East of England Co-operation

East of England Co-op logoThe warning signals have been plain to see for at least a decade but have been ignored. Co-operation remains important but it requires management changes if it is to adapt to the present world.

Unfortunately the sharks have been circling, people who have no understanding of the mutual model but believe the only motivation for any commercial enterprise is shareholder profit. They must be resisted. What’s now required is not far short of a peasants revolt. Co-op members need to stand together and push aside corporate greed.

In the east of England we had a thriving mutual. It had a range of business interests which served the local community. In addition there were a considerable number of clubs and activities, all of which held the local community together and gave great pleasure, training and support. That has gradually been eroded. Co-op Jujnirs perform

I was once part of the Suffolk Forum; a small group of Members who were supposed to represent the larger Membership. The truth was we were powerless. Our recommendations had to be forwarded to another committee, and then to go to yet another set of decision makers – very often these were the paid management team. So the governed were, in effect, managing themselves.

Several disastrous decisions were taken. The all-encompassing supply of goods and services that the Co-op once provided have been slowly dismantled. General stores and department stores have gone. In the eastern area of England that substantial part of the business was sold to a commercial company who stripped the assets and were then liquidated. It was a cynical exploitation, and very poor management decision. The sale was secretly and poorly managed, leaving the Co-op cruelly exposed.

The Rule Book was used by poor quality managers to prevent real discussion or innovation. This is a complex area, well beyond this paper, but I’ll give two examples. There is an age restriction imposed upon those wishing to stand as Board Members. It’s discriminatory, and probably illegal, and it prevents many people who are retired, yet have considerable experience, from serving.

Samson, CEOThere were mergers, and that dreadful idea that growth brings success was paramount. Then the CEO left suddenly. It’s tempting to add that he did so under a cloud, but despite attempts to find out why no explanation has ever been provided.

In recent years the Suffolk Forum and many of the clubs and activities once supported by the Co-op have been disbanded. They have left a huge hole in the structure. It’s clear that commercial management cannot, and will not, understand mutuality. Profit is their only concern.

I’ve a Co-operative Bank account, and once had a Britannia Building Society account. I had the latter because it was a mutual society. That has now been stolen, and is in the hands of hedge funds (that’s another name for asset strippers). It’s not far away from a criminal act. However we now have no means of public expression. Local newsletters, forums and discussion groups have all gone. The Co-operative web sites rarely have an email eddress that Members can use, and Board Members seem as bemused as the rest of us.

A decade ago I could expect a Dividend payment close to 3% of my purchases. It was a great incentive, and much better than any clubcard offered by supermarkets. That has been reduced, and now I’m given vouchers to spend at the Co-op, not money. That’s OK, and understandable, but they offer very poor value. Importantly I no longer feel part of my local Co-op.

This must be stopped. I welcome the recent resignations of people who have no understanding of mutual concepts. However those that remain need to look very carefully at our future. The sharks are still circling ready to gnaw away at the efforts of over a century of dedicated workers and volunteers who built a wonderful organisation.

There are good examples; Waitrose and John Lewis Partnership, and others, show what can be done. The credit unions could (should) be given greater freedom, pulling them out of the serfdom mentality so they provide wider services to more people. We need a mutual bank.

Let’s make changes. Let’s stick together and ensure the Co-operative movement remains the stalwart provider that it has always been. It needs to change but to even consider that it should become just another PLC that can be traded by disinterested, but greedy, investors would be a tragedy equal to the privatisation of our national assets.