Public sector mutuals are a good idea but the coalition just don’t get it

The announcement by Francis Maude yesterday that the coalition government wants to set up mutuals to run our public services is typical of what’s wrong with Cameron and Clegg’s ramshackle regime. On one level the plan seems a good idea – to give people who work in public services the opportunity to run those services. Indeed, the idea of mutual public services is something the Co-operative party has campaigned for throughout its history.

Michael Stephenson is the general secretary of the Co-operative Party

The announcement by Francis Maude yesterday that the coalition government wants to set up mutuals to run our public services is typical of what’s wrong with Cameron and Clegg’s ramshackle regime. On one level the plan seems a good idea – to give people who work in public services the opportunity to run those services. Indeed, the idea of mutual public services is something the Co-operative party has campaigned for throughout its history.

But like much of the coalition’s policy output, what Mr Maude is suggesting falls well short of a genuine mutual approach and is a long way from what progressives would see as the correct application of co-operative and mutual values in public policy.

It is simply the latest instalment in the Tories’ ham-fisted attempt to deceptively occupy the centre ground of politics by distorting progressive policies, re-badging them and pushing them out into public debate under the disingenuous premise that they are anything but a stalking horse for an ideological agenda of cuts and privatisation.

Mr Maude misses the point about mutuals because he neither understands the values of the co-operative movement nor realises that it is not just a question of who runs a mutual enterprise but how it is run and what values underpin it. His plan fails to ensure that public service mutuals – where they are monopoly providers – would have consumer accountability. Local libraries and swimming pools should be controlled by local people, and run in their interest, not just by the service managers.

To be truly effective, public sector mutuals should involve the whole community not just one section of it. And mutualisation is not about de-coupling public services from the state. It is about preserving them as community assets that should not be privatised.

So when the Tories and Liberal Democrats talk about workers running public services they either fail to understand or choose not to understand that a mutual model in the public sector is about all stakeholders having a say in how those services are run. For a school that means not just teachers but also parents and other members of the local community.

That approach is the hallmark of the 108 co-operative trust schools that were set up following the landmark announcement by Labour/Co-operative MP Ed Balls when he was Secretary of State for Chilldren, Schools and Families. It was the approach that characterises the 129 NHS Foundation Trusts established by Labour to involve staff, patients and others in the running of their hospital.

Yet Francis Maude wheels out a selection of a dozen pilot mutual projects of varying size and scope and declares triumphantly that virtually every public service is up for grabs in the Tories’ faux-mutual nirvana. They simply don’t get it.

But we should we expect anything else? This is the party that when they were last in power de-mutualised our building societies; the party that abolished the Co-operative Development Agency. Now they’re back in power they’re at it again.

Hence, the coalition’s decision to axe the fund set up by the last Labour government to support the mutual buy-outs of local pubs, to axe the fund supporting the creation of co-operative trust schools, and to reverse Labour’s commitment to re-mutualise Northern Rock. What the Tories and LibDems are doing is not mutual. Their plans don’t reflect properly mutual structures and they aren’t based on mutual values.

Like the entire coalition, it is based on a false premise and done for the most cynical of reasons.

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