The failure of the Conservative Co-operative Movement shows the Tories don’t understand co-op values
Just over two years ago, amid much fanfare, David Cameron launched the Conservative Co-operative Movement.
Today, he and George Osborne are once again proclaiming their attachment to mutual values and saying they’ll let public sector workers take over their organisations and run them as co-operatives.
This announcement would have a little more credibility if the Tories gave any indication at all that they understood what co-operative values mean. But clearly they don’t.
Two years after it was founded, indeed, the Conservative Co-operative Movement remains a movement without members, which has never held an AGM. Completely contrary to the democratic values which rest at the heart of co-operation, the two chairs of the movement have been appointed by the Party leader, rather than elected by its members.
If they can’t get the small things right, it doesn’t fill one with hope that the Tories would have any idea how to bring the principles of co-operation and mutualism – the idea that organisations should be owned and run by their members – into our public services.
By contrast, Labour has been doing just that. Look at the 1.3 million members – staff, patients and local people – of foundation hospital trusts. Or the primary care staff who, since last year, have been able to take over the running of the services they deliver. And then there are the parents and teachers who are running the new co-operative trust schools – of which there will be 200 by the end of the year – which my colleague Ed Balls launched in 2008.
Co-operative trust schools are, in fact, a case study of how skin deep the Tories’ commitment to mutualism really is. When he launched the Conservative Co-operative Movement, Davic Cameron announced that he wanted to “explore how we can create a new generation of co-operative schools in Britain – funded by the taxpayer but owned by parents and the local community.” But when parliament debated co-operative trust schools in 2008, not a single Conservative MP was in the chamber at the time.
As I announced in December, we now want to go further, which is why I will shortly be meeting with Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and John Healey to examine how we can encourage the further development of mutuals and co-ops in areas like Sure Start, social care, and housing. In each of these areas, Labour’s allies in the Co-operative Party have been setting out an exciting agenda for change.
But there is a more fundamental problem with the Tories’ supposed commitment to mutuals and co-ops. While we are seeking to learn lessons from mutual companies like the Co-operative and John Lewis – owned, respectively, by their customers and their staff – Tory local authorities, which Cameron offers as a model for how the Tories would govern, have decided that their model of public service delivery is the budget airline.
Under the Tories the principle this appears to encapsulate is that ability to pay should determine the level and quality of the service. But this is not how most people think care of the elderly or
children’s services should be delivered.
It is also far removed from the principles of mutualism – of collective action as a means to fulfill individual aspiration, of equity, democracy and accountability. The reason is a simple one: the values of mutualism are inherently Labour values.