The old guard will grumble but the reunion of CWS and CRS will have to mean democracy removed from the grassroots It is ironic that one of the main architects of the Co-op merger plans should be culled by his own axe when the plans got the approval they needed this week. Andy Meehan, chief executive of the CRS, says his future can no longer be with the combined society. There is now, he said, only one top job. No doubt there will be a handsome payoff. The irony is that originally the CRS and CWS started out as one and has come full circle with the ratification vote on March 25. What is now CRS began life as a 1930s offshoot of the CWS, moving into areas where the then mighty Co-op Movement felt its performance wasn't up to scratch. This led to its unofficial description as an "ambulance service". A parting of the ways came in the 1950s, at a time when many co-operators felt the last thing the CWS should be doing was acting as a shopkeeper. So the Balloon Street outfit got on with running its factories and farms, while CRS went its own way. It was in 1982, in Brighton, that then CWS chairman Peter Paxton announced merger talks at the Co-operative Congress. The rationale would become familiar over the years. The old idea of the Co-op as a sleeping giant was wrong. There were actually two giants at the heart of a disparate movement. Bring them together, bang heads, cut costs, utilise buying power and all would be well. Those talks spluttered and died. But eventually the personalities changed, creating the key to success. The men departed who had built a palace for CRS in Rochdale. In their wake, more pragmatism emerged. In Andy Meehan, CRS found a pragmatic chief executive with recent experience of the outside world and no desire to reinvent the Co-op brand on nil resources. With CRS finances in spectacularly bad shape and much wealth still in the CWS coffers, despite its uneven performance, the stage was set. A further boost to the process, and a hope for the future, has arrived in the shape of Pauline Green, new chief executive and general secretary of the Co-operative Union. She has to restore the credibility of an organisation supposed to sit at the centre of the Co-op web, brokering the deals. Or, to put it another way, acting as the movement's trade association. Under the Union's previous lacklustre management it became irrelevant. Now CWS and CRS know, if there are more spats to come, they have someone to turn to. Someone who can bring an authoritative voice to the process of making up. This will be useful. While much attention will focus on the business benefits of the merger, the old guard will fret at the threat to democracy. For years, they have moaned that true democratic accountability was disappearing. Once committees ran one shop, then they ran the stores in one town. Now CRS covers the whole of Wales, CWS much of Scotland. For the traditionalists, that makes true democratic control of the Co-op's affairs an impossibility, yet democratic control is what makes the Co-op what it is. They used to call it the Co-op Difference. These concerns have certainly come to the boil in the present merger negotiations, with constant interventions in the trade paper Co-op News from renegade former CRS director Barbara Rogers, and equally frequent rebuttals from the Rochdale establishment. To Rogers, a "shroud of secrecy" has covered the "railroading" of CRS members. Some would argue any member looking at the CRS balance sheet would feel that he or she had been railroaded very publicly. The majority of the activists know the score. Either accept democracy more removed from the grassroots, or prepare to cast your votes on the dismemberment of co-operation. These disputes will not stop merger, but Green has her part to play in ensuring the new bosses can concentrate on the real issues of saving co-op retailing. In the short term her task will be made easier by the pledge that, for the time being, the current CRS democratic structure will remain in place while ways are worked out of bringing the two sides together in this area. A complication is the existence of the CWS corporate members, in the main the still existing independent societies. CWS' wealth stems from the retail societies, not from individual members. It is clear the leadership of the new body itself will be in the hands of Graham Melmoth, a man who chose the Co-op for the second half of his career, after demonstrating in the first half that he could equally earn his living at high level in the plc world. If anyone can make the merged giant truly fit for the 21st century, he can. {{NEWS }}