Corporate hubris? “Manchester Knows Best”? Legacy of Peter Marks?

Reading today’s CityAM article prompts the writer to ask if the Co-operative Group has consulted its membership on selling its farming operations, which – if turned to more organic methods and locally marketed produce as Lincolnshire has done under Ursula Lidbetter – could greatly enhance its environmental and tarnished ethical image.

A very experienced and involved co-operator has sent the following critique, also published on social media. Others received are in line with his thinking.

co-op ugov survey 2

I do not wish to necessarily criticise any of the individual officers or management within the Group who have been operating in very difficult circumstances in recent months, often not of their own making. That said, however, the more I think about this survey and how it is likely to be (mis)used, the crosser I become. It is riddled with methodological flaws that I suspect most ‘A’ level sociology or statistics students would have got a roasting for including in their coursework! This begins with the first questions which do not give respondents who claim to be members or employees the option of putting in their membership number. Not only would this validate the data, but it would also identify those members of other retail societies whose responses may be based on their experiences in other co-operatives’ shops.

The Co-operative Bank

About 3 questions in, there is a question about which services the respondent has ceased to use during the past 12 months. Despite the Co-operative Bank being listed in the previous question as one of the options of businesses that respondents may have dealt with, it is absent from the subsequent question, clearly suggesting that management do not want attention drawn to how much custom has been lost since it ceased to be a genuinely “co-operative” bank with the recent bail-out/in by hedge funds.

Community engagement

The next set of conceptual problems are around definitions of “community”. The survey writers seem to think that there are only two kinds of community – communities of place and on-line communities. No credence is given to all the other communities of interest that people might identify with and be relevant to their member engagement with the Group – religious, political, social, cultural, stamp collecting, railway enthusiasm, allotment keeping etc. etc. This seriously undermines the credibility of any conclusions drawn from these questions. The problem is compounded by the lumping together of all forms of local community engagement into a single concept, as if giving a nice cheque to the local rotary club is the same as developing a real working relationship with the Woodcraft Folk or a member-owned allotment association. The real question here should be whether community support be directed towards groups that share the behavioural, participative and democratic values and characteristics of the Co-operative Movement, or be of a paternalist type that re-enforces established power structures in society.

The Co-operative Party

co-op party logoThe political questions are clearly fixed to lead the respondent away from supporting the Co-op Party, and offer no other models of political engagement (e.g. supporting any other party, or having a multi-party approach), what, in exchange for 10p per member per year, the Party has been delivering (e.g. 6 private members’ bills that have reformed co-op legislation, and more than 1 million extra members of co-ops and mutuals in the last 20 years). Setting this donation up against a vague and woolly alternative of community support or what would actually be a derisory increase in the dividend is disingenuous in the extreme.

‘The Co-operative’ is only one of many sectors in the co-operative movement

Then we get to confused and inconsistent use of terminology – ‘The Co-operative’ is used as if it was the only Co-operative, which is kind of understandable but is still very confusing when we know the branding is shared between a number of large societies. Much, much worse is the use of the term ‘big businesses’ when they mean corporations other than co-ops, but also when they mean large organisations including the Co-operative Group. This misleads respondents into making responses that they don’t mean – for example I am opposed to lot of things being done by big (private) businesses that I’d be more than happy for co-operatives of any size to do – especially concerning community involvement activities . . . Finally, the lack of any opportunity to comment except in terms of what might change in a local store is understandable from the point of view of easily dealing with the data collected, but undermines any real sense in which this is a chance for respondents to have their own say on their own terms.

Co-operative Organisers?

The only good thing is the suggestion of employing hundreds of community organisers, but even here there isn’t the option to suggest that they spend part of their time in a customer-facing role in stores, and part-time doing development work. What we really need in my view are Co-operative Organisers in each neighbourhood, and there is nowhere to say this – an example of the Group missing out on the benefit of the collective intelligence of its members by insisting on take it or leave it choices.

Most scary of all, is that it seems highly likely that the results of this will be used as a stick to beat members with and to impose what management want to happen.

Sadly this feels to me like more of the culture of “Manchester Knows Best” corporate hubris that landed the Group in its present difficulties in the first place. It is hard not to conclude that the legacy of Peter Marks is alive and well!! .

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