The election process for the member-nominated directors to the Co-operative Group’s board have been criticised after it was announced that only three candidates were standing for three seats.
Applications were open to all members who demonstrated commercial acumen and empathy with co-operative values and principles. They were vetted by the members council through the scrutiny committee and signed off by the transitional search committee, which is mostly made up of board members.
The council selected six candidates:
- Dame Pauline Green, president of the International Co-operative Alliance
- Nick Eyre, lawyer and former Co-operative Group secretary
- John Briddon, regional stores director at the Co-operative Group
- Hazel Blears, Labour MP from 1997-2015
- Ruth Spellman, chief executive, Workers’ Educational Association
- Paul Chandler, former chief executive of Traidcraft
But the transitional search committee only selected Hazel Blears, Ruth Spellman and Paul Chandler for election for the three seats at the Group’s AGM in May.
Writing for Co-operative News, Dame Pauline Green says that she was told she was not to be put on the ballot paper as she “did not have enough commercial experience, and that they were looking for ‘fresh’ co-operators”.
Dame Pauline adds: “My key concern is that despite both Mr Leighton and Mr Pennycook’s assertion that they are committed to the co-operative model of business, what is clear is that neither of them have any understanding of what it is. They were on the cusp of having a new governance system that carried the support of members and professional staff to take the Group out of the mire of the last two years […] Anyone who knows the co-operative movement will understand without any equivocation that the refusal to give some serious consideration to the wishes of the member council was a move that in a stroke destroyed all the trust and confidence that might have been built in the coming weeks and months.”
Sir Graham Melmoth, who was CEO of the group from 1996 until his retirement in 2002 also expresses his concern over the “touch of 1984 about [current chief executive Richard Pennycook’s] regime and its new constitution”
“Are the “proles” to be kept at arm’s length?” he asks. “That’s how the new electoral system seems to appear. The second co-op principle says ‘co-operatives are democratic organisations controlled by their members. Men and women serving as elected representatives are accountable to their members.’
“There’s nothing in the principle about screening out “undesirables” before the members are allowed to decide on their representatives themselves.”
In response, Allan Leighton, who was appointed chair of the group in February, says that “It’s time for straight talking not politicking. The Co-op nearly died because people almost killed it”.
The things that nearly killed it, he adds, were “a combination of a lack of commercial acumen, lack of accountability, and no focus on the membership in its widest sense”.
“I believe fundamentally in member-nominated directors,” he says, “and it is great that three high-calibre candidates have emerged – not three picked so three slots could be conveniently filled as described by others, but selected because they are fit for purpose.
“We need members who can provide fresh member thinking, not necessarily fresh member faces, to help propel our business forward. If there had only been two capable, only two would have been put forward. If there had been four, the same.”