'The first stepping-stone to a professional career'

What do Sue Pollard, Lord Attenborough, Peter Bottomley, Compo, Betty Boothroyd, Sean Connery, Alan Bennett, Seamus Heaney, Michael Palin, and, it is rumoured, Maureen Lipman and Alan Rickman have in common? They could, in a small way, help decide the fate of the Co-op, writes Chris Hughes.

As Co-op members, they and 8 million others elect the CWS board who will have to sit in judgement on Andrew Regan, if he ever gets around to bidding for the business.

"My mother was a member of the Co-op, of course. Where I came from, everyone was, except the Tories," says Bill Owen, who plays Compo in Last of the Summer Wine. "The Co-op was the first stepping stone to a professional career."

Peter Bottomley, the Conservative MP for Eltham, has been a Co-op member for 22 years. Sean Connery was a Co-op milkman and Sue Pollard, star of Hi-de-Hi, was once a check-out girl in the Nottingham Co-op.

Lord Attenborough's parents were members in Leicester and he adjudicated the annual Co-operative Queen contest. Michael Palin's big break came when he won best gentleman's performance in the 1962 Leeds Co-op drama festival. Betty Boothroyd recalls her mother using part of the "divi", the members' dividend payment, to pay for her first dancing lessons.

The Co-operative Wholesale Society is not a simple organisation. It is made up of 51 independent Co-operative retailers, or "societies" and a handful of co-operative retailers owned directly by the CWS, each of which elects a representative to sit on the CWS board.

"It's fearsomely complicated. You would never set up an organisation like this today. But we are the victim of our history," said Iain Williamson of the Co-Op Union.

It costs pounds 1 to become a Co-op member, which grants them a share of the annual profits and the right to vote each other to their society's board.

Martin Henderson, CWS spokesman, said: "It's like the general election. A pounds 1 share buys you a voting right to elect a representative. It can't be used to overturn the government or change what's in progress.

"An offer of cash to members to demutualise would really only be effective if they were on the board. And it can take up to three years for a member to make their way up to the board," he says.

Mr Regan's proposals would need the approval of 75 per cent of the CWS board's members. They would in turn need the support of 75 per cent of the board of their own society.

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