed will be done and the world-famous works will shut up shop at the end of next year. But it surely isn't over until the jar is empty!

There is still time to explore alternatives that will keep Colman's in Norwich. It must not be allowed to go the same way as the iconic HP Sauce (now made in Holland).

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And the recent experience of Cadbury, yet another great British confectionery name, which has seen much of its production shift to Poland, despite the promises made to the workforce, does not augur well either.

Instead, I would urge the city council, the trade unions and the Colman family who must be feeling very saddened at what is being done in their name, to explore the idea of a setting up a 'Colman's Co-operative'.

They should use public opinion to leverage Unilever into understanding that Norwich is determined not to lose Colman's and to allow the workers and managers to take over and run the Norwich operation.

There are recent precedents. In November 2013, Corus Hotels suddenly announced that they were to close the much-loved Gay Hussar Hungarian restaurant in Soho, London.

Some of us almost immediately decided to launch a co-operative buy-out. We raised tens of thousands of pounds and as the Goulash Co-op have managed not only to garner a great deal of publicity, but have kept our restaurant open.

Our co-op still stands ready to step in – although Corus Hotels is refusing to sell and we may have become a victim of our own success.

In 1995, the miners at Tower Colliery in south Wales refused to allow their pit to be shut by British Coal. Instead they sank £8,000 each of their redundancy money into what was to become the hugely successful Tower Employees Buyout. Hundreds of jobs were saved, and the mine's profits were reinvested in local industries, until it finally ran out of coal in 2008.

The John Lewis Partnership presents another model well worth looking at, as does the good old Co-op itself.

There are plenty of co-operatives and good people out there who would no doubt be prepared to come to the aid of a new Colman's co-operative initiative as well as offering useful advice.

I spent some of the best and most formative years in the mighty fine city of Norwich. So did Stephen Fry, who has said: 'Take the Tower from London, the RSC from Stratford and the Potteries from Stoke, but leave our mustard in the Fine City!'

I am not sure that this is a winning strategy, but most people entirely understand the sentiment. Now, though, is perhaps time to go beyond sentiment and stop mourning and start organising. Norwich has an equally fine tradition of doing different.

A new 'Colman's Co-operative' could yet succeed in keeping 'Norwich' on all of those famous yellow jars.

• Mark Seddon was president of the UEA Students Union in 1984, and never forgot the roots he put down in Norwich. He is a former speechwriter to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, and has worked as a UN correspondent and New York Bureau Chief for al Jazeera English TV.