Building society triumphs over carpetbaggers

GET RICH QUICK "carpetbaggers" have failed in their attempt to turn the Bradford & Bingley building society into a bank. Their defeat, to be announced tomorrow, is a massive setback for the campaign, led by freelance butler Michael Harden, to force building societies to "convert" and issue windfall shares.

The defeat comes days after he abandoned his attempt to win a seat on the board of the Britannia building society.

And in a third blow, the Nationwide, Britain's largest society, has announced, on lawyers' advice, that Mr Harden's attempt to force it into another conversion vote is invalid. For two years running members have voted to remain a building society

Industry sources said last night that the Bradford & Bingley has won its battle for survival, with around 54 per cent of the votes being against the proposal that the society should take steps to become a bank and issue windfall shares.

Around 60 per cent of the society's 2.5 million members voted in a ballot triggered by carpetbaggers. "We were very pleased with that turnout," a spokeswoman said.

Stephen Major, the rebel B&B member who tabled the motion, believes his bid has failed. Mr Major, a plumber from Lisburn, Northern Ireland, said he had spoken to B&B insiders who were confident of victory. "I've given up hope of winning. There are more carpetbaggers in the Bradford & Bingley than in any other society and if you can't win in the B&B there's little chance in any other organisation."

The society spent pounds 5m on a campaign to persuade members to reject conversion. It seems to have won a much more decisive victory than the Nationwide which last year defeated by only 1 per cent the motion for conversion from Mr Hardern.

A Britannia spokesman said Mr Hardern's intervention had cost pounds 3m in extra postal and campaign costs.

Building societies believe Mr Hardern's eccentric behaviour is discrediting the carpetbaggers' case, but in future the battle may be taken out of both parties' hands. Campaigners for and against conversion are mobilising on the internet.

The Building Societies' Association is lobbying for a change to the law. At the moment any member needs only 50 other signatures to force a society to accept conversion motions, or a bid to elect a candidate to the board. The BSA's Pam O'Keeffe said: "When you have a website for carpetbaggers it is not difficult to get 50 people to support you. We aren't anti-democratic but we don't think building societies should have to face a general election year in, year out. We've been speaking to the Government about it." Possible solutions include demanding 500 signatures before a member's proposal is put to the vote.

The Members for Conversion website was set up by a commercial web firm, Web Centre, which asked Mr Hardern to run his campaign from the site. He has since been asked to leave, and the campaign is now driven by a group of activists operating under pseudonyms such as Ord, Dilbert, Rich Bagger and Lady Bagchester. There are e-mail updates for members seeking windfalls and tips on where to get the cheapest building society membership.

The campaigners believe the building societies have acted in an anti- democratic way by spending so much cash on campaigns and literature to persuade members to vote against the carpetbaggers. A spokesman for Web Centre claimed not to know who was behind the campaign. Another anonymous website, Members First, also campaigns against the societies' "anti-democratic" practices, including the Nationwide's pounds 8m annual sponsorship of the England football team and the Football League.

The rival group, Save our Building Societies, is run by Bob Goodall, a former housing worker who believes passionately that societies should stay mutual. "We have a website and our message is getting across," he said. "If the carpetbaggers don't like it they should come forward out of the shadows."

Members for Conversion: www.carpetbagger.com

Members First: www. membersfirst.freeserve.co.uk

Save our Building Societies: www.netcomuk.co.uk/ keveshere/sobs/index.html

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