Dame Pauline Green gives her personal views on her time as Chief Executive of Co-operatives UK — and her hopes for the future of the Movement — in an interview with Co-operative News Editor Dave Bowman shortly before her retirement earlier this month . . .
DAVE BOWMAN: The co-operative landscape has changed dramatically since you became Chief Executive of the then Co-operative Union in 2000. But is the rapid consolidation of the retail Movement since then a change for the better?
PAULINE GREEN: Yes, of course. The offer to the public now is much improved. When you look at the amount of cooperative advertising the Group has undertaken plus the rebranding and marketing and you consider the quality of the product — the food offer in particular — it’s phenomenal. A few years back, there were a number of retail societies that were in considerable difficulties and a lot of them didn’t have a sustainable long-term future. So following the consolidation into something bigger and the kind of offer we’re now making, our position is much stronger in terms of the image, profile and the whole perception of the Movement. I believe economic tensions will probably force more consolidation in the retail sector and, in ten years time, we’re probably looking at one major co-operative retailer and perhaps half a dozen significant regional ones.
DB: Co-operatives UK appears to have re-invented itself in the light of all the changes and now has 570 co-operatives in membership, compared to 52 (mainly retail societies) ten years ago. But does the Movement’s apex body still have the clout and influence it once exerted and is there a risk of ‘doubling up’ some roles and responsibilities currently undertaken by the enlarged Co-operative Group?
PG: In actual fact, Co-operatives UK now has more clout and influence than its had for 30 or 40 years. When I started we had virtually no relationship with government. Now we have £2.5 million of funding for developing co-ops. We are constantly being consulted by government and with a 1,000 per cent increase in membership in ten years, Co-operatives UK is widely regarded as the strategic voice of the Movement by government departments, the Financial Services Association and decision-makers around the UK. So yes, Co-operatives UK has reinvented itself. We are doing a totally different job from what we were doing even five years ago. But that’s how an organisation like this — which is tantamount to being the CBI of the Movement — ought to be. It needs to be constantly reassessing the environment its members work in; changing, adapting; looking where you can help establish co-ops; where you need to be talking to the regulator. You need to be doing this all the time; you can’t stand still because to stand still in our work is to die. In terms of the role of the Group, one of the big issues the Movement has to decide is who speaks for the whole Movement. Co-operatives UK used to be the home of the consumer movement alone, but we’re no longer that – we’re the home of the whole Movement and, last year, less than half of the Movement’s near £29 billion turnover came from the consumer movement. So it’s a sensitive area and there are some issues of friction, but it’s not in anyone’s interests to have that friction. We need to work in synergy together to grow the Movement.
DB: What do you consider to be the biggest achievement of Co-operatives UK during your time in charge?
PG: Strategically, the biggest achievement was to achieve the position as the Movement’s apex organisation. All the Movement’s own federals are now within Co-ops UK and I felt a real high when that happened as, ten years ago, the consumer and worker co-ops barely spoke to each other! When Ed Balls announced the review of Independent Provident Society legislation and said he wanted Co-operatives UK to draft the response to government, that proved to me we had made it in terms of being the apex. I always wanted to try and embed co-operation as a valued part of the UK economy and have Co-ops UK regarded as a trade association that would be able to talk to all the major political parties. So that’s been a signifi cant success and I say that as somebody who’s been strongly part of the Labour Party all my adult life.
DB: The annual Congress weekend is one manifestation of Co-ops UK’s changing role. Will Congress still have a significant role to play in the 21st century and are there any plans to make it more affordable for individuals and small co-ops who may be put off by the high cost of attending?
PG: Congress is our major external-facing event where we can showcase the whole Movement — its strength, diversity; it’s flexibility and its imagination and it will continue to grow. In terms of affordability and being completely inclusive, this is something we’ve struggled with and we’re trying to define a package that can meet the needs of representatives of small co-ops and at the same time cater for people who are perhaps managing or directing a multi-million pound business and want and expect something different. So it’s a complex issue, but what engages everyone is their co-operativeness and if we can find the wherewithal to help the smaller co-ops attend, then we should.
DB: You have stated repeatedly that Co-operatives UK and the Movement should have good relations with all the mainstream political parties. In this context, is the Co-operative Party’s ‘sister party’ relationship with Labour helpful and do you think the Party will ever become an all-party campaign group on behalf of the sector?
PG: The Movement shouldn’t lose its sense of history and tradition and, for me, those three wings of the Labour movement – party, trades unions and the Co-op – have always been important. Having said that, every individual in our Movement is entitled to a political view and, as I’ve said, I have very strong Labour views. But when it comes to looking at the co-operative business model and its part in the economy of the UK, that’s something that has to be addressed with every party and governments of whatever hue. That’s what I’ve tried to do — open up those avenues of conversation. We need to be very careful about making sure the co-operative business model is regarded by all major forms of political persuasion as an important part of the economy and is not one that is politically aligned. The Co-op Party serves a very good purpose and has a strong resonance in our Movement and I enjoyed being part of its NEC. The Party is certainly moving in the right direction, but I’ll leave it to the NEC in the future to decide how it develops.
DB: As you prepare to leave Co-operatives UK after such a challenging time in charge is there, with the benefit of hindsight, some things you would have done differently?
PG: One thing I’d like to have done is moved a bit quicker in some of the areas I wanted to go in, but I’ve always liked to take people with me and build a consensus. As a result, we have transformed Co-ops UK without too much conflict. Inevitably, there have been difficult decisions about people and their roles. But, on the whole, the changes that have happened have occurred with the consensus of the board and with the strong support of our staff team and our members. So its taken longer than I might have hoped.
DB: Although you are leaving Co-operatives UK, I know you are not severing your ties with the Movement entirely and intend to be involved with the International Co-operative Alliance and Supporters Direct. Will you have any time for relaxation and hobbies?
PG: Hopefully, I’m going to be President of the ICA. I know you can never ‘count your chickens’ but I appear to be the only candidate, so hopefully I’ll be elected! The worldwide co-operative movement has a massive opportunity that’s come about as a result of the global economic crisis. It’s weird to be saying that, but it’s true because, in times of crisis, people look to things they can trust — like cooperatives. The ICA will look at global lobbying to give our movement a real opportunity going forward. I will have to retire as President of Cooperatives Europe to take up the ICA role, but the strength of my Presidential nomination stems from the work I have done with Coops Europe. We have transformed what we were doing with the EU. I’m also thrilled to be nominated for a place on the board of Supporters Direct and am looking forward to being involved in that way. But I will have more time to relax and see more of my great kids and my four beautiful grandchildren as I’m anticipating that my work with the ICA will probably take around a couple of weeks a month.
DB: Finally, are you optimistic about the future of co-operation as a force for progress and change? And how would you like people to remember your contribution in future?
PG: Well, as I have said there’s a huge future for the Movement both internationally and here in the UK. Co-operatives UK has a signifi cant role to play in the future. It is a unique organisation and has the sole purpose of promoting the cooperative business model. I’m very excited that Ed Mayo is to take over from me. I have known him for years and I take his appointment as sign of some success — that somebody of his calibre applied for the job — and I’m delighted he got it.