Personal Finance: Nic Cicutti column
Saturday 09 January 1999
Little guy takes on big guy. Big buy batters little guy. "Stay down or you'll get hurt bad," he warns. Little guy gets up and gets battered again. This goes on until either the little guy succeeds (the big guy is very tired) or wins respect for not giving in.
The above scene came to me this week after reading that Michael Hardern, the former butler and one-track-minded campaigner for building societies to demutualise, is to relaunch a campaign to put a resolution - identical to the one narrowly defeated by Nationwide members in July - to this effect on the agenda at seven societies.
Portman, Britannia, Leeds & Holbeck, Skipton, Chelsea and Yorkshire are studying his proposals. Coventry appears to have escaped - Mr Hardern couldn't raise enough signatures.
His new intervention follows the decision by another campaigner, Stephen Major - a plumber from Lisburn, County Antrim - to trigger a vote among Bradford & Bingley members on the same subject in April.
It would be easy to suggest that because Nationwide rejected demutualisation, Bradford & Bingley will do so. But the Nationwide carpetbaggers will be out in even greater numbers at Bradford & Bingley. Its membership, after all, has doubled since 1995, and it is a fair bet that not all are loyal defenders of building societies.
As it happens, I am a member. I joined to get the best rates available on a particular account, and it has consistently outperformed similar accounts available from the high street banks. In common with Bradford & Bingley borrowers, I have done well with mutuality.
I will be voting against Mr Major in April. What annoys me, however, is not so much that he and Mr Hardern are exercising their right to put the issue to the test, but the ease with which they can do so.
It only takes 50 members to put an issue on the agenda or to stand for election to a mutual's board, which may seem democratic - until you realise that Hardern and co can disrupt a society for months.
When "ballotitis" strikes, a society has to close new accounts for fear of letting in more carpetbaggers, diverting the energies of staff and costing millions of pounds in lost returns.
The Treasury refuses to intervene, arguing that it is not there to protect societies against the will of their members. But this is about more than simply defending "democracy": it is about allowing a vitally important arm of the UK's savings and mortgages movement to operate unhindered by constant interruption and to allow honest competition to continue between societies and banks.
All it would take is to raise to 500 the number of members needed. Even a 100 minimum might prevent the frivolous Mr Hardern from forcing societies like Leeds & Holbeck to demutualise (how would such a titchy outfit survive as a bank?).
If defeated in April, I hope that the little guy doesn't get up again.
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