Co-operative public services: of the community, by the community and for the community



By Tessa Jowell MP

In the wake of the global financial crisis and the parliamentary expenses scandal, it is clear that people are no longer prepared to trust large organisations over which they have no control. This is particularly important as we are talking about services that are of such great significance in the personal lives of the people that they serve.

Today we are seeing Labour local and national government coming together to put mutualism and co-operation at the forefront of our vision for Britain’s future.

In a paper published today, we are setting out our plans to give people greater power over the public services they use and work in by encouraging the growth of mutuals and co-operatives. We’re announcing specific proposals to assist the formation of mutuals – organisations owned by their staff, users or the wider community – in health, social care, housing and Sure Start children’s centres.

At the same time, 115 Labour groups and councils are releasing a statement declaring their commitment to become ‘co-operative councils’.

Unlike the Conservative Party, our proposals are rooted in Labour’s founding values and our DNA. Our new drive for mutualism is not a departure from what we have done before, but is in tune with our shared values that we have held throughout our history. It’s also the logical next stage of the Labour reform of public services.

We only have to look to the ‘Conservative Co-operative Movement’ to see how skin deep and cynical their proposals really are. Two years ago, to much media fanfare, David Cameron launched the Conservative Co-operative Movement. For its first 18 months it existed without any mechanism for people to join, its chairs have been appointed from on high rather than by the community, and it is yet to found a single co-operative in either the public or private sector, other than itself.

Their more recent half-baked plans for public sector employees to set up worker co-operatives are outdated and show both a lack of understanding of what is going on in our communities and the underlying philosophy behind public sector mutualism. Modern public sector mutualism is not just about giving workers power, although this is important – but all of us, as parents, patients, pupils, service users, staff and the wider community.

Our response means a new approach and a new relationship between the institutions of government, both national and local, and the people that they serve. Most of all it means trusting people to exercise greater control over the services that they use, and for some, the services that they deliver.

I have seen the real difference that collective mutual action can bring in my own community. The first parent-promoted school in the country, Elmgreen, is in my constituency. Parents there did not just passively wait for a new school; they came together and made it happen.

In the future, mutuals will play an increasingly important role in delivering public services. Mutual organisations are controlled by their members; they are exceptionally well-suited to strengthening relationships between staff, users and the wider community – and these stronger relationships will lead to better outcomes for all.

In short, we are developing public services of the community, by the community and for the community.

This is not a Whitehall prescribed national blueprint, but enabling new collaboration to develop in an organic way within communities. That is why we are taking measures to improve and enhance opportunities for local people and professionals to realise the full potential of mutual forms of organisation.

These important and decisive steps represent an important start towards encouraging a new wave of mutualism across public services across the country.

It’s a very simple concept: public services are owned by the public, so the public must have the right to influence how those services are delivered.

Fundamentally, it’s about giving power away. We will do all that we can to transfer power from government to the governed – to people in every area of their lives, from their place of employment, to the houses that they live in, and the services that they rely on.

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