Co-operative Group receives threat of injunction over this weekend’s AGM vote

Midcounties Co-operative has threatened the Co-operative Group with an injunction to void this Saturday’s member nominated director election following “concern” over the process. Six candidates were selected by...

Midcounties Co-operative has threatened the Co-operative Group with an injunction to void this Saturday’s member nominated director election following “concern” over the process.

Six candidates were selected by the members’ council, but the transitional search committee, which is headed by Group chair Allan Leighton, rejected three candidates for a lack of “commercial acumen“.

The three candidates that made it onto the ballot paper were Hazel Blears, Labour MP from 1997-2015; Ruth Spellman, chief executive, Workers’ Educational Association; and Paul Chandler, former chief executive of Traidcraft.

Meanwhile those rejected by the committee, which is mainly made up of board members, were Dame Pauline Green, president of the International Co-operative Alliance; Nick Eyre, lawyer and former Co-operative Group secretary; and John Briddon, regional stores director at the Group.

The president of Midcounties Co-operative, Ruth FitzJohn, said her society had sought legal advice that “indicates in the strongest of terms that the results of the election will be void if it proceeds”.

The legal advice points out that the transitional search committee’s role should have been to review the six candidates put forward by the council – and that it did not have the specific power to reject any candidates. The council’s role was to select candidates that met the eligibility criteria.

In a comment to the Guardian, the Group said it had legal opinion to support the way it had run the process. And that the election was run “in an open, objective and transparent manner and totally in line with the rules and regulations put in place by our members”.

Ms FitzJohn said: “We welcome the fact there are three strong candidates on the ballot paper. However, along with many other committed co-operators, we are aware three other appropriately qualified candidates who had been recommended by the Council have been excluded from the ballot in a manner that was neither transparent nor objective. This exclusion runs directly counter to the democratic principle – one of the fundamental building blocks of a co-operative society, and falls outside the Co-operative Group’s transitional rules.”

East of England Co-operative was one of the other co-operatives that sought legal advice with Midcounties. President Sally Chicken said: “The East of England Co-op had serious concerns when it learned that the 2015 MND election would not be contested and the background to how this situation had arisen. We expressed these concerns to the Group, and sought a legal opinion on the matter which indicated that our concerns were well-founded.”

But Ms Chicken said the Group has given the society reassurance about next year’s election. She added: “We have since been assured by the Group board and the president of the council that the election process will be reviewed for next year and we trust that the objective will be to achieve contested elections for the 2016 AGM. We expect that independent societies, as corporate shareholders, will be invited to participate in this review and that we will be consulted on the proposed reforms before they are implemented. We look forward to the Group developing truly democratic structures in accordance with the new rulebook”

Ms FitzJohn added that Midcounties has shared the advice with the Group, but despite efforts to engage “little progress has been made”. Midcounties decided to share the legal advice with the wider co-operative sector, as well as the three candidates. She added: “We call on all the candidates to withdraw from the election so it can be run again following a correct and fair process; and we urge the Co-operative Group Board to hold a fresh, contested election as soon as practical.

“If the election continues we may have no alternative but to consider applying for an injunction to prevent the Group Board acting in contravention of its rules – a sad day for all true co-operators.”

Writing in the News last month, Group chair Allan Leighton said of the elections process: “The board has been absolutely clear and consistent throughout the reform process about the need for member nominated directors (MNDs) to demonstrate a high level of skills and experience and we make no apology for wanting this.

“I believe fundamentally in MNDs 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.”

Dame Pauline Green said 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”.

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