Co-operative Group’s national survey shows public perception of co-operatives

Britons do not understand the co-operative difference, according to the Co-operative Group’s long-awaited Have Your Say survey. Originally commissioned by former Group chief executive Euan Sutherland in February,...

Britons do not understand the co-operative difference, according to the Co-operative Group’s long-awaited Have Your Say survey.

Originally commissioned by former Group chief executive Euan Sutherland in February, the nationwide poll was designed to help transform the organisation during a period of turbulence.

The survey was conducted during the fall-out of the Co-operative Bank’s separation from the Group following the discovery of a £1.5bn capital black hole in the institution, as well as the widely publicised drug use of former Bank chair Paul Flowers.

While the survey was live, Mr Sutherland resigned over accusations of document leaks to the media and internal battles over the governance of the organisation.

Despite this, 86% of the 144,000 respondents to the general survey, which was advertised by the Group in the media and invited members to take part, said they felt favourable towards The Co-operative. In order to balance out the responses, the survey administrators YouGov also ran the same questions with its panel of 35,000 people, which it deems representative of the general public. This found that more than six in 10 people (62%) in the panel found the Group favourable.

In results released in full on 1 December, 66% of people said The Co-operative has higher ethical and moral standards than its competitors (versus 41% of the general public), while 51% said the organisation can be trusted more than most big businesses (general public: 31%). Seventeen percent disagreed with that statement, along with 19% of the general public.

Analysing the results, Peter Kellner, YouGov president, said: “The general public, as well as the community of Co-operative customers and active members, regarded the Group favourably. The Group was seen to have high ethical and moral standards compared with its competitors. These two things combined show that there was a large amount of goodwill towards The Co-operative.”

Just 27% of the public knew membership card holders had a say in how the co-operative was run, while this increased to 55% with the self-selected customers/members of the Co-operative Group.

There was also a lack of understanding around the democratic processes of the Group from the public. Forty-two percent of people didn’t know anything at all about the how the Group elected representatives within its democratic structure, while a further 28% said they didn’t know the Group had elected members.

Meanwhile, 48% of co-op members said they knew only a little or hardly anything at all. While a further 24% said they knew nothing at all.

Thirty percent of members said they do not feel represented within the Co-operative Group, while 23% agreed they were. Forty per cent believed they felt informed as to what was going on within the society, while 38% said they did not feel their opinion was sought or valued by elected representatives.

On political funding, 74% of members thought it was inappropriate for big businesses to donate money to political parties. Of those members who responded, only 36% were aware the Group supported the Co-operative Party. Later, 60% of members specifically said it was inappropriate for the Group to sponsor the Co-operative Party, with 73% saying the money should be used to lower prices and 71% towards local community initiatives.

The question over whether to continue funding the Co-operative Party is set to be put to members at next year’s annual general meeting, which will take place under the new governance structure. This includes one member, one vote.

Richard Pennycook, chief executive of the Group, said: “The response to Have Your Say was overwhelming and the findings give us a great deal of encouragement and demonstrate the resilience of the Co-operative brand. It is clear that the organisation has a special place in the hearts of the British public, who want it to thrive. They support our determination to provide a real alternative to big business, championing local issues in local communities. We are very grateful for this support.

“The Co-operative has come through a difficult period and we are now rebuilding the organisation, focused on delivering on our commitment to champion a better way of doing business for our customers and their communities with real change on the ground. The findings of Have Your Say give us a wealth of information and insight that will inform us in that work.”

In response to the political findings within the survey, Gareth Thomas, MP and chair of the Co-operative Party, said: “Co-operatives – including the Co-operative Group – have always believed in a different way of doing business which puts people ahead of short-term profits for shareholders. That is why they created the Co-operative Party almost 100 years ago to champion that vision.

“At a time when trust in big business and politics is at an all time low, it’s not surprising that people don’t like the idea of ‘big business’ donating to political parties. But a Populus poll undertaken at the same time as ‘Have Your Say’ shows that in fact only 11% of the public think it is inappropriate for the Co-operative Group to make financial contributions to the Co-operative Party and more than double the number of people think it is appropriate for them to do so.

“Further, a substantial majority of the HYS respondents want the Co-operative Group to champion national issues.  Just as the Party and the Group have done – working together – for the last century.”

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