Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Co-op's demise... a sad end to a once noble vision

Paul Flowers
Paul Flowers

Another chunk of people's history was dislodged last weekend, when a meeting in Manchester of Co-op members voted to change the group's structure so that it more closely resembled a "normal" business.

Interviews afterwards suggested that many had supported the proposal with a heavy heart. They didn't like it, but had become convinced there was no alternative.

My first memories of the Co-op date back to summer holidays in Belfast. My aunts Cissy, Maisie and Maggie were all members of the Co-op, would head down to York Street for the shopping, talked about "the dividend" and how welcome it always was, especially at Christmas. They didn't call it the Co-op, but "the Co".

Years later I learned that Belfast's first Co-op had been formed at a 200-strong meeting on the Shankill in 1888. The small Shankill shop prospered: in 1910 it bought and converted the old Gallagher tobacco factory on York Street, where it was to thrive for many a year.

In 1969, the Belfast Co-operative Society had more than 190,000 members. At night, the top-floor cafe at York Street became the Orpheus ballroom. The nonpareil Clipper Carlton regularly played there, as well as Dave Glover and the Miami in the epoch of Dickie Rock.

The Co-op was a department store, leisure facility, a fun-palace, a credit union and much else all at the same time. My aunts and tens of thousands like them had a palpable feeling that it was theirs, which as a matter of fact it was.

In the '70s and '80s, the Provos bombed the Belfast Co-op repeatedly. But high interest rates and cut-price competition were to do more damage. At the tail end of the 1990s, the main business, at Yorkgate, was sold to Tesco.

The Co-op was/is a distinctively British operation, founded in the early to mid-19th century by groups such as the Shankill gathering.

It represented the deep desire of millions of working-class people to create enclaves of decency and co-operation amid the chaos and savagery of capitalism. It set up its credit unions so workers could pool their savings and create a fair system of loans and repayment.

From the outset, however, there was a lurking problem. The Co-op was governed by the "Rochdale principles – "Co-operatives are democratic organisations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions." But it had to operate on terrain entirely dominated by competition, not at all by co-operation.

There was always a tension between the interests of the mass membership and the logic of the surrounding system. What's happened in recent times is that the contradiction has come to a head.

In 2009, the Co-op's banking arm, which had developed in a distorted way from the early credit unions, took over the Britannia Building Society, which itself had set out as an ethical, "mutual" business, but had been transformed in the 1980s, joined in the property frenzy and built up a high-risk portfolio, described by one analyst at the time as "nothing short of alarming for what should be a staid building society".

Brushing these concerns aside, the massively expanded Co-op banking arm went on in 2012 to make a bid for more than 600 branches of the collapsing giant Lloyds. It was when this deal came under scrutiny that a disastrous state of affairs was exposed.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the frenzy, the bank's board had appointed a drug-addled former Methodist minister, Paul Flowers, – the "crystal Methodist" – as chairman.

It became a laughing-stock in the financial circles where it had always been seen as an impertinent outfit with no entitlement to survive. Events moved inexorably towards the denouement at Manchester.

Financial commentators are virtually unanimous that the Co-op must now fully adopt the structures and practices of the very institutions whose rapacious greed brought the world economy to the brink of collapse and many of whose senior employees were engaged in dodgy dealing and outright crime far more cynical and destructive than anything attributed to the Rev Flowers. Compared to the wolves of Wall Street and the City of London, the Rev Flowers is a pussy-cat.

If there is a moral to be drawn from the saga it is this: that while alternatives might have been possible alongside capitalism in the 19th and for most of the 20th centuries, these days we must either bow down before it, or confront it head-on.

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