Has the Co-operative Group reached the finishing line?

It has been a long, hard slog for everyone involved in working out a new governance structure of the Group. Changes still, of course, have to be approved...

It has been a long, hard slog for everyone involved in working out a new governance structure of the Group.

Changes still, of course, have to be approved by members and will be discussed by regional boards and independent society members over the coming weeks. But it feels like the final hurdle is close.

For a renowned sleeping giant, the Group has woken and sprinted through a muddy course of a media circus, political spotlight, regulator restrictions and internal battles. That it has had to keep ahead of the banks that hold its debts, with a threat of defaults, is regrettable for a business owned by its members.

I don’t need to remind readers of costly mistakes and the loss of the movement’s bank that have led to a decision to propose a board primarily of (presumably) City-types who head up multi-billion pound stockholder companies.

While the typical City director has that perception, there are many philanthropists who hold the spirit of co-operation to their professional lives – and should more than qualify for the posts. One only has to also look at the largest co-operatives of the world for directors that know the ways of mutual business, many hold places on the board of the International Co-operative Alliance.

The man behind the governance review, Lord Myners, said attracting outstanding candidates will be the acid test. Co-operative leaders, such as Dame Pauline Green, have been in agreement that professional directors are needed. But how many wanted them in the majority?

A quality needed for the appointed independent directors is that they have to be strong to hold the executive to account and ensure there is not a repetition of past errors.

During a conference call with the media, chair Ursula Lidbetter said the next phase of member engagement is the “most exciting”. Co-operative legal adviser to the rule changes, Ian Snaith, was equally upbeat by underlining this could be an “exciting new model for the governance of large co-operatives”.

Co-operatives UK weighs into the debate by saying this is a step away from the norm of consumer co-operatives in this country, but the structure still adheres to co-operative standards.

By meeting those highly esteemed principles and if it is passed by representative members, will future co-operators look back at the pioneers of today?

A direct connection with members could be exciting and engaging. It could connect with areas of under-represented members from women to youth to ethnic minorities. It could bring co-operatives into the 21st century. Equally, it could be an experiment that has gone too far for co-operatives.

But a question to ponder is, will all this excitement be at the expense of traditional co-operative values that has been here for 170 years? Or is it time to move on and innovate?

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