Meet … Denise Scott-McDonald

Denise is the newly elected president of the Co-op Group National Members’ Council

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m from London and have lived here for most of my life, apart from time away at Plymouth University, and some time after that spent in America. My goal in moving to America was to become rich and famous, change the world and become a journalist. I ended up volunteering with a homeless charity on 42nd Street in New York and later got into Columbia University Journalism School, which was one of my biggest dreams – this opened the door and I worked in radio, and then for Bloomberg Television when I moved back to the UK. I left that because I had a very young child and went back into part-time work.

I’m currently a councillor and the deputy leader of Greenwich Council, but have been involved in politics from an early age. When I was a kid, politics was always being discussed around the dinner table – it was totally normal for me to sit there as a child and be encouraged to put my point of view across. It was through that I learned about politics, fairness, justice and what was going on in the world. I really credit my mum with what I would call ‘doing politics’, she would help out with community events and bring people together. That strongly influenced me, I’m very involved with lots of things. Deep in my heart, I’m one of those little kids that always wants to change the world. 

How did you first hear about co-ops?

My earliest memory is going shopping with my parents and my grandmother to our local Co-op stores, and arguing with my sister about who got to put the stamps in the book! But the wider understanding came a lot later, probably when I was a student. I studied humanities at Plymouth, which included looking at the development of Western thought, how fairness came into society, the idea of ordinary human beings having a vote and the rights of the human being. Understanding about co-operation grew from that, and from the places I have lived and worked.

The Royal Borough of Greenwich is a Co-op Council. How does this inform its behaviour?

There’s a long history of co-operation in Greenwich. The Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society was founded in Woolwich in 1872 (it merged into the CWS in 1985) and a lot of people still talk about it. I think it’s really important that we decided to become a co-operative council in terms of how we do things – we’re not completely there yet, but we’re on a journey towards a much more ideal co-operative model. It is having an impact on how we respond to things.

For example, during the pandemic, we set up the Greenwich Hub for people who are self-isolating, through which volunteers deliver food or medication. This was a real opportunity for us to commission an organisation to do something very co-operatively, so we worked with Greenwich Co-operative Development Agency. It has also helped in our approach to things like tackling school holiday hunger, getting small businesses into more government or local authority contracts, engaging with the voluntary sector and adult social care. Being a co-operative council helps us follow the co-op values and be more ambitious about making a positive difference wherever we can. 

What inspired you to stand for the National Members’ Council (NMC)?

For me, the NMC was a no-brainer, because I’m fascinated by business and am also very political. I saw an advert, and when I began to investigate, it seemed like something I could do. I saw that it was about a values-led business and wanted to know more about how you make this work; and in particular how you make it work for the average person so it’s democratic. I didn’t actually get elected to the Council the first time I stood, but I was co-opted onto one of the Council seats reserved to address equality. The second time I stood, I got elected. In terms of the presidency, I was encouraged to stand by someone I really respect, who knows me and who is aware of the work I have done. I honestly didn’t expect to win, but I decided to put my application in and be part of the debate. It was quite a gruelling process, and after the result it took two or three days for it to sink in.

What do you hope to achieve as president?

The previous president (Nick Crofts) did a lot of work in getting the Council where it is now. I want to build on that so it becomes an even better organisation and feels more inclusive and representative. I’d like to see the Council grow into its role: it is meant to champion the co-operative values and principles, make sure those things are embedded in all that the Council does, and hold the board to account.

Things like the Co-op Group’s campaign on shop workers safely grew out of the NMC, and when you see things like that, or the work on Fair Tax, or modern anti-slavery, you get a sense of the power of the democratic voice. When you have such a voice you need to use it, and take the opportunities to influence and have a deeper impact that goes wider than the 100 people that sit on the NMC. Outwardly I’d also like to raise the profile of the Council, what it is and what it is trying to achieve. A lot of people don’t know about it, including colleagues in my local store who ask me which shop I work in every time I present my colleague discount card.

One of the NMC’s roles is to hold the board to account. Does it Do this effectively?

I think the answer is yes and no, depending on where you sit. There are different points of view on the Council about what ‘holding the board to account’ means, and what this looks like in practice. At the moment it looks different to different people: someone new to the Council (who is not on any of the committees and who hasn’t been to Manchester or met Council colleagues or the board because of the pandemic) will have a different perception from someone who has been on the NMC for a long time.

It’s a big debate and I think we need to do a better job in defining what this accountability looks like, and empowering people to do it. We do some things very well in this area, but there’s always room for improvement. I believe in positive relationships and the critical friend model – challenging while being respectful. 

What do you think the biggest challenges are now, for the Co-op Group and the NMC?

In the immediate future, Covid, Covid, Covid! The NMC hasn’t met face to face for over a year now, which presents challenges that are going to dominate for a long time, and which lead to other debates, such as around how you engage new people on the Council.

There are other challenges for the Group too, which are also challenges for us as a Council to make sure we hold the board to account, in areas such as climate change, sustainability, recycling, performance, procurement, equality and inclusivity. Steve Murrells has set some targets for the organisation in terms of race equality, for example doubling the number of black store managers from 3% to 6%. I’m on the diversity inclusion working group chaired by Margaret Casely-Hayford (Group director), which feeds into the board. The Council itself is also working out how to become more inclusive: it is much harder for someone from a black or Asian background to get on the Council, so there’s work to do. 

Where would you like the Council to be in 10 years?

I’d love to see more people know about the Council – whether that’s the members, colleagues, the public or people within the Council itself. I’d love to see more education for Council members and the public – we’re doing some work on this now, but I’d like it to be normal, not a new initiative. I’d love us to work better online, because the whole online arena is a minefield. And it would be wonderful to see a cultural shift in the way the Council works and operates and the democracy side of it improve – I would love the council in ten years’ time to be welcoming and the problems we have now ironed out. Cultural change over one year is impossible, but 10 years? Ten years is good. 

In this article

Join the Conversation