Eliza Brierley was the first woman member of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society. She joined in March 1846, in an age when women could not vote or even join trade unions. Women had an equal vote in co-operative governance 80 years before they had an equal vote for parliament.
This kind of change characterises co-operatives as a dynamic form of organisation, able to adapt to the world around them and respond to progressive values. It is that same spirit that we need now in dialogue and debate around the future of the UK’s largest co-operative, the Co-operative Group.
While not all change is good change, we should be open to innovation. The ‘paradox of alternatives’, as I call it, is that it is easy to act out the same process of marginalisation that the mainstream visits on you. Co-operatives are, in the words of Jaroslav Vanek, like a seawater fish in a freshwater pond – operating in a market that doesn’t have the institutions to allow for economic democracy. As a result, at times — and I can recognise this trait in myself — you can get defensive or introverted rather than hungry for risk and innovation.
It is clear that the commercial context for the Co-operative Group ought to prompt some radical change. This may start with its governance, but will need to move on to embed a culture of innovation throughout its operations.
Remember, even in recent history, the Co-operative Group has not necessarily been the model to emulate. In 2008 Dame Pauline Green, for Co-operatives UK, was critical in these very pages of the failure to include expert directors, the weakness of the three tiers as a filter for the national board, and of the size of the board. Now, Lord Myners helps considerably by making a practical set of forward proposals.
I recognise that other issues may have spilled over into this debate on governance change; from the role of the Co-operative Party, the support from the Group to the wider movement, the pressures that have followed the change in ownership of the Co-operative Bank, the briefings, leaks and the resignation of the Group chief executive. But these are not the issues that should lead when it comes to an independent co-operative working to design and agree with its members a governance system that should evolve and last for decades.
To help inform this, Co-operatives UK has completed research, started last year, by Professor Johnston Birchall on the governance of co-operatives. The first phase looked at hybrid models of co-operatives. The second reviews the governance of 60 of the world’s largest co-operatives.
There are some fundamental principles of member ownership and member control, but we can change the traditions of how these are put into practice. There is, it turns out, no one single way to govern a co-operative.
There is nothing in the initial proposals of Lord Myners that calls into question the underlying co-operative identity of the Group. At the same time, as our research shows and our experienced team knows, there are different ways of designing an effective democracy, alongside a mandate for leadership. So much is about the practical detail, including where accountability and authority rests.
So we must work fast and think long-term. There needs to be genuine consultation, because good governance in practice is all about alignment. But let’s not debate if there needs to be change or not. As modern, successful co-operatives fit for these times, we must want to change in order to be more effective – and more co-operative.