Another day, another Co-op report. If some of the material sounds familiar, Lord Myners would agree. He has an entertaining passage in which he wearily points out that the question of how to improve governance and commercial performance was first regarded as urgent in 1958 when Hugh Gaitskell led the Co-operative independent commission.
“Don’t defer and defer and defer,” recommended Gaitskell. The Economist commented at the time: “This is a radical report aimed at a stuffy, conservative organisation which has fallen badly behind the times. After such a report, no movement could possibly sit back and do nothing.”
But the Co-op did defer and did sit back, and Myners worries that the response to his report will be the same. “I have no doubt that the Co-operative Group can over the next five years reverse a decline that started over 50 years ago. But I am less confident that it will choose to do so,” he says.
Why has it been so hard for the Co-op, despite commercial woes (especially on the supermarket side) that have been shockingly obvious, to change its ways?
Myners offers two explanations. First, that size and complexity create tensions: democracy versus professionalism; local and regional autonomy versus central direction; the interests of activist members versus those of “shopping members”.
But it’s the second explanation – the “more disturbing” one – that is the bigger obstacle today. “The resistance of traditionalists owes much to the culture of entitlement that has grown up within a very small but highly active proportion of the membership,” he says.
In a nutshell, that’s the real problem here: the Co-op has been captured by insiders more interested in advancing their own careers than protecting the group’s commercial health. As Myners does not observe (but others do), there is an old piece of careers advice: if it’s not working out for you within the Labour party, try the Co-op.
Being led by eager, earnest but unqualified amateurs is no way to run an organisation with 90,000 staff and a turnover of £12bn when the main competitors are fierce beasts like Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Aldi. The report contains an extraordinary quote from an anonymous board member: “In a democracy, if I am elected and not adequately trained, then is it my fault?”