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.

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Good governance in the Group

I’ve mentioned a couple of times the Co-operative Group’s current member survey Have Your Say.  I now want to draw your attention to another – unofficial – online discussion forum and questionnaire which has just been launched to encourage debate on the way forward for the Group.

The Manchester Area Committee of the Group (area committees are the lowest tier in the Group’s current complex structure) deserve congratulations for establishing Co-operative Springboard (http://springboard.coop).  As they say, they’ve done this as their response to the Group’s current corporate governance review being conducted by Lord Myners.  I think they’re right to see the review potentially as an opportunity to strengthen, rather than diminish, good cooperative governance structures within the Group – though this outcome is by no means guaranteed, and there are strong contrary pressures which would move the Group further away from its democratic roots.

The Manchester Area Committee stress that the Group’s membership structure is potentially a real advantage which competitors would be delighted to have: “We are missing an opportunity to show how different we are… We must open up. We need to make membership meaningful for the many who don’t take part in elections and meetings,” they say.

Myners is operating on a very short timeframe, so it is important that as much debate as possible about the future governance of one of the world’s largest cooperative businesses takes place now.