Unhelpfully, perhaps, I was away on holiday last week in the run-up to the Co-operative Group general meeting last weekend which voted in favour of the new governance arrangements (just to remind you, these are in summary the arrival in the Board Room of independent business-types as non-executives, plus a new 100-strong members’ council). My holiday meant that that I didn’t have a chance to comment here on the last-ditch efforts led by Co-operative Business Consultants to build a coalition against the proposals, though I was interested to see that CBC had persuaded the original Rochdale Pioneers to email me to solicit my support. (Actually I’m not sure that nineteenth century cooperative history can be co-opted quite so easily: I’m pretty sure, for example, that CWS leader JTW Mitchell, himself from Rochdale, would have been very comfortable with the new governance arrangements. He was always impatient of any appeals to cooperative democracy if it got in the way of building the powerful CWS empire).
…the vote has taken place, and cooperative governance in the Group now means something different. I have two particular observations. Firstly, I think it important that careful public scrutiny is made of the appointment of the Group’s new Chair and non-executives. In other words, CBC and everyone else who cares about member control and democracy in the Group mustn’t relax. I agree with Pauline Green who is quoted in latest Co-operative News as saying “It is critical that right from the beginning the members of the new council take control of the monitoring of the next three years before there will be a review – and that they don’t suspend their critical judgement.”
The second point is that, whilst the Group’s cooperative credentials are very important so too is its competence as a retailer. It was disappointing to shop on holiday in a different Co-op Group store from my usual home-town shop, but to find there many of the same problems. For example, why was it the Budgen store round the corner which had shelves full of locally produced food whilst the Co-op just had the regular stuff shipped in from the warehouse? There are significant management issues with the Group’s retail offering which urgently need attention – but then I think we all know this.