A petition objecting to proposed changes to Co-operative Group governance has launched online. The Save Our Co-op petition calls on Ursula Lidbetter, the Group’s chair, to reject “undemocratic” proposals until they are consistent with co-operative values and principles, as laid down by the International Co-operative Alliance.
It also urges the Group to be open to future change by members exercising one member one vote, without requiring the agreement of the board and/or council. Jo Bird of Co-operative Business Consultants, which started the petition, said: “The current board of the Co-operative Group wants to change its constitution so that it’s less democratic.
“It wants a majority board of independent directors who are not subject to open elections, whereas we want the Co-operative Group to be like co-operatives all over the world and to have a board with the majority made up of people elected by its members. We also want the future of the constitution of the Group to be able to be changed by future members.”
The current board comprises individual elected members and three chief executives from independent societies. The new board will include three member directors, an independent chair, five independent non-executive directors and two executive directors, including the chief executive.
A council representing up to 100 members will have the power to hold the board to account. It will be led by a president, who will be elected for two years. A senate, elected by the council, will help co-ordinate the activities of the council and connect the council, board, executive and members.
The petition says the Group’s autonomy and independence is being challenged due to the demands of its banking syndicate. The proposal that the board should comprise a majority of independent directors is “directly opposed to the co-operative principle of democratic member control,” it says.
The proposal that these directors should be subject to ratification by members rather than standing in an open election “is not consistent with genuine co-operative democracy”. The petition suggests a nominations committee would ensure a board consisting of a majority of candidates drawn from and nominated by members was competent and qualified.
It also expresses alarm that a proposed rule change would prevent members from making changes to governance without the agreement of the board, “tying the hands of members for generations”.
It welcomes the introduction of one member one vote, subject to a trading qualification, but adds that ordinary members had no say in shaping the current proposals.
Co-op lawyer Ian Snaith, who has been part of the Group’s reform process, says the changes do meet co-operative values and principles. “There has been a serious and, in my view, successful attempt by all concerned to co-operate in balancing member voice, member representation, business expertise, and effective management to meet the current needs of the society and its members,” he said. Co-operatives UK, the guardian of co-operative principles in the UK, agrees, but has acknowledged this is a significant change and called on the Group to monitor how the council works in practice.
Jo Bird says the changes cannot meet co-operative principles as long as the majority of the board are not democratically elected by members. She is also concerned that the independent directors will not be truly independent. “Directors should be accountable to members,” she said. “If they’re independent that’s a contradiction in terms. It goes against principle number two, democratic member control.”
The petition, which went live on 20 August, was immediately signed by co-operators including Bob Cannel of Suma, Iain Macdonald, former director general of the International Co-operative Alliance, David Thompson of the Twin Pines Cooperative Foundation, USA, and Linda Ward, who serves on a number of co-op boards. It has also been signed by film director Ken Loach and former head of corporate affairs at the Co-operative Group Bill Shannon.
• To view the petition, visit: www.change.org/p/save-our-co-op