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

20 Responses to “The progressive Left should support the Tory co-op policy”

  1. Sam Freedman

    RT @LeftFootFwd The progressive left should support the Tory co-op policy argues our guest writer, Thomas Haynes http://bit.ly/b13iUt

  2. Jonathan Bartley

    RT @TimMontgomerie: RT @LeftFootFwd Progressive left should support Tory co-op policy argues Thomas Haynes http://bit.ly/b13iUt

  3. Edward Mann

    RT @leftfootfwd: The progressive left should support the Tory co-op policy argues our guest writer, Thomas Haynes http://bit.ly/b13iUt

  4. Daniel Warburton

    RT @timmontgomerie: RT @LeftFootFwd The progressive left should support the Tory co-op policy argues our guest writer, Thomas Haynes http://bit.ly/b13iUt

  5. uberVU - social comments

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by Samfr: RT @LeftFootFwd The progressive left should support the Tory co-op policy argues our guest writer, Thomas Haynes http://bit.ly/b13iUt

  6. Harry Dent

    It’s a great headline, but will be thoroughly discredited as soon as the government of the day begins using workers’ coops to inlflict savage cuts.

    Cutting will surely be their real function; the Tories have never shown any concern for delivering services in the past, and I see no reason to think they’re going to start now.

  7. Alexander Craven

    The NHS has had a “right to request scheme” for some time; it’s quite similar to this Tory co-operative plan. Well, there is little appeal for it (look at the figures) because forming this type of co-operative and sorting out its managerial structure is extremely complicated business. However, were we to have a government determined to push through this model, then it looks likely that tax-payers would have to subsidize co-op entrepreneurs to circumvent that administrative hurdle. Then, if they fail, as many New Labour ISTCs within the NHS have done, there’s no doubt that they’ll have to be re-tendered; meaning that once again the tax payer will have to foot the bill.

    The tax-payers lose out in this case, as would people most dependent on public services.

    Moreover, this is also to neglect the fact that profit (or what co-operativists would glibly refer to as a “financial surplus”) is at the heart of effective co-operatives. Read this FT analysis:

    “The co-op business plan will have to assume the state will be paying less and less for their services over time. This could make sense with a high degree of “flexibility” over staff pay and terms and conditions. But in the case of nurses and teachers, contract terms would be transferred from the public sector, which gives the workers protection. So the flexibility will come in paying more, or paying any new staff less. Over time this will make a big difference and could be the basis for a decent business model. But big barriers remain, not least the generous public sector pension terms”.

  8. Philip Cane

    RT @timmontgomerie: RT @LeftFootFwd The progressive left should support the Tory co-op policy argues our guest writer, Thomas Haynes http://bit.ly/b13iUt

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  11. Richard H

    The Tories have serious hurdles;
    1) As stated above, a coop, model requires a different management structure. Presumably the new coops would work this out for themselves; efficient structures evolve and aren’t simply created from scratch. Are we looking at a substantial period of inefficiency and chaos while this is put in place? Would that mean wasting tax-payers’ money?
    2)It was the Tories in the eighties who developd the appetite for restructuring and squeezing public services in the process. Whilst there is no reason why the present Tory party should adopt the same Thatcherite savagery, they will have to fight hard to persuade an electorate that they have a different model from Thatcher’s—especially in this recession.
    3)It is most unfortunate that this new, undeveloped initiative is announced a few weeks away from a general election; this is a time for announcing what is to go into a manifesto; since the manifesto will explain the intended direction of policy, it would have been helpful if this policy had reached a stage which was not merely embryonic.It’s entirely the wrong time to bring such a seminal idea into public debate.
    4)Put the above points together and they are not going to help the Tories in the battle for trust with the British public—especially since the debate centres on public services.

  12. Clifford Singer

    The ideas behind mutualism are good ones. But the point about the public sector is that it is already public (at least those parts which haven’t been privatised), and it should be possible to gain the benefits of mutuality without putting public services at the mercy of the market or introducing an artificial profit motive. We’ve given our take (largely drawing on an excellent piece by Will Davies at Demos) here:
    http://taxpayersalliance.org/news/mutuals-opportunities-but-also-dangers-for-the-left

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  15. Roger

    Chris Dillow has an interesting ‘market socialist’ critique: http://stumblingandmumbling.typepad.com/stumbling_and_mumbling/2010/02/coops-incentives-the-state.html

    If these co-ops are to be monopolistic providers of public services then they will become rather like medieval guilds – closed producer organisations with a captive market – and workers will find it even harder than at present to square their personal interests with those of the public they serve.

    Where this does make sense is as part of another step change towards the final marketisation of the public sector – initially of course this will be justified with mutualist rhetoric but ultimately we will end up with so-called co-operatives fighting with private companies to drive down wages and conditions.

  16. jamescrabtree

    the left should support the Tory coop policy, says @wdjstraw http://bit.ly/aLuR0A

  17. Will Straw

    No I don't! Guest writer T. Haynes does RT @jamescrabtree: the left should support the Tory coop policy, says @wdjstraw http://bit.ly/aLuR0A

  18. Chris Paul

    RT @wdjstraw: No I don't! Guest writer T. Haynes does RT @jamescrabtree: the left should support the Tory coop policy, says @wdjstraw http://bit.ly/aLuR0A

  19. jamescrabtree

    Sorry, to clarify — @wdjstraw just published this, he didn't write it. http://bit.ly/aLuR0A. Its still right though, whoever wrote it.

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