Thursday, 29 September 2011

Not all Bankers are Bad!

Whilst discussing bankers makes most people’s blood boil there is one bank that has quietly got on with delivering a good service to its customers without engaging in the kind of reckless activities that have bought the global economy to its knees. You may have missed its half yearly figures buried in the overall performance of the Co-operative Group. Despite the overall performance of the Co-op Group at the half year stage not being much to write home about, with the integration of Somerfield still causing issues in the Food Division, the Co-op Banks half year results whilst not spectacular did show steady improvement. The operating results are up a respectable 20% to £131 million and the steady increase in new account holders since the financial crash goes on with a 73% increase. The Bank gained 56,000 new customers (and therefore Co-op Group Members) in the half year.
The benefits of the Britannia merger are also now beginning to show with better savings products and this month Co-op Bank current account customers have access to an extra 245 branches as baking services are available in the Britannia outlets. These branches now offer Co-op Bank customers full access to everyday banking services, including paying in cash and cheques, withdrawing cash and making transfers to Co-op credit cards and Britannia savings accounts.
This more than trebles the number of available branches from 97 to 342. This is at a time when, according to the Campaign for Community Banking, 1,000 local communities have been left without a single bank branch.
It also seems that the Co-op Bank is the last credible bidder for the 630 branches that the Lloyds Banking Group, is being forced to sell under European Union rules on state bail-outs. And there is pressure from the Independent Commission on Banking for them to sell more than that. If successful this would be a huge increase in their branch coverage.
The lack of branches is something which many feel has slowed down their growth. Despite the huge growth in online banking, in which Smile the Co-ops own online service is a market leader, many customers still want access however infrequently to a bank branch.
Currently the Bank is a Money Which? Recommended Provider for current accounts, savings, credit cards and car insurance and its current account scores a high customer satisfaction rating of 86%. I have always found that there is an anti-co-op bias in Which? So this is praise indeed.
The real test of the benefits of the Banks development will be felt at the end of this year when the £729 million investment in new internal processes backed up with state of the art information technology should deliver a new business wide banking IT platform. This is being rolled out in stages. Last year saw the new online business banking facility and later this year the payments hub will go live. These new systems will give the Bank the most up to date and flexible back office systems around, increase their capacity and will enable the new merged organization to offer a totally integrated service to its customers.

It is wise I think to roll out such an enormous program in stages. I don’t think there has been any new large scale project that has work perfectly first time. There are always glitches and bugs in software systems that you have to operate the system to find.

To even be talking about such an enormous investment is amazing. The transformation of the Co-op Bank is remarkable. Just a few years ago to find a co-op bank outlet you would have had to find your way to a dusty corner of a Co-op shop just to gain access to a fairly rudimentary banking service. Yet today the Bank is a market leader in new products and customer service. There is no doubt that it has lead the rejuvenation of the Co-operative brand. The bank has long been the only Bank that consults its customers on its ethical policies and this year those Ethical policies will be extended to the £1bn of investments underpinning key insurance products.
Since the Ethical Policy was introduced in 1992, The Co-operative Bank has with held over £1billion of funding from business activities that its customers say are unethical. Having such a strong ethical stance has not however been bad for business because at the same time it has increased its commercial lending sixteen fold to almost £9 billion. This year the Bank has also strengthened its green credentials by extending its commercial lending in the area of energy efficiency and renewables from £400m to £1bn.
One group of people who have benefited from the Banks expansionary mood is UNISON members. The union’s members who switch to the Banks Current Account Plus before the end of the month will receive a benefit of £100 cash back, plus the Bank will make a £50 donation to UNISON Welfare charity in return for a minimum monthly deposit of £800.
Since the partnership between the Bank and Unison began the Bank has given more than £1.3 million to UNISON Welfare from financial products linked to the union.
UNISON members have until the end of the month to take advantage of this offer and the full terms and conditions can be found at, or calling 0800 917 7066, or by visiting any one of The Co-operative Bank or Britannia branches.
They say you are more likely to get divorced than to change your bank account but nothing could be simpler and what’s more if they make any mistakes you are generously compensated. I know the Co-op Bank is still a bank and we all have a downer on banks at the moment but here is one way we can all be co-operators even if you are miles from a shop!

