Ethics and the Co-op Bank

Organisers of the Save Our Bank campaign to keep the Co-operative Bank ethical, which is being led by the Ethical Consumer magazine (itself a cooperative, of course), last week met with the Co-op Group’s chief executive Euan Sutherland. The campaign issued its latest online newsletter last Thursday.

My own view is that, with the capital restructure and the arrival of the hedge funds, the Co-op Bank will be well outside what could legitimately be called a cooperative business so in that sense the moment to ‘save’ it has passed. But nevertheless it is clearly valuable to pressure the bank to retain an ethical approach to the banking business. We need to remember though that (even given recent media attention) its reputation as an ethical bank is currently the Co-op Bank’s USP so it is hardly in the investors’ own interests not to support it, at least with lip-service.

Perhaps the most interesting discussions within the Save Our Bank campaign, I think, are around the possibilities of future re-mutualisation.  I would be delighted to see this, although realistically I think you have to conclude that the prospects are currently very distant.  But this links directly to the issue of suitable cooperative capital instruments for cooperatives, which I have been banging on about endlessly in recent months and which I will seize this moment to mention yet again.

So tell us: Is there a coop alternative to capitalism?

A good idea has emerged from the cooperatively run magazine Ethical Consumer. Last year, to mark the UN International Year of Cooperatives,  the people there launched a competition inviting contributions on the theme Is there a cooperative alternative to capitalism?  There is something delightfully old-fashioned about the idea of an essay competition, but this one seems to have done the trick in attracting some worthwhile entries.

The best responses have now been brought together in a book, given the title People Over Capital . The book is published in conjunction with New Internationalist (another cooperatively run business, incidentally).

The interrogative phrasing of the original essay question has been replaced with the more confident subtitle for the book: The co-operative alternative to capitalism.  But in some ways I think we still need that question mark.  The essays here are interesting (inevitably some more interesting than others), but overall there remains a sense that the contributors are still finding it tough to grapple with both the theoretical and practical challenges of moving towards an alternative, more cooperative, economic system.  I find it hard to disagree with Cliff Mills when he writes: “The biggest boost to co-operative and mutual fortunes has been caused by events outside the movement, namely the financial crises since 2007…But in spite of all this, we still cannot argue today that there is a co-operative alternative to capitalism. Notwithstanding the collapse of confidence and damage to the reputation of traditional capitalism on the one hand and the revival in the fortunes of co-operative and mutual businesses on the other in truth not much has changed. Co-operative ideas seem to have been unable to seize the moment”.

Well, nobody said building an alternative to capitalism would be easy, not even Marx. Some interesting ideas in this book include the ‘cooperative’ implications of the open source IT movement (Nic Wistreich),  the contradiction of non-accountable for-profit corporations being cultivated within liberal democracies (Adam Fisher), and the limitations of cooperatives necessarily forced to survive within capitalism (Chris Tomlinson).

Ethical Consumer’s editor Rob Harrison writes in his introduction that “Reading the chapters in this book certainly feels like the beginning rather than the end of the discussion”.  He’s right.  Keep discussing…