Co-op woes have filled the business pages of all our newspapers in recent weeks. The accelerating degenerative disorder afflicting this once-great business has caught them all on the hop, running to catch up. For years its sacred-cow status seems to have protected it from rigorous scrutiny. In the minds of pretty much everybody the Co-op was other, different, ‘ethical’ — intrinsically ‘better’. No one, from right or left, saw it coming. Euan Sutherland, from right up close, couldn’t see that it was ungovernable when he took it on. Nor did Lord Myners anticipate the rejection of his rescue plan. No one is now saying I told you so. It’s a mess.
Once you begin to unpick the byzantine governance structures of the Group, you discover that it hasn’t been democratically led for years. So, what to do for the best? Well, you can look at John Lewis and Nationwide and reckon that, yup, if a plc-type executive is good enough for them, that’s probably the way to go. But it’s a point of view disputed by many who have devoted their lives to the cause of co-operation. Even among true believers there is no consensus, even about what a co-operative business is for.
Do you know? Test yourself, if you want. Tick the correct statement:
* A co-operative is a business nominally owned by its customers and run on their behalf by worthy people who do good works with the profits.
* A co-operative is a collectively owned business that gives some of its profits to good causes and supports political change.
* A co-operative is a business where people work together to achieve a better deal, a better organisation and a better future.
So the muddle goes on, bringing the Group closer to the time when its banks step in and — it’s a real prospect — begin to break up the business. In the latest development, the workforce, through the Unite union, has begged the Group to lay off the “petty politicking and putting livelihoods at risk.”
Where to go from here? In an astonishing statement, Ben Reid, ceo of Midcounties, now says: “I often say if the Rochdale Pioneers came back today, they wouldn’t be in food, because food is already well served.” This is the same Ben Reid who backed the disastrous acquisitions of Somerfield and Britannia. ‘The Co-operative. Crap At Food.’ Whatever next? Funerals?
You may think so. We don’t. We think that the funerals business is ideally suited to a social enterprise model. Dignity plc shows us what happens when a business regards funerals as nothing more than a market to be exploited for the enrichment of its shareholders. A better deal for bereaved people is about more than affordability, it is about welfare. It is about needs and values. It is about sensitivity to social change. It’s about the way we treat each other. And the good news is that some independent co-operative societies are quietly addressing this agenda.
Co-operative Funeralcare is full of great people. This could be a great business, one that does well by doing good. But given the bickering chaos in Manchester and the institutional incompetence of the Group, ground zero is now beginning to look like the best place to start again.