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Could there be a Finance Sector with Convictions?

by The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby

Posted: 21 Nov 2013

Sometimes people have to face the press and broadcasting media in really unenviable situations. As you watch or listen to them facing the probing questions you can feel the sympathy rising within you. Then, if they play successfully the rotten hand they've been dealt, the fear you felt when you thought about what it would be like to be in such a hapless set of circumstances changes to admiration and even a desire to find a way to lend them support.

Such has been my experience of watching the media performance of Ursula Lidbetter, suddenly catapulted into the role of Chair of the Co-operative Group. The context is a series of management failures, along with what seem likely to turn into criminal charges against the Co-operative Bank's former chair. Whatever Ms Lidbetter knew of the background - and that was probably not a great deal - her statement that she was shocked by the unfolding events was no doubt genuine. So too, I believe, was the determination that came across in her interviews to review 'root and branch' the sprawling governance that had bedevilled the Co-op's activities. She spoke with the voice of one who knew she had a really tough job on her hands, and was determined to do it well. And the test she set herself to determine whether she had done it well was that members of the various parts of the Co-operative movement would no longer find it on the front pages of national newspapers for what she - rightly - called 'the wrong reasons'.

I watched two or three of her interviews with that experience of sympathy moving to admiration, partly born of the self-interest of a Co-op member: I do my banking, a bit of my shopping and all my energy purchase with the Co-op. So I certainly watched the interviews with the concern of one who has personal reasons for wanting the mess cleared up, and the pleasure that goes with finding that you are listening to someone whose determination to achieve that is palpable.

But there's more to the meaning of this crisis and its resolution than finding a person of authority and competence to sort out a mess. One of the tasks Ms Lidbetter faced - from my point of view and that of many others - was to show a real understanding of and commitment to the values that make the Co-operative movement distinctive. Her insistence that those values, and above all the voice of the membership in decision-making, would be maintained was of the essence of her message and the sine qua non of its being received by those who regard themselves as part of the Co-op.

But others need to hear that message too. Anyone who is responsible for a 'conviction organisation' knows that it has to remain distinctive in the values it holds and in the way those values are reflected in its governance and decision making. They also have to know that such a values-based movement requires more, not less, competence, efficiency and enterprise than do organisations which make no secret of the fact that they operate out of purely commercial aspirations.

Once you free yourself from the moralistic interpretations of Christ's teaching to which we have all grown too accustomed, what you notice is a teacher with a very clear understanding of the economic world of his time and a determination that those whose desire is for the kingdom of justice and peace to triumph need more, not less, cunning, enterprise and adventure if they are to serve that kingdom well. The parable of the talents is among other things a very realistic account of what happens when people are paralysed by fear and end up holding on to what they know out of anxiety that all change is bound to be for the worse.

The economic world desperately needs organisations - banks and other agents of commerce - that are distinctive in their values, who know the danger that money represents when it is allowed - as it has been - to become the triumphant ethical arbiter in decision making merely because the numbers on it seem to answer all the important questions. We desperately need organisations that are really mutual, that express the will of their members and a sense of compassion for the world and for human beings struggling with poverty

But to have such organisations requires all the gifts of competence, wisdom and efficiency that commercial organisations pay huge sums to purchase in the market. We know, of course, that their having paid a lot of money for them doesn't guarantee that they will fare any better than the Co-op - after all, all that money didn't shield them from disaster, and that's why we are where we are. And if we are to cherish such values-based organisations, those who cheer from the sidelines - in the case of the Co-op it was government ministers, regulators, parliamentarians and many others - must not push movements based on conviction and values into courses of action - like massive expansion - for which they are not suited, just because it accords with their political agenda.

Those of us who are determined to hang in there with the Co-op are doing our own bit of cheering - but not trying to get the Co-op to become something it isn't. Rather our aim is that the profound instincts and ethics of that movement should be expressed in an organisation that works effectively and is governed properly. If that is achieved, then a real witness will be borne, in a chaotic and destructive economic context, to the truth that there is a better way, one that is financially efficient and lives by its convictions.

About this author

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is the former Bishop of Worcester. Following his role as part of the Interim Directing Team from 2012-2014, he continues as an adviser to St Paul's Institute.


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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.