OK, it has been the worst week for the co-operative sector for a long time – a real bone-shaker for those of us involved. Our movement is in the spotlight to an extent we’ve rarely experienced before but so far this light has not been kind, or illuminating of the true strengths and successes of co-operative and mutual enterprises.
I have appreciated the many messages of goodwill. Alan Middleton, passionate advocate of good governance in coops, reminds me that sometimes it is not the system that messes up, but people. We have had that in spades with the clown antics of the former Bank Chair.
David Button, behind many a successful agricultural cooperative, was in touch to say “obviously this is a personal tragedy to individuals but this should not overshadow the whole movement and the essential and fantastic work that is being done by co-operatives across all sectors in the UK and in the world. If ever there was a need for an independent organisation, speaking for the whole movement and with a rational approach to key issues it is now and of course it exists as Co-operatives UK and thank goodness it does.”
The three things that might get lost in all the noise and that seem to me to be worth fighting for are:
1. Despite the focus, there are many, many great coops (over six thousand) across the economy – and with support from across members of all political parties and none.
2. Looking forward, there is an entirely new leadership team in at the Co-operative Bank and the wider Co-operative Group, with hopeful vision and ambition. The new Group Chair, for example, is an outstanding co-operative business leader, Ursula Lidbetter, with a proven track record.
3. The future still seems very positive. This week, Co-operatives UK held a Pop-Up Thinktank on co-operative innovation with leading economists and business specialists from across the UK. Worldwide, the co-operative sector has a turnover 54 times the global turnover of Coca-Cola. We are confident about business ahead.
Many co-ops come out of adversity so perhaps new challenges create new strengths. I hope so. One of the co-operative values is responsibility and we have to take responsibility for what went wrong, as well as what should now happen. The challenges of the Co-operative Bank will lead to some deep learning.
It may be that, as the Financial Times suggested this week, the Co-operative Bank didn’t get into trouble because it was a co-operative, and therefore different, but because it was a bank – but still sadly no different to the others. Apparently, there is a word for that, the academics tell me – isomorphism.
We are businesses that aim to be different and we certainly don’t expect to be immune to stretch and stress. But I look forward to the focus moving back to participation, service and value for the fifteen million member owners of thousands of effective co-operative enterprises across the UK.