More women needed at senior levels of UK co-operatives

A senior figure in the House Of Lords is calling for a new campaign to break down the barriers which still deter women from achieving their potential.

A senior figure in the House Of Lords is calling for a new campaign to break down the barriers which still deter women from achieving their potential.

Baroness Glenys Thornton says it is time for a determined bid to increase the number of women making it to more senior roles in the Co-operative Movement. The 59-year-old Labour/Co-op peer wrote recently to the News criticising the “unsatisfactory situation” at the highest levels of mutual life.

She said: “Many women have of course been involved in the Co-op Movement since its inception but the representation at senior level is still not good enough.

“What prompted my letter was the New Year issue of Co-op News which had greetings from leaders of the Co-op Movement — and every single one of them was a man.

“That surprised me and it also made me wonder how this could have happened. So I decided I would have a look at the make-up of the Co-operative Group’s regional boards and it turned out only about 20 to 30 per cent of women were members. The Movement gives an impression of being based on ethics and gender equality, but that is not really so at senior level.”

Born in Bradford, West Yorkshire, Glenys Thornton has never been afraid to speak her mind. “I’ve worked in co-ops and social enterorise all my life. I’m fifth generation, both my parents and grandparents were active in politics of various sorts in the peace movement, Labour and Communist Party.

“When I was 16, I joined the Woodcraft Folk and the Bradford Co-op Society. I always enjoyed public speaking too. I entered a contest called ‘Youth Speaks For Itself’, which in those days was organised at Co-op Congress. I came second the first year and won the next.”

A graduate of the London School of Economics, she was Political Secretary of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society from 1981, joining the public affairs team of the Co-operative Wholesale Society upon their merger in 1985 and working there until 1992. She also served as General Secretary of the Fabian Society from 1993 to 1996.

But the fight for equality has always been at the top of her agenda: “I’ve been involved in women’s issues all my life. In the 1990s I helped set up initiatives like the Labour Women’s Network and was also heavily involved in Emily’s List, which campaigned to have more women in Parliament,

“I continue to do things like mentor potential Parliamentary candidates. It’s still the case that we have to carry on breaking through the barriers and make sure more women are ready to put themselves forward at all levels of public life. In the Labour Party, all-women shortlists were controversial, but it was clear that things had to change.

“We also ended practices like sending all-male delegations to Party Conference. We have to encourage the next generation of women and I know a lot of work has been done to improve Co-op women’s organisations but we can’t stop now as there is a lot more to be done.

“I think Co-operatives UK need to set themselves a few targets and aim at something like a 50 per cent increase in involvement at senior level.”

Elevated to the House of Lords in 1998, Baroness Thornton also served as Chair of the Social Enterprise Coalition until 2008, when she was appointed as a junior Health Minister in the Lords. She continues as Shadow Health spokeswoman in the Lords and is also cautiously optimistic about the Coalition’s new-found enthusiasm for co-operative initiatives.

“I have been watching with a great deal of interest what is going on with the Big Society and this Government’s supposed commitment to mutuals and co-operatives.

“I think we need to be wary but it’s good that the Conservative-led Government and Prime Minister have apparently come on board and said they are supportive.

“If they are doing that then we need to make sure we are not left behind and go with it. However, I would urge the leadership to take them on and make sure they put their money where their mouth is. I think they are handling it just about right. It will be fascinating to see what happens next and I am ready to help at any point.” 

Based in north London, where she lives with husband John, Baroness Thornton makes regular trips back up north to help look after her elderly parents. In 2009, she was targeted by the Daily Mail at the height of the expenses scandal but cleared of any wrongdoing when her role as carer was revealed. 

“It was a very hurtful and wounding experience and it has made me very wary of the media. Things have been cleared up in Parliament, it’s all a lot more transparent and those are good outcomes. But the whole episode has damaged politics and politicians and it will take a long time for things to recover.”

In the months ahead, Glenys Thornton and her fellow Labour peers will continue to fight their admirable rearguard action against some of the Coalition’s most hated policies.

“When I was appointed as a peer, I expected to be able to vote for my own abolition and years later we are still here. But at the moment we are doing a good job fighting the NHS Bill and Welfare Reform Bill.

“However, I don't think the withdrawal of the Bill will happen through the Lords because Cameron is sticking with it. It will be through action and loud voices outside in the world of the NHS and the general public.”

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