Co-operative voices: the movement is forgetting its founding principles: 2005

In September this year, the former Midlands Society Chief Executive and Co-op Group director Willie Tucker said he passionately believed in the co-operative model, which was as relevant today as it was over 100 years ago. At a retirement meeting, 120 col­leagues, friends and family includ­ing Government Minister Margaret Beckett, heard him say: 

There are still too many exam­ples of individuals – sometimes at the highest levels – who are using the Movement for their own personal convenience having lost sight (if indeed they ever had sight) of what exactly it is we are trying to achieve through co-operation.1

Lincoln Co-op director and former Congress President Alan Middleton echoed Mr Tucker’s concerns in a letter a September issue of the Co-operative News, said that the movement is “over-dominated” by paid officers:

Readers need to be quite clear, there are still officials around – employ­ees of the Movement – who will not rest until the voice of the lay member has been completely silenced.2  

Many officials and managers have come from outside the movement and their short period on induction study at the Co-operative College has failed to change the mainstream mindset which prioritises the interests of the balance sheet.

Ron Hunter from Sussex deplored the deferring of  the Quinquennial Review of the movement’s democratic structure and the introduction of Project Exchequer, a management project that uses funding cuts to make savings. He believes that it took no account of the ‘Co-operative Difference’ and is more concerned with implementing decisions already taken by the Group Board without consulting and involving members.3   

A charge that the Group’s financial problems are being used as an opportunity to reduce the powers of elected members in favour of staff, was made by Vic Parks, chair of the Group’s Surrey and Berks Area Committee, writing in a personal capacity. He said that the overarching strategic aim should be to keep alive the aims and ambitions fought for by previous co-operators and so convincing others that there is a real alternative.  Staff members at all levels should genuinely embrace co-operative ideology and “walk the talk”. Robin Matakies adds:

Savage cuts have been imposed upon committees in a cavalier and undemocratic manner, without taking into account the fact that ordinary members, rather than management, own the society . . . 4 

Noting funding cuts to some sectors, notably the Woodcraft Folk, the Women’s Guild and the Co-op News, Mr Parks advocated continuing support to such bodies which are part of the means to achieve the overarching strategic aim ending: 

. . . and – from the point of view of co-operative democracy – it’s later than we think.

The net profit to sales ratio has many flaws as a measure of business performance, said Martyn Wates, Chief Financial Officer of United Co-operatives. It takes no account of the sales mix of a business and the range of services offered to members by their society.  Most co-operators would rather have provision of the widest possible range of services than a higher financial return produced by a society acting as a property investment business, renting its property to non-co-operator competitors.6

‘One-off disposals’ distort reports of business performance, notes Martin Wates. Such sales  – usually of commercially viable enterprises –  temporarily enhance the balance sheet, but reduce the society’s service to members and workers, included recently:

  • the whole milk-producing and processing sector of Farmcare – with  protests from profitable dairies in Leeds and Wales
  • Birmingham Dairies
  • Priory Motors
  • Thurmaston store
  • Slough Supermarket
  • The ‘fine, new Co-op Pioneer shop’ in Dover’s popular supermarket    centre which had enjoyed steady and continual profits

There are reports of moves to sell the Shoefayre shops and 100 or so former Alldays stores,8 the Coventry Superstore and Travel Shop.9

It should be noted that the half-yearly trading profit of the Midlands Co-op was down by 6.9% – trading results which were said to ‘reflect the impact of the disposal of the society’s dairy business in May’.10

Philip Rapier, member of the Group’s South Wales Regional Committee, writing in a personal capacity makes a more explicit charge: that milking the cash cow while destroying the democratic structure of the movement by stealth appears to be the present tactic of the present Co-op Group hierarchy. He said that the decline of the movement’s democratic heritage must be stopped by changing the status quo, which is a vehicle for creating a self-perpetuating lucrative sinecure for an under-achieving hierarchy. This, being well represented on the Remuneration Committee, is awarded excessive pay and pensions, compared with those of industrialists who built their own businesses, often risking everything they had, including their own homes. Philip Rapier concludes: 

Never forget, the greatest enemy of democracy is complacency.7

M.D Mathieson questions the whole concept of the Co-operative Group, as it now exists:

The Co-operative Group now operates at such a scale that it has lost an important co-operative asset, a sense of belonging to a community . . .the individual members do not vote for Board members, do not have a vote on the annual report and accounts and cannot attend the AGM. Representatives elected by an obscure transferable vote system do all this for them.11 

References: Co-operative News 

  1. Willie’s parting shot: 6.9.05
  2. Striking a raw nerve-Alan Middleton: 6.9.05
  3. Democratic control must not be treated as an optional extra – Ron Hunter: 6.9.05
  4. Shocking tactics – Robin Matakies: 4.10.05
  5. Group’s cuts are damaging fabric of our Movement – Vic Parks: 22.9.05
  6. Return on capital is best guide [sic] – Martyn Wates: 6.9.05
  7. Complacency threatens co-operative democracy – Philip Rapier: 6.9.05
  8. Membership matters: September 2005
  9. Profits down at Midlands Co-op: 1.11.05
  10. Members’ views vital to the decisionmaking process – Leslie Freitag, 19.9.05
  11. The whole democratic structure of the Group should be changed – M.D.Mathieson: 19.9.05

BP: 6.10.05

3 Responses to Co-operative voices: the movement is forgetting its founding principles: 2005

  1. vic parks says:

    The Co-operative News has lost its independence due to the power of the Group’s finance. It is, somewhat, a propaganda tool for Group. The paper ought to be called: “The Co-operative Group Good News”!!!

    An independent forum for critical analysis, to try and move the Co-operative Group towards greater democracy, is well overdue. If nothing else, it may help new lay members be aware that the Co-operative Group is not quite the “Caring and Sharing” organisation it would like to pretend it is.

    The vast majority of lay members, at all levels, become “nodding donkeys.” If members criticise Management and begin to have some influence on opinion, they are labelled “trouble makers” and become targets for silencing. I know, I am one. The worst thing is that many “nodding donkeys” join forces with management instead of supporting those who are prepared to put their heads over the parapet.

  2. More Street Cleaning and less Social Cleansing, please says:

    Co-operative Party members on Lambeth council are leading the eviction of decades old housing co-ops. Formal request to suspend their membership has been submitted –

  3. More Street Cleaning and less Social Cleansing, please says:

    Over a year since we submitted our complaint to Co- operative Party, still no action or investigation into Lambeth council’s decimation of housing co-ops. Lambeth council’s Co-op Party Cllrs ignore what’s happening, they won’t even reply to our letters or emails. The Co-operative Party is a sham.

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