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Save Our Bank

A group of Co-operative Bank customers, supported by Ethical Consumer magazine, formed the Save Our Bank Campaign in 2013.

A decade on, and with over 10,000 supporters, the customer union works to ensure the Co-operative Bank retains its ethical values, and to see the Bank return to eventually return to co-operative ownership.

How and why did the Save Our Bank campaign start?

Late in 2013 a deal was struck to fill a large gap in the Co-operative Bank’s balance sheet. The deal saved the bank, but it left its previous owner, the Co-operative Group, with a shareholding of only 30%, while private investors - including several US hedge funds - owned the rest, given them a 70% share of the bank.

The Co-operative Group remained the largest shareholder. But it had lost overall control.

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.

The stakes were high: failure of the bank would probably have meant the end of The Co-operative Group itself – the oldest and most iconic co-operative in the world. A rescue was arranged without state intervention (in contrast to the rescue of Lloyds and RBS in 2008), but at a price.

Why customer support is vital

For many customers the first instinct was to leave for Nationwide or one of the other mutuals. With US hedge funds in control, some felt that that the bank might not maintain its world-leading ethical policies and brave campaigning.

But, loss of customers could have put the future of the whole bank at risk.

As one of the few banks recommended in the Ethical Consumer Magazine shopping guides to current accounts and savings accounts, keeping the bank going was vital for many customers.

Aims of the Save our Bank campaign

The Save Our Bank campaign started with the belief that something good could be saved if the customers who cared about ethics were organised – because without customers any bank is worthless – something even a hedge fund understands. Over 10,000 supporters signed up to an on-line campaign calling on the bank to maintain its ethical policy and for an eventual return to co-operative control.

For many loyal customers, Save Our Bank offered a way to make their feelings known without leaving – a point not lost on the bank.

The first challenge for the campaign came when the new management said it would survey customers about a renewed ethical policy. Surveys can be manipulated and this could be used as an excuse to water the ethical policy down, for example by downplaying ‘political’ concerns like human rights in favour of promises to ‘treat customers fairly’.

Ahead of the survey, Save Our Bank supporters put huge pressure on the bank by writing, emailing and tweeting. Eventually the CEO of the bank stated publicly that no existing commitments would be dropped. The bank asked Save Our Bank for advice on the content of the survey.

The new policy was finally announced in January 2015 after more than 70,000 customers had taken part. The bank kept its promise – a close reading showed that on all but a couple of minor issues, the existing policy was unmolested. Plus there were significant new commitments. Critical but positive engagement with the bank had paid off.

Save our bank. Customer union for ethical banking

The Customer Union for Ethical Banking

The Save Our Bank campaign proved that organised customer pressure can produce results. As the campaign progressed, the question became how to sustain it. And what could customers do to help bring the bank back under co-operative control?

Save Our Bank decided to create a ‘customer union’ – so far as we know this has never been tried before. Members are asked to pay a small annual subscription to fund the union, which keeps an eye on the bank.

A crowdfunding campaign raised more than twice the target of £15,000 and the union was established in 2016.

The Customer Union for Ethical Banking is an independent body representing customers of the Co-operative Bank. The Customer Union has two aims:

  1. to ensure that the bank sticks to its word on being an ethical bank with customer-led values

  2. to see an eventual return of the bank to majority cooperative ownership. The union is a co-operative itself, democratically controlled by its 1,200 members and regulated by the FCA.

In 2019 the bank formally recognised the Customer Union in a ground-breaking recognition agreement - reflecting the productive and cooperative engagement that has been growing between the bank and the union.

Formal recognition gives the bank a way to show that it takes the concerns of ethically minded customers seriously, and is not frightened of scrutiny on this issue. For the customer union the recognition underlines the real influence it has, which in turn helps attract new members, so increasing the influence further. Arguably, and perhaps ironically, members of the customer union have more influence on the direction of the bank than members of the Co-op did before the bank was sold.

In 2023, a decade after the first sale and the formation of Save Our Bank, the union is crowdfunding to support its vision for the next decade of work.

The Save Our Bank website has more information about its history, the union, and its future plans.

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