Demise of The Co-operative Group / Part 4 - The Recourse
Do I, as a part owner, have any recourse?
I happen not to be a millionaire. Nor do I have access to the bottomless pockets of a corporate legal department. So I, personally, don't have a hope in hell of purchasing justice through the market-driven UK retail legal system. There are others better placed than myself to be exploring this option and one lives in hope that they are (please don't hesitate to give me a shout if you think I can help), but in the mean time, on this front, I am stuck in stasis.
With a democratic structure narrowed down from 600 elected local reps to a 100 Member national Council set up primarily to listen to speeches from executive luminaries; with a Board full of non-co-operators determined not to let the Council “interfere”; and with the side-lining of the democratic voice generally, there seems less scope for democratic recourse now than ever before.
Furthermore, it is important to note that a process of marginalisation of “active” Members is taking place. The newly appointed (not elected) Chair of The Group Board (no more elections – too democratic), Allan Leighton (cost - £250k per annum, whilst concurrently holding down jobs as Chairman (sic) of Matalan Limited, Office Limited, Entertainment One plc, Pace plc and Deputy Chair of Pandora A/S) didn't waste any time in setting out his stall with regard to “active” Members. Utilising the full force of his corporate intelligence, he took the trouble to point out, in the Co-operative News, that the blame for The Group's recent troubles can be placed firmly at the feet of "people".
Not accountants, not professional consultants, not senior executives, not knights and lords, but "people".
And not just ordinary people, but people engaged in "politicking". By this one is led to assume he means anybody who engages with the Group's supposed democratic processes or speaks out at Group meetings or puts together any ideas (apart from filling in online consumer surveys) on how the organisation might be improved.
By trying to isolate the active Membership as being "those with a vested self interest" (unlike his good self with no such “vested self-interest”) he has been endeavouring to do what disgraced US president Richard Nixon did so successfully last century - define and appeal to "the silent majority". This means that anybody who speaks up is immediately not of that righteous majority and, worse, may even be "politickal". It also means that all those who never say a thing are magically tapped into and faithfully represented only by the likes of Mr Leighton/Nixon himself.
This shallow grasp of democracy is hardly surprising considering his background, steeped as it is in the culture of "appointments" - a process whereby buddies and old boys conspire to keep themselves in the gravy. But the message to me, a concerned part owner, is clear. “Put up and shut up. The “big swinging dicks” (courtesy Michael Lewis, “The Big Short”) are here now”.
So, the first thing I have to acknowledge is that, by speaking up at all, I am marginalising myself. I am already the sort of Member the current Chief Executive has, post the most recent AGM, patronisingly branded as “rowdy”. The only good Member is a shut-the-fuck-up Member.
Apart from flying in the face of the history and orientation and values of the organisation and the entire co-operative movement, this marginalisation contradicts The Group's own “Member Engagement Strategy 2014-2016” (now strangely unavailable on The Group's web site). This defines its Membership in terms of a gradient, up which, it is supposedly hoped, Members will slowly move; up which they will even, supposedly, be encouraged to move. The stages in this gradient are defined as:
- Interacting, and
I considered myself at least at stage 4 of this gradient. I have many friends and associates who are at this stage; some of whom may even have been influencing. But it seems clear to me that this new regime has no interest in such people, nor in this gradient, and certainly no interest in encouraging Members to progress up it. The new regime's notion of democratic involvement is consumer surveys. Their notion of community engagement is feedback on what charities to support. Their notion of interaction is passive listening to executive speeches from glorious platforms.
Members off the above gradient remain largely unperturbed. By and large they see no distinction between their Co-operative membership card and their Tesco loyalty card (a huge failing on the part of us, The Group, historically) and continue to shop wherever is nearest and/or cheapest. (And it seems it is more and more to these Members that the new exec and Board are turning for silently expressed approval of their non-co-operative agendas.)
But Members on the gradient have, to varying degrees, more or less in relation to their placement on it, been horrified and traumatised by 2013's revelations and results. The litany of bad executive decisions compounded by pathetic “professional” advice followed by announcements of severe “austerity” measures (sound familiar?) coupled with enormous executive pay outs have left many incredulous and angry.
With 2013 officially acknowledged as “the worst year in The Group's trading history” and with “independent” examiner after “independent” examiner pointing the finger at The Group's democracy it is, by obvious inference, the Involved, Interacting, and Influencing Membership who are to blame. The fact that executive strategic and tactical decisions were supported by the elected Board on the advice of highly paid senior executives, “independent” City accountants, and “Independent” “Professional” Non-Executive Directors (IPNEDs) seems largely to have been lost in the frenzy of blaming democracy.
This has left much of the Involved, Interacting, and Influencing Membership feeling not just angry, but also confused, demoralised, and vaguely guilty.
Involved, Interacting, and Influencing Members are very much aware of and committed to The Group Values & Principles. For the bulk of them, these will figure more urgently in their thinking than the niceties of business decisions because their reasons for being active are precisely those V&Ps. They will be more attuned to The Group's historical and ethical origins than much of the executive management team and will want assurances that these origins won't be disrespected or the V&Ps diluted. They, of course, must also, without let, demand assurances about business performance, but, being lay representatives, their primary interest and their primary responsibility is ethical direction.
What is evident from much of the feedback via Co-op News, the various online fora, and the countless meetings which took place up and down the nation, is that the Involved, Interacting, and Influencing Members don't simply want to “out-Tesco Tesco”. They don't want just another soulless corporation pandering to executive career aspirations and trading exclusively for dominance, market share, and executive bonuses. They want to see the founding principles, “the co-operative difference”, the commitment to equality and fair trading, the partnership with the wider national and international co-operative movement articulated and put into action as never before.
But, with a) legal recourse out, and b) democratic representation at an all-time heavily compromised (if not terminally damaged) low, all that seems left, for what it's worth, is belly-aching via the written word and the trivial social media.
From within the lonely confines of my home/office this looks bleak indeed.
However, I try to convince myself that I can detect a socio-technological swing (see final Part - Finale) which may yet emerge as our best hope.
tbc / Part 5 - The Trust
....to be continued.
© 2015 Deacon Martin