Among the few beneficiaries of the financial crisis have been both the idea and the institutions of the co-operative and mutual movement. With their roots in Victorian self-help it is a nice irony that it should be they that point a way forward from the financial wreckage whose proximate roots lie in the Thatcherite promotion of “Victorian Values”. Of course, it is a miracle that so many of them survived at all given that one aspect of Thatcherite deregulation was to encourage the de-mutualisation of building societies. And it is a sobering thought that of those building societies who followed that path, not one has survived as an independent entity.
As the crisis has bitten many have rediscovered the virtues of such organisations. The John Lewis Partnership is now routinely held up as a model for both private and public sectors, while the Co-operative Bank has prospered precisely because of declining trust in the banking PLCs. So those looking for alternative corporate models will have been delighted by last week’s news that the Co-operative has been chosen as the preferred bidder for the 632 branches that nationalised bank Lloyds is selling off. However, not everyone is so delighted. The credit rating agency Fitch promptly put the Co-op Bank on “ratings watch negative” as a result of this proposed acquisition.