Building society ‘democracy’

I have a series of opened envelopes on my desk in front of me, all from building societies telling me that it’s time to cast my votes to approve their accounts, approve the directors’ remuneration and elect my directors.

It’s pretty frustrating. I am pleased that we still have mutually owned building societies after the demutualisation madness twenty years ago.  I support the idea of the societies being member-owned. I want to use my votes.

And yet democracy is not on the agenda. Not one of the building societies offers me a contested election for the board.  The days when there were candidates for building society boards – particularly at the Nationwide – who were unendorsed by the existing board (and who were generally put up by the grassroots Building Societies Members Association) have passed. The BSMA now seems a very small little affair, unfortunately.

Of course, building societies are complex financial institutions and we need competent directors.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the only suitable board members are those initiated into the magic circle of non-exec directorships and who hold accountancy qualifications or have spent their lives in banking or finance. It’s frustrating how few directors mention in their election addresses that they support mutuality, for example.

On the other hand, my relationship with the societies of which I am a member is also pretty much solely a transactional one.  Although I do try to save with some of the smaller societies, I am fickle in my favours, tending to look above all at the interest rates being paid  and nothing much else.

So I will vote, but I will vote without enthusiasm.  And I will vote will no clear sense of how mutual organisations such as building societies can at this late stage in their development ever really be once again genuinely member-owned and member-responsive.

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