Pride comes before a fall. Until recently the UK co‑operative movement had plenty to be proud of. In 2012 the wider sector turned over almost £37 billion and grew faster than the UK economy. The largest co‑op, the Co-operative Group, successfully acquired the Somerfield supermarket chain in 2008 and the Britannia building society in 2009, reversing years of relative decline since the 1960s when co-ops had a 25 per cent market share. In this context the ambitious bid to buy 632 branches from Lloyds TSB seemed to make sense. Instead, in less than a year, multiple crises have left the Co-operative Group with just 30 per cent of the bank it used to own.
That things had seemed to be going so well may explain the stunned silence from active Co-op members. The Co-op’s democratic leadership maintains it was a choice between accepting minority ownership of the bank or losing the whole Group – shops, funerals, the lot. With no organised democratic challenge to what was happening, customers and members could either acquiesce or leave.
The Save Our Bank campaign, launched with the support of Ethical Consumer magazine, offered an alternative for customers who wanted to act collectively. The campaign drew on two key facts.
First, the Co-op Group leadership appeared to have persuaded the hedge funds that an ethical stance was needed to retain customers. Second, by abandoning the bank, the most motivated customers would have no influence on how things developed. The bank would lose its ethical policy and would never see a return to co-operative ownership.
Save Our Bank’s response was to say ‘don’t switch yet’. The campaign would use ‘crowd power’ in pursuit of two aims: preserving a meaningful customer-led ethical policy, and enabling an eventual return to majority co-operative ownership. This straightforward message of hope has resonated with many thousands of customers, but it disguises the bigger challenges now facing the campaign.
Of nearly 2,000 supporters who completed an online survey, more than half said that preserving the ethical policy should be the initial focus of the campaign. Some, particularly among the larger NGOs and charities that signed up to the campaign’s ‘ethical policy declaration’, believe a return to mutual ownership is at most a long term aim and may be unachievable. However, in the same survey, 70 per cent said that only mutual ownership could guarantee a real ethical policy.
Illustration: Martin Rowson
The campaign’s simple message of hope faces a conundrum: how can the ethical stance be preserved with the hedge funds in control, and how can the Co-operative Group ever regain ownership of the bank given the amounts of money involved? These may be the wrong questions, however.
First, the hedge funds do not have a majority share as many assume. There is a mix of owners, some of whom understand that the bank needs a real and credible ethical policy to retain customers. The campaign can help focus their minds by acting as a kind of union of Co-op Bank customers. To work well this strategy needs a credible threat of a mass switch. So it makes sense to hold discussions with potential alternative mutual or ethical providers, while holding to the ‘don’t switch yet’ message that tells the owners that it’s worth listening.
Second, regaining co-operative control of the bank may not require the Co-operative Group to invest precious capital buying back from the hedge funds. An astonishing 62 per cent of respondents to the campaign survey said they would be prepared to invest their own money to help re-mutualise the bank. The co-op could have turned to its own members before private investors to fill the gap in the balance sheet – and it could still pursue this option.
A promising alternative would be for members and customers – perhaps including some of the third sector institutions that bank with the Co-op – to create their own fund. A co-operatively-controlled fund could play a number of roles. As a minority shareholder it would carry influence in the bank and could help call management to account – arguably where the democratic structure of the Co-operative Group has failed.
But it could also play a more direct role, perhaps drawing on the experience of continental mutuals, where national institutions are made up of smaller, locally controlled regional banks. Some European mutuals have raised the possibility of cross investment as a way of strengthening mutual balance sheets. Just as the Save Our Bank campaign has been built entirely online, a new fund could use crowd‑funding techniques and play a part as an investor in the small and start-up enterprises that are the motor of economic growth in 2014.
The campaign faces challenges, but it has plenty of options.
Find out more about Save our Bank at www.saveourbank.coop
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform