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Cooperatives – An Alternative to Capitalism? The Case of the John Lewis Partnership

Finance Reconsidered: New Perspectives for a Responsible and Sustainable Finance

ISBN: 978-1-78560-980-0, eISBN: 978-1-78560-979-4

ISSN: 2043-9059

Publication date: 2 September 2016

Abstract

Purpose

From a perspective of ‘critical performativity’, John Lewis is of special interest since it is celebrated as a successful organization and heralded as an alternative to more typical forms of capitalist enterprise.

Methodology/approach

Our analysis uses secondary empirical material (e.g. JLP documents in the public domain, histories of John Lewis and recent empirical research). Our assumption is that engagement and interrogation of existing empirical work can be at least as illuminating and challenging as undertaking new studies. In addition to generating fresh insights, stimulating reflection and fostering debate, our analysis is intended to contribute to an appreciation of how structures of ownership and governance are significant in enabling and constraining practices of organizing and managing.

Findings

The structures of ownership and governance at John Lewis, a major UK employee-owned retailer, have been commended by those who wish to recuperate capitalism and by those who seek to transform it.

Research limitations/implications

JLP can be read as a ‘subversive intervention’ insofar as it denies absentee investors access to, and control of, its assets. Currently, however, even the critical performative potential of the Partnership model is impeded by its paternalist structures. Exclusion of Partners’ participation in the market for corporate control is reflected in, and compounded by, a weak form of ‘democratic’ governance, where managers are accountable to Partners but not controlled by them.

Practical implications

Our contention is that JLP’s ownership and governance structures offer a practical demonstration, albeit flawed, of how an alternative form of organization is sufficiently ‘efficient’ and durable to be able to ‘compete’ against joint-stock companies.

Originality/value

By examining the cooperative elements of the John Lewis structures of ownership and governance, we illuminate a number of issues faced in realizing the principles ascribed to employee-owned cooperatives – notably, with regard to ‘democratic member control’, ‘member economic participation’ and ‘autonomy and independence’.

Keywords

Acknowledgements

Acknowledgments

Many thanks to Abby Cathcart, Peter Cox, Richard MacVie, Ewan McGaughey and Peter Smith (Partner Constantin) as well as to participants in the ‘Cooperatives’ UMASS-Boston CMS Paper Development Workshop held in August 2012, for their very useful help and comments in the preparation of this article. All errors remain ours.

Citation

Paranque, B. and Willmott, H. (2016), "Cooperatives – An Alternative to Capitalism? The Case of the John Lewis Partnership ", Finance Reconsidered: New Perspectives for a Responsible and Sustainable Finance (Critical Studies on Corporate Responsibility, Governance and Sustainability, Vol. 10), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 263-296. https://doi.org/10.1108/S2043-905920160000010031

Publisher

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2016 Emerald Group Publishing Limited