Save Our Bank news January-February 2015

Dont get mad, get organised

Article in Ethical Consumer magazine

We set up the Save Our Bank campaign because the rescue deal brokered by The Co-operative Group last year meant that private investors were taking a majority stake in the bank, removing it from co-operative control. We feared this change in ownership would threaten the bank’s world-leading ethical policy.

Rather than abandon the bank, we reasoned that customer power could be used to force the bank to keep the policy strong. After all, without customers the bank would be dead. So we asked customers not to leave the bank but to sign up to the campaign. We remembered the US labour movement slogan: “don’t get mad, get organised”.

Success

The bank announced two measures designed to reassure customers that ethics would remain at the heart of its offer to customers: there would be an ethical clause in its constitution, overseen by a special ethics committee, and customers would be polled on the contents of a new, refreshed ethical policy.

Of course, it’s not hard to design a survey to get the result you want and our fear was that the customer survey could be used as a pretext to introduce a new, watered-down ethical policy. We loudly called on the bank to promise that it would not drop any of the existing ethical commitments. Supporters made their views clear in hundreds of tweets and emails.

The bank did indeed promise, first in conversations with us, then in public - in newspaper articles and in the survey itself.

Having promised not to drop any commitments, the only way to refresh the ethical policy is to add new ones. The bank was candid about the fact that the new private shareholders recognised that it was in their interests for the bank to be seen to be more ethical than ever. They saw the influence an organised group of customers could have on whether or not they were believed.

The bank has told us that the new policy will be announced in January and, again, that there will be no dropped commitments, and extensions into new areas. We shall have to see the detail, but we think we have already shown how customer power can work – if we stay organised.

Next steps

As well as campaigning for a strong ethical policy, Save Our Bank wants ultimately to see the bank back under majority co-operative control. As I have reported in this column, we have been looking at creating a new mutual fund to take a stake in the bank. Of course, gaining a majority stake will be no easy task, but even a minority stake could have influence -  particularly if we can work with like-minded investors, such as The Co-operative Group, who remain the largest single shareholder.

We have also entered an alliance with Unite the Union, who represent the majority of bank staff and who share our aims.

Creating a union

We believe that the combination of an organised group of customers, a growing co-operative ownership stake, and an alliance with organised employees would have the power to ensure that the Co-op Bank remains the UK’s leading ethical bank - not just in its investment policies, but also in how it treats staff and customers.

For that to work, we need to turn the Save Our Bank campaign into something more permanent. A body that represents concerned customers, keeping a close watch on the bank and bringing pressure on it to change if necessary.

So, we propose to create a “union of co-op bank customers”.

Such a union will need some resources to do its work. Many supporters have indicated that they would be prepared to pay a small fee to join, or to make a donation to help us set it up.

It would be a unique experiment. If successful it could help customers gain influence over bank policy that, frankly, members never really had while it was still 100% owned by the Co-op.

You can complete the survey here