Bottom-up: ‘cluster’ idea could help Co-op Group democracy

The Co-operative Group’s old governance arrangement, where area committees (usually with a motley bunch of members all drawing some dosh) had almost no power but were supposed in some way to be in touch with grassroots customers, was never something which I felt worked well.

But the idea of reinvigorating the Group’s democracy and membership from the bottom-up is certainly something which needs exploring and I’m very interested to see that this is what was tried last Saturday in the Chorlton area of south Manchester, An experimental ‘cluster’ meeting brought together local members of the coop (ie shoppers) with staff, with the support of the Group’s membership team.

The event was arranged by Manchester Area committee, which (despite what I said in the first paragraph) is showing it has some real energy and ideas. They launched the Co-operative Springboard website last year to encourage debate about how the Group’s governance review could help create a ‘21st century co-operative’, and they are now keen to see the Cluster idea tried elsewhere. Go for it, I say.


8 thoughts on “Bottom-up: ‘cluster’ idea could help Co-op Group democracy

  1. This is great to hear and I really wish the group well.
    Do we know of any other groups starting to organise like this?
    Was there any worker representation (USDAW) for example?

  2. I think the idea of ‘bottom-up’ membership clusters is inappropriate if the Co-op membership is to play any part in contributing to the strategy of the Co-op. It is idealistic, it is not businesslike. Get a ‘grip’ here! If the Co-op doesn’t turn around soon…there will be NO Co-op. I want to put myself up as a Co-op member to serve on the new Co-op Board because I’m experienced at Board level and because I’m not convinced the current Co-op membership representation is up to the job of representing the membership in the ‘transitioned’ Co-op.

  3. There is nothing idealistic or unbusinesslike in the idea of local members having a direct conversation with local managers and staff, especially if the managers and staff are empowered to make changes and get involved locally. The co-op has a powerful business asset in its members that it is not making use of. This is precisely the way to turn the Co-op round.

    • Hi Shaun, If members contribution/relationships with the stores was ‘managed/channelled’ through some form of suggestion scheme then fine but…As you know I was at the Manchester briefing 18 October. At the briefing I was told that individual shop managers had NO input into what was stocked in their stores so of what value is it to liaise with shop management/staff if they can’t satisfy members requests? The Co-op has just undergone a cost-cutting exercise ( S3) that dramatically reduced staff hours. How do you expect management/staff to have ‘time’ for members/anyone when store hours are being cut to the ‘bone?’

      I have been critical of the new exec attacking staff hours first to make savings when there are SO much ‘soft’ savings to be had ( I identified £200m+) but now I understand it. Dealing with the Co-op membership ( even in the proposed structure) must be a NIGHTMARE. There is layer upon layer of member sub-committee, committee, Senate….The Co-op is a business TRYING to survive in a VERY competitive marketplace.

      This proposed membership representation structure may well stifle the Co-ops progress.

      Someone has got to get a ‘grip’ here because I just think the expectations of the membership has to be aligned with the reality of commercial sense…and it isn’t happening.

      To talk of ‘bottom-up’ governance as a way forward is idealistic. In truth, I’d start off with the premise that the new Co-op Board should have a max of 4 non-execs representing the membership and work downwards not upwards.

      Have any of these ‘bottom-up’ schemes been costed? Has it been decided who should pay for a membership structure ( if it has been costed)?

      It would be SO much easier for me to join in with ‘Utopian’ messages but the reality is the Co-op membership has to wake up to the ‘new’ Co-op reality.

      The ‘childlike’ benevolence of the old Co-op has gone and…GOOD RIDDANCE to it! I just hope the bastards who destroyed the Co-op get their ‘cum-uppance!’

    • Hi Shaun, This is my SECOND reply. My first one has ‘disappeared’ into the ‘ether!’ Grr!!! First things first Shaun ( I’ve asked this before). How MANY active Co-op members are there? I’m told there are 8m but the same person who told me that, added…maybe!

      The size of the membership is key. I’m not convinced there are 8m ‘active’ Co-op members simply because Co-op Retail has only 4% of the Food sector share. Alternatively, quite a few of those 8m just don’t think the Co-op is worth shopping in!

      Where can I get such verified stats from?

      It’s all very well projecting ‘yesterdays’ ideals forward but they just have no place in the new Co-op. This new membership structure reflects a Co-op that was, not a membership that can ‘partner’ the new exec moving forward.

      Who’s going to pay for it?

      Using the members to turn the Co-op around firstly requires an analysis of just how many members there are ( see above).

      Again, good idea that member liaise with Co-op store management/staff but…why? At the meeting of 18 October I was told that local store management has no input into what is stocked in their stores.

      Are you saying that under Vital5 this will change and that managers can decide what to stock? Well, I’II tell you it won’t for THREE very simple reasons. They are:

      1. Shop hours have been cut to the ‘bone’ under the S3 savings plan. Where does the store management find the time to review the stock profile even if they knew how to?

      2. Under Vital5 a key strategy is to ‘repair the plumbing’ ie the APPALLING Co-op IT systems. Is is sensible to add ‘bespoked’ ordering to a system that is in disrepute?

      3. Timescale. The new exec has a 3 year turnaround programme. I think it will be ‘tested’ within its first 12 months to see of what ‘value’ the Co-op membership is.

      Y’know, it would be much easier to write optimistically about the future of the Co-op and how the membership can play a part but I just don’t think it would be wise. I’d be delighted to be proved wrong but…


      Tom Reynolds (

      • Tom

        Of course there aren’t 8m active members. There are three numbers: how many use their cards regularly, how many vote, how many turn up for meetings. I have a rough idea of these, but you should ask membership.

        I don’t know what you think are ‘yesterday’s ideals’. A retailer that earns trust by engaging properly with customers rather than CSR greenwash, an employer that recognises that employees give more if they have a real stake. They don’t sound very yesterday.

        You’re right that local managers have no freedom to respond to members. That’s exactly what we want to change. Bad IT should not be used as an excuse for ducking modern organisational practice. IT is what can make this work on a big scale.

        You may think getting a grip is all about being top down. Vladimir Putin would agree I’m sure. We are in the Internet age now, it just won’t wash any more.


      • Hi Shaun, Simple question…who’s going to pay for it? Specifically who will fund membership clusters, membership structure. It is the Co-operative itself that quotes 8m members. I’II ask membership. Timescale Shaun. Can you get Nationwide clusters up and working within 6 months?

  4. Membership clusters can be voluntary and self-organising if given the freedom and information to do so. Members bring knowledge and networks to co-operatives that give them a unique competitive advantage. Without member input and ultimately control the Co-operative is no different from any other business and is not entitled to our loyalty.


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