Nationwide set to be the next society to yield

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More than 5 million members of Nationwide, the largest building society still committed to mutuality, will vote - albeit indirectly - next month on whether they want to join in the conversion bonanza that could net them up to pounds 1,500 of free shares each.

Nationwide members voting to elect their main board will be able to choose among five rebel candidates from Members for Conversion, a group campaigning for the society to float on the stock market.

The vote is a key test for Nationwide. If the five, who include Michael Hardern, a veteran pro-conversion campaigner, are elected or even come close to winning seats on the board, the society would come under heavy pressure to change course and prepare for flotation.

A Nationwide spokesman said: "We are a democratic organisation and members have a right to choose those whom they want. However, our concern is in terms of [Members for Conversion's] ability to act as directors. They do not appear to have any experience in managing this sort of organisation."

The Nationwide's decision would in turn have critical implications for other pro- mutual societies, including Bradford & Bingley, Britannia and Yorkshire. They have all defended the benefits of mutuality, pointing to the large "loyalty" bonuses, involving higher savings rates and lower mortgages, they now pay members.

As long as any share handout was worth between pounds 800 and pounds 1,000, the mutuals could argue their payouts would match that amount over six or seven years.

In recent weeks, rocketing share prices in the banking sector have altered the issue. Mr Hardern said: "There is no mystery why 97 per cent majorities have voted for building society conversions when asked, especially when what was billed as pounds 1,000 in free shares turns out to be nearer pounds 2,000."