Save Our Bank News September-October 2014

Spring had certainly sprung and the weather was feeling distinctly summery by the time the Co-operative Bank closed its survey on ethics. But for those who like the seasons to start and stop on specified dates, the bank could - just - claim to have kept its promise to hold a survey on its ethical policy in spring 2014.

Better news was that the bank kept its promise not to use the survey as an excuse to introduce a bland “greenwash” code of ethics. It hired YouGov to conduct the survey, the same polling organisation that conducted the “Have Your Say” survey for The Co-operative Group. With its leading questions about the value of the ‘divi’ and funding for the Co-operative Party, many believe that Have Your Say was an attempt fundamentally to reposition the Co-operative brand - making it more about being nice and less about challenging the investor-capitalist business model. YouGov implausibly denied that the questions were leading, and the survey was not about the bank, but many Save Our Bank supporters were highly suspicious of the bank’s survey when it finally emerged in June.

In fact, not only did bank management meet with representatives from Save Our Bank, they actually listened to what we had to say and made changes to the survey as a result.

Once it became clear that customers would be asked about all the major ethical policy areas, and that none were surreptitiously excluded from the survey, our biggest worry was the format of the policy questions. Respondents would be asked to choose from a list which policies in each area mattered most to them. We warned that strong supporters of the ethical policy might see this as a ruse to drop the least popular policies. So managers at the bank added a statement to the survey making it clear that they did not intend to drop any policies - they just wanted data on which policies mattered most to customers, better to focus resources and development.

There were nevertheless some omissions and Save Our Bank wrote an open letter to the bank pointing them out. For example, the bank’s policy on not financing “any government or business which fails to uphold basic human rights in its sphere of influence” did not get a mention in the survey. The bank responded restating its intention not to drop any policies. It argued that the survey needed to be kept to a reasonable length and that some elements of the existing policies were less relevant to the new business model, now focused on consumers and small businesses. Ironically it had also been warned by YouGov to avoid leading questions.
The survey closed with 73,000 respondents, almost as many as participated in the last survey, which was backed with considerably more publicity and marketing budget. The bank has made it clear that it takes seriously the concerns of our supporters, an organised group of ethically-motivated customers. We can be confident that Save Our Bank has had a real impact in pursuing the first of its two goals: to ensure that the bank retains its distinctive ethical policy and adheres to it. Now that the survey is complete and we wait for the bank to publish the results, we need to plan for what next: how to ensure that the bank keeps to its promises in the future; and how to make progress on the second goal: planning an eventual return to majority co-operative control. The Co-operative Bank is now financially stable. It is clear that its commercial future relies on being seen as ethical and different. It’s time for the campaign to move on from saving our bank to promoting the views and interests of customers who care about its policies and how it is run and owned.

I’ll be reporting on our plans in the next column.