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Forget Flowers: it’s time to save our bank

The Co-op Bank

Howard Lake under a Creative Commons Licence

It seems hard to believe that just eight months ago, The Co-operative Bank was poised to take over some 600 branches from Lloyds Banking Group, a move which could have propelled it into the big time. No more ‘niche ethical bank’, but instead a serious player in the banking industry, co-operatively owned with a hard-edged Ethical Policy.

For those who applauded what the bank stood for, it was a dizzying proposition. We knew it would be difficult – four years after the merger with Britannia building society, they still felt like two different businesses – but those in charge of running the numbers told us it could be done.

Fast forward to the present day, and not only have the expansion plans been shown to be wildly hubristic, but the bank’s reputation has been wracked by the Paul Flowers scandal and its future hangs in the balance.

The crucial deadline for bondholders voting on whether to accept the rescue package is this Friday. If investors reject the plan, the alternative is likely to be ‘resolution’, or takeover by the Bank of England, with dire consequences, according to The Co-operative Group. If they accept then there will be rapid movement to seal the deal with the hedge funds.

The Save Our Bank Campaign was set up to ensure that the bank’s Ethical Policy remains in place whatever happens, and to help the bank eventually return to co-operative ownership. We want to make sure that the hedge funds set to take over 70 per cent of the bank will be tied in to keeping not only the Policy but the external auditing and reporting that will help make sure it stays robust.

Amid the scandal of recent weeks, it’s tempting to take the view that all this only goes to show that banks are all the same. That would be to ignore the extent to which The Co-operative Bank has campaigned hard, and often with considerable success, on issues that few other companies, let alone banks, dare to go near. In contrast to the ‘cuddly’ tag given to it by commentators who are not paying enough attention, The Co-operative Bank at its best has been spiky, fearless and political.

For example, the bank campaigned for international bans on both land mines and cluster munitions, which are now in place. Its 2002 campaign on cluster munitions involved not just raising finance for mine clearance in war zones, but funding and putting its name to new research on the humanitarian impacts of these indiscriminate weapons.

More recently, in 2006 the bank backed Friends of the Earth’s Big Ask campaign, as a result of which every MP in the land received a letter from a Co-operative Bank customer urging them to support strong climate legislation.

The bank’s campaign to stop tar sands extraction in Canada, like the cluster munitions campaign, began with funding new research to understand the problem in detail. It also involved backing a legal challenge by the indigenous Beaver Lake Cree Nation against the oil companies to stop drilling on their territory.

And of course, it has been the Ethical Policy itself which has given the bank legitimacy to campaign on these topics. It was back in 1992 that the bank first polled its customers on where they did and didn’t want their money to go, resulting in a policy of denying finance to, among others, manufacturers of arms for oppressive regimes, companies involved in animal testing for cosmetics and those failing to uphold basic human rights.

Since then the Policy has been updated several times, including in 1998 when it was extended to exclude the fossil fuel industry, an early precursor to 350.org’s fast-growing fossil fuel divestment campaign of today. And the bank has withheld well over £1 billion ($1.6 billion) to businesses which fail to meet these standards – standards backed overwhelmingly by its customers.

Let’s not forget these genuine achievements, which stand in stark contrast to the record of the rest of the banking sector. And talking of stark contrasts, let’s not forget that HSBC’s Chairman at the time the bank was found to be laundering money for Mexican drug cartels, Stephen Green, has been made Lord Green and now sits as Trade Minister.

Thousands of customers have signed up to the Save Our Bank campaign so far, and 20 charities and campaigning organizations have backed our declaration on the Ethical Policy. If we can reach a critical mass of customers, we can help influence the outcome, and help save what made The Co-operative Bank head and shoulders better than the rest.

To help secure the bank’s Ethical Policy please sign up with Save Our Bank before Friday’s crucial vote.

Ryan Brightwell is a researcher with BankTrack, founder of the research consultancy Bright Analysis and a former employee of the The Co-operative Group.

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