I try not to go on too much about the Co-operative Group (my aim here is to talk about cooperative businesses in all their diversity, across the world and not just in the UK), but current developments at the Group require some comment.
The top management (somehow I feel myself wanting to call them the top brass) have handled the election of the three Member-Nominated Directors to the Board by taking ineptitude to a quite remarkable new level. This is a consummate performance of how not to do it.
If you haven’t already picked up the story of how the Group has decided that its members will only have three candidates’ names on the ballot paper for the three vacancies, having failed to offer members the full six-person shortlist, I would refer you to recent news coverage in the Guardian. Have a look too at the piece written by Pauline Green (ex Co-operatives UK general secretary and now the International Co-operative Alliance’s much admired President) on how she was bumped at the last minute off the ballot paper.
Allan Leighton today in Co-op News offers the canard that the Lucky Three have the professional and business expertise which the others lacked, although quite how, say, Hazel Blears meets these criteria when Pauline Green doesn’t is beyond me.
I have to agree with Pauline when she states that “Contested elections are a pre-condition for a vigorous, lively and thrusting co-operative”. As she points out, this is a devastating blow to hopes of a more democratic way ahead for the Group: “Anyone who knows the co-operative movement will understand without any equivocation that the refusal to give some serious consideration to the wishes of the member council was a move that in a stroke destroyed all the trust and confidence that might have been built in the coming weeks and months.”
I am worried for the Group. It is a poorly performing business in a sector where even the established market leaders are struggling. There are perhaps two ways the Group could be saved. It could be run simply as another concern, ditching any pretence of being a different or more ethical form of business, with the hopes that, before too long, it could make itself sufficiently attractive to a would-be purchaser. Or it could use its cooperative structure as a unique business advantage, majoring on its ethical difference (including such things as fairtrade) and taking advantage of the shopping experiences and feedback from its many millions of members to gain competitive edge over rivals.
My route would be the second. The Group’s current Board, I believe, have chosen the first.