Opening the doors for democracy at the Group AGM

Despite the Co-operative Group’s troubles, it’s heartening to know the members have still not given up hope. Its annual general meeting, which took place on Saturday 16 May,...

Despite the Co-operative Group’s troubles, it’s heartening to know the members have still not given up hope.

Its annual general meeting, which took place on Saturday 16 May, certainly showed its co-operative difference through a number of firsts – mainly allowing 2.8 million members to vote and also attend. Over 800 of those came to the meeting at Manchester Central, and 93,286 members voted before the AGM.

Another first was welcoming the Group’s first independent chair, Allan Leighton, to the meeting. One wonders if he expected so much fiery outspokenness from delegates, as compared to the normal plc-way of doing things.

Members certainly didn’t let the chair get away with his duties – from calls of ‘where’s the housekeeping arrangements?’ through to demands that he stops talking and gets the agenda rolling (it took over two hours for the first votes).

He also accidentally called the co-operative, the ‘company’ a few times too, which wasn’t missed by the crowd. He apologised and explained that he gets his words mixed up, but what he feels for the co-operative (pointing at his heart) is more important.

But no love was built up between the chair and members at the end of the meeting once the vote on Co-operative Party subscriptions was announced; Mr Leighton commented that the vote was ‘just advisory to the board’, but quickly retracted that, saying there was a ‘clear mandate’.

Co-operative Party officials from the Keep it Co-op campaign were clearly ecstatic at the win of motion 10, which told the board to carry on with subscriptions to the political party. Though with only 55% of members voting for the motion, without the high-profile campaign run by the Party it may have been a different outcome.

Those 45% against clearly showed what all Co-operative News readers knew; that the issue of political funding by the Group is a highly divisive issue. But throughout all the votes, there was quiet dissent.

In response to hostile questioning over motions, Allan Leighton told members to look at the votes for a decision and the board will take its guidance from there too.

He will need to note that over 20% of members voted against the remuneration report, which seemed to largely come about following the more than £2m payment former HR director Rebecca Skitt received for just six months of work, including £650,000 as a retention bonus.

Allan Leighton showed some apparent compassion against retention deals, saying in response to a question about Ms Skitt’s high salary that he believed in rewarding performance rather than failure. But he defended Richard Pennycook by saying he was worth “every penny” when a member attempted to negotiate with the chief executive to reduce his salary in half to £1m.

In confirming board director positions, 12% voted against Richard Pennycook, 16% against Allan Leighton and 17% against Sir Christopher Kelly – all numbers they will want to reduce at future AGMs.

Members showed some dissent in the approval of council member fees, which is set at £3,000 (or £500 a day) with 18% voting against. Twelve per cent of members also voted against KPMG as auditors, but a larger vote was potentially quelled by the announcement that a tender will be put out this year.

As a first meeting, it was refreshing to see the Group being held to account by grassroots members.

This pressure will now be continued by the members’ council, which got off to a strong start during the meeting, with president Lesley Reznicek calling on Allan Leighton to work more co-operatively in future with the council.

This different approach to democracy might be just what the Group needs to truly be a co-operative from the ground up.

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