Friday, 16 September 2011

Sports fans, Spectators or Supporters?

There has been much debate about the Morning Stars sports coverage. As a small circulation paper with a mission to promote socialist ideas should it dedicate so much space to mainstream sport? As someone who believes in the cultural importance of sport I see this as an important debate. I confess, I love county cricket, indeed the more meaningless the fixture the more I like it! I am also an ecumenical rugby fan enjoying League as much as Union. I have however fallen out of love with modern football. This is a complex issue and is perhaps something to do with the way football culture has become ubiquitous elevating players into celebrities.

I suspect it is because I don’t much like the people who play the game who despite their working class origins have become in the immortal words of Jonathan Meades, a “bespoke cast of gladiatorial yob-gods, wag-roasting Croesus kids, who once a week descend from their Parnassian blingsteads to run around for 90 golden minutes of bravura vanity”.

As the great CLR James pointed out when he said “What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?” The social, political and economic context of sport is crucial to its understanding. My belief is that the role that football plays in our society has not changed as much as Sky television would like us to think. After all in English Journey, his account of a tour of the country in 1933, J.B. Priestley describes a game between Notts County and Notts Forest:

“Nearly everything possible has been done to spoil this game; the heavy financial interests; the absurd transfer and player selling system; the lack of any birth or residential qualification for the players; the betting and coupon competitions; the absurd publicity given to every feature of it by the Press; the monstrous partisanship of the crowds (with their idiotic cries of ‘play the game Ref’ when any decision against their side is given); but the fact remains that it is not yet spoilt and it has gone out to conquer the world.”

Well it has most certainly conquered the world but what I believe has changed since 1933 is not the game itself after all one of the reasons for its success is that it is fairly simple. What has changed is the role of the spectator. Are you just to sit in our arm chairs as a Sky subscriber as if it watching a soap opera? Is the spectator to be a mere consumer or is the role of the fan to be more than just cheerleader?

This is the key question being tackled by Supporters Direct the organisation that seeks to promote sustainable spectator sports clubs based on supporters' involvement & community ownership. Since they were formed in 2000 they have changed the nature of the debate about who owns our sports clubs.

One of the shortlisted candidates for Co-operative of the Year at this year’s Co-op Congress was to give it its full title The Exeter City AFC Supporters’ Society Limited, which as an Industrial and Provident Society (IPS) is a bona fide co-op and is the owner of Exeter City. I have to say when we saw how much they were able to do in their community from the base of the football club I was bowled over.
FC United of Manchester have shown what can be done from a standing start raising over a £1million in their community share issue towards the new ground planned to be at Moston. Fan owned clubs are on a roll. Many will be watching AFC Wimbledon back in the football league after their club was kidnapped and taken to Milton Keynes. I will be watching Telford United back in the Blue Square Premier after being rescued by their Supporters Trust. Indeed Telford is a hot bed of co-operation with the local ice hockey team the Telford Tigers being the only co-operative owned team in the national ice hockey league.

Supporters Direct have a proud record with 150 Trusts at clubs up and down the country bringing £25million of new finance into football alone, with 26 clubs now in Trust ownership and 110 having shareholdings in their clubs. This trend I believe can only go one way. With the greatest club in the world, Barcelona, being in fan ownership what better advertisement for this model could there be?
But it is not just football, in Rugby League there are now supporters owned clubs such as Rochdale Hornets and Hunslett. Many cricket clubs too are in co-operative ownership, including Surrey, Lancashire and Glamorgan which all feature in the UK’s top 100 Co-ops.

Modern fans can be more than just passive supporters and fan ownership has to be the way forward after all who is more committed to a club and more hungry for success than its fans? Who are the only people who can be trusted to stick with a club through thick and thin when the sugar daddies that see clubs as trophy assets bringing them status lose interest or go bust!
I hope our sports coverage can cover more of the political-economy of sport. Ownership really does matter. Who is profiting from the business of sport? And to those who think this is OK for the minor league clubs but not for the Premier League giants - remember when the banks where too big to fail?