The Co-op may be on life support but there's still a lot to fight for

This is a recent article about the future of the Co-op, which was also published on Politics Home:

The Co-op has survived two World Wars, the Great Depression and Thatcherism, but today lies struggling on life support. It’s heart-breaking. All around us circle the vultures: the City folk and Conservatives who want the Co-op to fail.

Tomorrow the Coop Group meets to discuss its future and vote on whether to accept the recommendations of the review by Lord Myners into its governance.

All the signs are that an uneasy compromise is being reached. The board has put up a watered down motion which members may choose to back alongside verbal reassurances of more focus on members.

But Saturday’s meeting is not the last chance saloon for the Coop Group’s members. In order to make binding changes members will need to vote by a two thirds majority at up to two further special meetings later this year.

And let’s be clear, the answer to the Co-op’s crisis is not in throwing obscene amounts of our members’ money at City whizzkids. We are going to do it by being Co-operators. We must be business-like, but not just like any other business.

Co-operatives across the globe hold the same core values and seven principles. They are anchored on the Rochdale principles from 1844, last approved by the 1995 International Co-operative Alliance.

These principles underline that co-ops are voluntary organisations, open to all who accept the responsibilities of membership; are democratic which members able to control the cooperative’s capital. Members share equally in the proceeds. Co-operatives are also autonomous, self-help organisations and they provide education and training for members, elected representatives, managers and employees. And finally co-operatives work together for the greater good of the community.

The Cooperative Group fails those seven principles on its recent performance.

The Group has seven million members, more than all political parties put together. Yet management spent £1.5 million on the Have Your Say survey which you didn’t have to be a member to complete and even our bitterest enemies could take part. It was an unnecessary, undemocratic farce.

We understand the need for management boards, but there must be direct accountability to members. Lord Myners seems to have lost sight of this in his proposals.

In the recapitalisation plans the members have not had a say. We must properly support and train our elected Co-op representatives. They are the owners. What we do not need is people declaring the organisation ungovernable, and demanding their replacement by people with no co-operative experience.

As the principles have been eroded corporate spending by management has spiralled. It’s been like the final days of the Roman Empire: a plush new office next to the London Stock Exchange, millions on consultants and the notorious double pay bonus for executives.

We need guarantees that no major reforms go ahead without proper engagement and consultation with our members; that the search for the next Chief Executive will be drawn from a short-list of excellent candidates with a knowledge of, and commitment to, mutuals; a restatement of the seven principles of co-operation, and a plan to implement them. There’s still a lot to fight for.