Nationwide investors make stand for power: Directors of the society face a challenge from members in the coming election for board seats

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The Independent Online
AN election contest for four seats on the board of Britain's second-largest building society, the Nationwide, takes place in July.

This year, four individual society members are asserting their right to stand against the incumbent directors up for re-election, who include Alistair Dales, the group finance director.

Although building societies, as mutual organisations, are theoretically controlled by their savers and borrowers, democracy is a rarely practised art. Last year, however, two customers stood for election. One was Vivian Singh, a retired schoolmaster and Anglican clergyman who led the campaign on behalf of Nationwide investors trapped in old lower-interest notice accounts. The other was Ben Jacobs, a Nationwide member. Although unsuccessful, each attracted significant support.

This year the Rev Singh, a member of the Building Societies' Members' Association (BSMA), a small pressure group dedicated to encouraging greater democracy, and Mr Jacobs are standing again. It is believed that they will be joined by two other independent candidates, David English and Robert Leng. They will be attempting to take the places of two executive and two non-executive directors standing for re-election.

Conventionally, new directors of building societies are first co-opted on to the board, subsequently standing for election as retiring members seek reappointment. Critics say this procedure makes for a cosy self- perpetuating establishment and can mean that societies are less accountable than public companies. Societies tend to argue that as important financial institutions, they have little room for inexperienced if well- meaning amateurs on their boards.

In order to stand for election to the Nationwide board, independent candidates need to obtain nominations from 50 other members, each of whom must have held pounds 100 or more in an account for at least two years. 'It's difficult to get 50 people. It's embarrassing asking people, 'will you nominate me and have you had pounds 100 invested for two years?',' said Mr Jacobs. The Rev Singh said that, initially, he stood with a placard outside his local Nationwide branch as a way of reaching other members. Both argue that the interests of individual members of the society are not being adequately represented at board level.

The Rev Singh and Mr Jacobs hope for a revival of the democratic impulse - or at least for members to return their ballot papers. 'I wish people would vote instead of throwing their voting papers away. More than 95 per cent finish up in the dustbin,' said Mr Jacobs.

Although the independent candidates are standing as individuals, together they comprise a complete alternative slate to the incumbent directors.

The Nationwide has had a difficult two years, at least in public relations terms. It was recently disclosed that it is operating an incentive scheme for senior executives that is likely to deliver thousands of pounds in bonuses.

The Nationwide provides the only recent precedent of an unofficial candidate being elected to a building society board. Sheila Heywood, a retired college lecturer from Derbyshire and a member of the BSMA, caused an upset in the 1988 election when she ousted a sitting director. She is still a member.

This year's annual meeting takes place on 22 July at the Royal Lancaster Hotel in London.

The BSMA is offering a pounds 100 prize competition in memory of its co-founder, Buck Taylor, who died recently. It is seeking short essays on building society mutuality or the housing market. (Further details from 11 Ockley Road, London SW16 1UW.)

(Photograph omitted)