Member democracy need not suffer in a new single society

SOME people say that one of the casualties of creating a national society will be member involvement. I have a one word response to that charge. That word...

SOME people say that one of the casualties of creating a national society will be member involvement.
I have a one word response to that charge. That word is: "Nonsense."
When United Norwest and Yorkshire societies merged in 2002, some people said exactly the same thing – that member participation would suffer in the new enlarged society.
Let me explain how United Co-operatives has "suffered" in practice:
• We&#039ve "suffered" from attendances at our members&#039 meetings more than doubling
• We&#039ve "suffered" from a 85 per cent increase in distributions to our key stakeholder groups
• We&#039ve also "suffered" from a 76 per cent increase in our member relations budgets since the merger.
If those are all signs of member involvement and support for it "suffering" as societies get larger, then I know a lot of Co-op members who would be happy for a bit more ‘suffering&#039.
Instead, what these facts show are two very simple points.
Firstly, they show that Co-op members are just like everyone else. They want to be associated with success.
The recent history at United Co-operatives proves conclusively that successful member participation goes hand in hand with being a successful co-operative retail force.
And the second thing they demonstrate is that it is only by being successful that we can guarantee the profits which are needed in order to provide the resources to support our membership and community involvement activities.
And there is something else which is guaranteed and it is that if we carry on the way we have been doing over the last 40 years, watching our food business decline, then it won&#039t be long until our membership and community activities go the same way.
When considering the single society issue, I have heard it said that some people agree with my analysis but consider that the time isn&#039t right. And they say this because they are engaged on a programme of transformation and change in order to improve the financial performance of their societies.
What we need, they say, is to wait a few years so that we can get our societies into the right shape before we start down this national society route.
Now to those people I say this: Do you really think that our competitors are simply going to sit on the sidelines doing nothing, while we happily get on with our programmes of transformation and change?
The reality is the longer we fiddle about failing to address these issues, the longer we give our competitors the opportunity to take another chunk of our market share. Is that what we want?
So to those people who say that the time is not right, there never will be a right time to address these issues.
For decades the old way in which consolidation has taken place in our Movement has been in an unplanned, piecemeal way, one society at a time and at a typically snail-like pace. And frequently this pace has been driven by weak societies who, having frittered away their assets, have had no option but to merge.
That old way of doing things just won&#039t work anymore. What I believe we need now is new thinking for a new situation.
What I want is a successful national co-operative business, which is focused, disciplined, lean and efficient; a business which has strong regional roots in every part of the UK; which is able to offer members and customers excellent goods and services at competitive prices.
And we need a national society which is underpinned by reinvigorated member participation and with increased resources being devoted to our key stakeholders, including our members, our staff and the communities from which we draw our strength.
In my view, the only way that we can deliver such a vision is through taking the bold decisions needed to bring that situation about. It certainly won&#039t happen by accident. We need to make it happen.
• Peter Marks is Chief Executive of United Co-operatives. This article was adapted and edited from his speech at Congress 2006 in Manchester.

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