After the unveiling of the Co-operative Group’s Have Your Say campaign, which is designed to feed ideas into a new purpose for the society, Co-operative News collected personal opinions from around the movement on the survey’s impact:
Who did we speak to?
Jo Bird, co-operative business adviser and organiser of the Co-operative Bank Crisis conference
Dave Boyle, co-operative business adviser
Peter Couchman, Chief Executive of Plunkett Foundation
Chris Herries, former chair of Co-operatives UK and former Co-operative Group director
Peter Hunt, chief executive, Mutuo
Ian Snaith, co-operative solicitor and legal writer
Linda Ward, former Phone Co-op chair
Sion Whellens, Calverts worker co-operative and co-operative business adviser
NB: The above roles show how the contributor is active within the movement. Their comments do not necessarily represent the views of their organisations.
Q1: Can the British public have a say in the Group’s strategy?
Ian Snaith: Yes, it is worth hearing their views. However, it must be the members who make the final decisions. A cynic might suggest that widening consultation to a bigger group provides ammunition to overcome the objections of the activists who dominate the Group’s democratic structures. On the other hand, the activist base is probably atypical and is very narrow.
Linda Ward: I would have preferred it just to have been members, as not all those consulted will understand the co-operative difference.
Peter Hunt: The Co-operative Group is owned by its members, not the general public, so any questions about reform should start there.
Sion Whellens: No – the ‘British public’ has no agency and is a meaningless category in relation to the co-op social business brand.
Dave Boyle: It’s useful to have broad-brush information, but without an equally transparent and participative interpretation process, the danger is that the data gets tortured until it confesses. I’d like the Group to make the dataset available for everyone to work with afterwards.
Chris Herries: While the opinions of the British public are interesting and can inform customer service, they should not be deciding strategy. We are not a plebiscite of public opinion where people who don’t even shop in our stores can chip in on the same basis as members. All of our strategy should be decided in the light of our values and principles, otherwise we cease to be a co-operative.
Jo Bird: No, not really. Consulting members, employees and suppliers would have been better.
Peter Couchman: Consultation with the wider membership should always be encouraged rather than assuming elected members have a complete understanding of member views.
Cathy Jamieson: Clearly as a politician I am no stranger to polling and surveys. It is important to reach out to as wide an audience as possible in this kind of survey and the Group will no doubt get a wide range of responses back.
Shaun Fensom: Yes, of course the views of the public are important when planning strategy. However, it is the views of members that should be decisive.
Iain Macdonald: I see nothing wrong with consulting the public, but if our democratic structures had been properly used there should have been no need for this.
Q2: Where should profits be distributed?
Peter Hunt: A consumer co-op without a dividend misses a real opportunity to build loyalty. It should also reward employees. There should not be a disproportionate reward for senior executives in such a customer-facing business. It is part of the values and principles to help other co-operative organisations and there is a strong tradition of campaigning and community support. None of these are mutually exclusive.
Chris Herries: The basis of a consumer co-op is that the surplus should be divided between customers in proportion to trade. Lowering prices should happen before the surplus is taken, employees should be properly remunerated and have the opportunity for a dividend.
Peter Couchman: This is a decision for the members to take each year. It is not an either/or decision as the members should be approving the proportion that goes to each. The survey could provide useful guidance for this, but should not be at the cost of regular member engagement on the issue.
Dave Boyle: Anything that builds engagement and a sense of participation among employees is welcome, and we already do the rest. The issue’s not either/or, but how much in which direction, and how do we decide.
Ian Snaith: It’s really important to keep the link between members and the proceeds of the business. The members own the business. It should be run in their interests.
Sion Whellens: Co-op profits should be reinvested in the business, then distributed to members, then used for Principle seven aims as decided by the members. The ‘community’ is an imaginary entity, like ‘the British public’ and ‘the nation’.
Jo Bird: The Co-operative will go bust if it prioritises lowering prices. It should play to its inherent strengths – ownership and control by members. All co-operatives should aim to pay employees at least a living wage.
Q3: Why do you think the Group is questioning its political funding?
Cathy Jamieson: From the tens of questions in the survey it seems the Co-operative Group and their advisers are questioning a wide range of issues. It is no secret that following the events of last year the Co-operative Group has sought to save money. The Group must continue to engage across the political spectrum but I believe that the Co-operative Party plays an important role in our movement.
Sion Whellens: It wants to weaken or break its relationship with the Co-op Party, or perhaps be free to make political donations elsewhere.
Peter Hunt: It appears to me that the loaded and unsophisticated questions about political funding serve one purpose, which is to end this tradition. This seems a strange focus when there are many more pressing issues. By asking non-members and non-customers their opinion on this in such a leading way shows both a lack of understanding of the value of the Co-operative Party and a crass determination to see its abolition.
Jo Bird: The Co-operative Group continues to pay a high price for funding the Co-operative and Labour parties. Such funding helps to create a culture of cronyism and corruption that leads to business and governance disasters.
Iain Macdonald: I am sure some in the Group feel that a lot of money has gone into political funding with little positive result. I agree it is time to re-examine how best to use the political system to promote our values based business model.
Dave Boyle: It is something that costs money we don’t have, alienates friends we could do with and makes enemies we would be better without, and does so without the ordinary members in whose name its all done having any role whatsoever.
Chris Herries: The question seems to have been asked by people who don’t understand the historical reasons for the Co-op Party and who also do not understand the benefits that the Group and the movement gain from the work of the Party. It is unfortunate the questions are being asked and in such a biased way.
Shaun Fensom: The political point scoring over the Paul Flowers issue made those in the leadership who are against funding the Co-operative Party feel that now is their chance to change it. This should be a question for members alone.
Peter Couchman: It is right for any co-op to question its distributions regularly. What I found harder to understand was making the option as lower prices versus political engagement. Normal research would have gone on to test all the possible options against each other.
Q4: Why does the survey not talk about co-op principles?
Chris Herries: I can only surmise that they are not thought to be important – which is rather unfortunate, as they are still the basis for any organisation that wishes to remain a co-operative.
Dave Boyle: Partly because the survey is created by people with insufficient grounding in them, but also because, to most people, they’re just gobbledegook which don’t relate to the priorities they have as members. As a survey which is seeking to gain mass engagement, it has to work on the basis of what people’s knowledge is.
Ian Snaith: There is a belief that some kind of community benefit is enough and a failure to understand, or want to understand, that co-ops are there to serve their members and further their interests.
Linda Ward: That was really worrying. Maybe there is a plan afoot to get support for changing our very existence.
Peter Hunt: Perhaps management thinks that these are too difficult to explain.
Iain Macdonald: I don’t think there is anything sinister in that. The survey implies values and principles in a number of questions.
Jo Bird: I can only assume that decision makers at the Group have not sought or accepted advice from anyone who understands co-ops.
Q5: What questions are missing?
Our panel came up with a list of questions that included:
• How would respondents like to be involved in decision-making in the business and forming strategy?
• How can executives and board members be made effectively accountable?
• Should the Group wind up its activities and reinvest all of its assets the co-op movement?
• What should the Group do to re-grow local roots?
• Should the Group break itself up?
• Should the Group be competing with the big four grocery retailers on their terms?
• What could democratic member control look like?
• What contributions should members be expected to make?
• What goods or services – irrespective of what it provides now – would you like the Co-operative to provide for you?