Co-operative Democracy in the CWS

    This document has been made available in electronic format
         by the International Co-operative Alliance ICA 
                         June 1994

             Co-operative Democracy in the CWS 

                    by Edgar Parnell*

The term "democratic deficit" is widely used to describe the
situation - common in many types of organisation - in which
the level of involvement and participation in the democratic
process is in decline.  This trend may readily be observed in
local government, trade unions, political parties and many
voluntary organisations.  Much of the blame is attributable to
the fact that what were once small, community-based
enterprises have become large-scale organisations serving far
wider geographic areas.

It was not so long ago that every village and town had its own
Co-operative Society which was an integral part of the local
community and influenced nearly every aspect of the daily
lives of its members and their families.  Now most parts of
Britain are served by co-operatives which cover large regions,
as in the case of the CWS which provides services through the
length and breadth of the country.  Within small organisations
it is relatively easy to generate a sense of belonging and a
feeling of direct involvement; but the greater the size and
geographic area of an organisation, the more difficult it
becomes to engender interest in the democratic process.

Old minute books of the former local retail societies provide
fascinating insight into their members' active involvement in
even the most minute details of their operations.  Democratic
participation in the large-scale modern-day co-operative
cannot possibly follow such a tradition, as the scale and
complexity of operations require decisions that affect large
networks of shops and stores, which of necessity must observe
common policies.  Nevertheless, democracy remains one of the
key ingredients of a successful co-operative enterprise,
whatever its size and scale of operations.  Yet the ways in
which the democratic process can be successfully applied
within the large-scale co-operative must be specifically
designed to meet the new situation.

It is important to remember that the democratic process is not
an end in itself, but rather the means to ensuring that the
co-operative continues to serve the best interests of its
members and is responsive to their needs.  Above all else,
this means that the democratic framework must ensure that the
organisation remains in the control of its members.

"Democracy" entails much more than simply casting a vote when
it is time for elections to committees and the board. 
"Hands-on" democracy should include the opportunity to
participate in a two-way communications process, with members
expressing views on how the business ought to be run for their
own benefit and being kept informed about what is happening
within their business.  Professional managers have a duty not
only to manage a successful business - but to provide "members
with explanations".   Members need to feel that their
participation is welcome and that their views will be listened
to.  At the same time, they need to be realistic in their
expectations, for, of course, it is not practical - or
possible - to act on the specific suggestions of every
individual among many thousands of members.

The media has given extensive coverage to the recent
development of warehouse clubs and so-called "membership"
schemes offered by some retail companies.  However, none of
these businesses offers the opportunity provided by
co-operatives - that of participating in the ownership and
control of the business - nor do they offer universal
acceptance to all who wish to take up membership.

The CWS must now be the largest democratically controlled
business in the United Kingdom offering ordinary men and women
the opportunity to be involved in the democratic process - all
the way from the local  branch committee to the board room.
Last year the CWS updated its rule book, and in so doing
adopted provisions to ensure that the democratic process was
maintained and strengthened, allowing individual members to
participate fully in the affairs of the Society. Previously
many of the retail co-operative societies which are now
integrated within the CWS had not actively promoted the
recruitment of members or provided a branch structure which
encouraged member involvement in their affairs.  As a result,
member participation was often limited to the "old faithful".

However, in recent years the CWS has addressed the
co-operative "democratic deficit" by taking positive steps to
encourage meaningful active membership participation
throughout the organisation. For example, there is now a
senior manager with corporate responsibility for rebuilding
and revitalising the democratic structure. His tasks include
implementing a membership strategy based on recruiting new
members and re-registering former members among those shopping
directly in co-operative stores. Already some 200,000
individuals have been placed on the list of active members.
Steps have also been taken to raise the level of interest
among members, and this magazine is one of the products of
that policy.

The process of member involvement starts at the branch
committee, which is designed to provide opportunities for
members in a specific locality to become involved in the
affairs of the Society, and leads to a regional level or
organisation which equates to the management structure of CWS
retail operations.  In many areas, new branch committees have
been established where no local democratic structure
previously existed. Paralleling this, new and existing
branches of auxiliary Co-operative organisations (namely the
Co-operative Women's Guild, the Woodcraft Folk and the
Co-operative Party) are being supported. The degree of member
participation within any co-operative depends largely on the
impact which the co-operative has on the daily lives of its
individual members.  If the member depends upon the
co-operative to meet only a few needs, there is less
motivation to participate actively in the affairs of the

In the future we could expect that member interest in the
democratic process may need to be built upon the foundation of
more specific interest in the goods and services provided by
the Co-operative.  Members encompass many different areas of
interest, and it is no longer sufficient to rely upon that
interest being generated by the link to a community in a
specific geographic location.  The source of motivation for a
commitment to participation may now be more specialised, such
as services provided in respect of travel, motor cars or home
It is the responsibility of not only the professional
management, but also the individual members and their leaders,
to welcome into the democratic process both new members and
all those who have not previously participated.  It should
come as no surprise that most people are put off participating
in an organisation if they are not made welcome and helped to
understand the processes that make democracy work.

The democratic structure in any large-scale co-operative has
to provide the twin functions of an effective channel of
communication between the members and the management and the
structure for an "electoral college" which seeks out and
prepares individuals for leadership roles within the higher
levels of decision making.  To remain successful and dynamic
every Co-operative needs the best available members to serve,
in the board room, the interests of all its members.
In an age when most of the goods and services in our daily
lives are provided by large multinational companies acting
mainly in the interests of their investor-owners, a unique
opportunity exists for the members of co-operatives to
continue to influence the way in which the business is run.
This is an opportunity that the intelligent consumer should
not let pass by. However, it needs to be accepted that
participation in the democratic process does require both time
and commitment. In return, the active member is rewarded with
a worthwhile means of influencing what happens within a major
business enterprise, and of contributing towards an improved
quality of life for ordinary people.

* Mr Parnell is Director of the Oxford-based Plunkett
Foundation which for the past 75 years has supported the
development of co-operatives both within the UK and
internationally (source: Members Magazine, Spring 1994).