Britannia's threat to 300 members is petty, spiteful and undemocratic

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The Independent Online
THERE IS little so horrifyingly compulsive as a person who self-destructs, for whatever reason. One or two current and former politicians have managed it in recent months.

Another person who has achieved complete loss of credibility is Michael Hardern, the part-time butler who achieved fame as the leading proponent of building society demutualisation.

Earlier this year, Mr Hardern attempted his greatest stunt, standing for election to the boards of several building societies at once, while tabling motions to their annual meetings calling for each to de-mutualise.

This time, he came a cropper. All his motions were rejected by the societies because their wording was legally flawed. All the societies banned him from standing for election, bar Britannia.

And the arch-demutualiser was fast losing credibility on other fronts. At a series of bizarre press conferences, journalists thought Mr Hardern had lost touch with his sanity. Many of his opponents began to brand him as mad. Yet here he was, standing for election to the board of a building society, where he would be responsible for the affairs of a huge institution.

Unfortunately, most members of the public had little inkling that their "carpetbagging champion" seemingly was taking leave of his senses. Something had to give.

It did when Mr Hardern decided to stand down, costing Britannia pounds 3m to re-stage the ballot without his name on every ballot paper. Unfortunately, the saga risks dragging down other innocent people, the 300 or so members who were prepared to nominate Mr Hardern for election to the board.

In a demonstration of vindictiveness, Britannia has now written to these individuals, telling them they will be booted out of the society and their accounts closed. Its attitude is that they should be made to pay in lost membership rights for the fact that they backed Mr Hardern's decision to stand for the board.

Britannia's position appears to hold these dissenters indirectly responsible for the fact that Mr Hardern's initial candidature and last-minute stand- down cost it millions. Therefore, it no longer wants them as members.

Frankly, this decision stinks. This column has always been in favour of the mutual sector. We have criticised Mr Hardern and the carpetbaggers many times, arguing that building societies offer consistently better deals on mortgages and savings rates.

But, whether I agree with them or not, building society members have the right to be make up their own minds over this argument. Yet, so often societies have prevented debate on the issue.

"Ah," Britannia might reply, "but look who they chose to support. Michael Hardern, clearly someone who was totally unfit for the post."

Rubbish. Mr Hardern might have seemed like damaged goods to a few building society supremos and journalists. But it stretches credulity to suggest that this was a fact well-understood throughout the UK. Either that or the society is saying several hundred of its members were demented enough to nominate someone for office even though they "knew" he was behaving in a potty manner.

This is why Britannia's decision is not only petty and spiteful. It is also profoundly undemocratic.

Mutuality will never survive by bureaucratic expulsions and repression. I hope the society changes its mind. If not, the Building Societies Ombudsman should step in to defend the rights of ordinary members.