Late in 2013 a deal was done to plug a huge gap in the Co-operative Bank’s balance sheet. The deal saved the bank but it left the Co-operative Group with only a minority share, while private investors - including hedge funds - own the rest.
Many customers are with the Co-operative Bank because of what it stands for. When the private owners came in, many worried that the new ownership structure would compromise the bank's strong ethical stand.
But customers have power: if they act together.
The new private owners know that the survival of the bank relies on continued customer loyalty, and that in turn means being seen to keep a strong ethical stance.
A group of Co-op Bank customers set up the Save Our Bank campaign with support from Ethical Consumer magazine with two aims: to ensure that the bank sticks to its principles and, with time, to help the bank return to some form of co-operative control.
We called on customers not to switch, but to stick together. In a few months, 10,000 had signed up to the campaign, including major charities and campaigning organisations.
When the bank announced that it was going to survey customers on what should be included in a new ethical policy, we succeeded in getting the chief executive to promise in public that this would not be used as an excuse to water down the policy and that all existing commitments would be retained. We welcomed the new policy that came as a result.
If we are going to keep this pressure on the bank, we need a permanent body. That's why we are setting up a new union of customers: the Customer Union for Ethical Banking. So far as we know, this will be the first time a customer union has been created for a single company.
The union will be a co-operative, owned and controlled by its members. It will keep an eye on the bank, to make sure it sticks to its word. And it will start the slow process of building up a new, independent customer co-operative stake.