The progressive Left should support the Tory co-op policy

George Osborne's public sector co-op policy has been criticised. But the Left should cheer the policy if they want to put progressive ideals above partisanship.

Perhaps predictably, Tessa Jowell and the Co-operative Party have criticised George Osborne as he launched the Tory policy on public sector co-ops this morning. But if the Left truly wants to put progressive politics above partisan politics, then this morning’s Tory policy on public sector co-ops should be cheered, not attacked.

Tessa Jowell declared on Labour List this morning that, “the values of mutualism are inherently Labour values” while The Independent quotes the Co-operative Party General Secretary, Michael Stephenson, describing George Osborne as “clueless”.

But some on the Left take a more pluralistic view. At Prospect, James Crabtree praises the Tory’s “radical” and “daring” announcement. While on Coffee House, Martin Bright describes the principle of co-operatism as a “great one” concluding:

“What the shadow chancellor was saying this morning could have profound implications for the way we run our society. If, as he specifically said, Jobcentres could be run as co-operatives, we could break out of the silo-based approach to work creation that currently dogs attempts to get people back to work. And if we could link Jobcentres to co-operatively-run schools and FE colleges then this starts to look genuinely revolutionary.”

Make no mistake about it: this Tory policy is genuinely progressive. It retains the state’s role as the funder of public services, but allows workers to take far more control over the actual running of local services. The new co-operatives would be run as not-for-profits, with the potential to use surpluses both to improve services and increase wages.

Public sector workers would therefore have the incentive to run services efficiently – to increase the chances of an end-of-year surplus – combined with increased accountability to the users of local services. Peter Hoskin points out that, if a local service is run by a co-operative, local people know exactly who to blame if the service is bad. It is not a minister or invisible civil servant in Whitehall, but the public sector workers themselves. A successful implementation of this policy across the country should lead to higher standards of service and higher wages for workers: a true win-win situation. This is not to mention the benefits of freeing services from one-size-fits-all approaches forced upon then by central government and allowing them to adapt and develop in response to the specific needs of their communities.

Whatever the progressive Left feels about the Conservative Party, surely this is a policy that warrants support? Trying to discredit it will – perhaps – win the Left some political points and create false dividing lines between the parties. But this will damage progressive politics more widely. If the Left truly wants progressive reforms in Britain, then all progressive policies should be supported. Instead of attacking this policy, it should be welcomed: the way to cement a progressive, modernising strand firmly within the Conservative Party is to nuture progressive policies, not to undermine them.

Our guest writer is Thomas Haynes of the Conservative Co-operative Movement

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