As Cameron woos the co-op movement, JACK STREET asks if the co-op ideal is being hijacked to help privatise the state.
It is a picture that jars the political senses. On the front page of the current Co-operative News, under the heading ‘Cameron’s Pledge To Movement’, there is a photograph of the Prime Minister with three leading co-op figures – Ed Mayo, the dynamic secretary general of Co-operatives UK, David Button, chair of Co-operatives UK, who has a background in agricultural co-ops, and Pauline Green, President of the International Co-operative Alliance and a respected former leader of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament.
The occasion for this unprecedented gathering was the announcement that the Government aims to have a new Co-operatives Act on the statute book by 2015. In his speech Cameron also took the opportunity to make the case for a re-moralised capitalism.
In itself the new proposal isn’t a problem. It will combine 17 separate pieces of existing co-operative legislation helping to simplify co-op law and creating a more level playing field in comparison with other types of business. Indeed, it is something the co-operative movement repeatedly pressed the last Labour government to do but, unfortunately, it wasn’t a priority for them.
So now the coalition steps up to the mark and reaps the propaganda benefit. ‘I am especially pleased that it is a Conservative prime minister who is leading the way in 2012, the International Year of Co-operatives,’ says Jesse Norman, MP and founder of the Conservative Co-operative Movement which has 39 other Tory MPs among its followers. Ouch!
If the political symbolism of all this leaves left wing co-operators feeling uncomfortable, which it does, it is because we know that this is the soft end of a concerted push by the Tories to take the co-operative ideal and use it as tool to re-structure the state for distinctly non-co-operative ends.
For some time co-op leaders have been engaged in discussions with ministers and civil servants about the creation of public service mutuals and the degree to which the established movement can or should facilitate their development. It must be an interesting conversation.
On one side of the table, the new Conservative ‘idealists’ with no experience of the democratic complexity of co-operative enterprise, as their naive statements sometimes demonstrate. On the other side, the ‘practical’ co-operators, with decades of experience behind them, acutely aware of the challenges that face co-operative enterprises at any time, let alone in the straightened circumstances of today’s economy.
At some point the co-op leaders will have to make a judgement about some key questions:
- are the proposed public sector co-ops viable, or are they being set up to fail, the quicker to be delivered to the private sector?
- will there be an asset lock that prevents this outcome?
- are the new ventures fully co-operative with resources to develop their critical internal governance function?
- will there be the option of a multi-stakeholder model to represent the wider public and consumer interest?
- will public money be available for training to enable workers to make the challenging transition from hierarchical power structures to something flatter and arguably more demanding than they have previous experienced?
The dangers are all too obvious. This is a government in a hurry to revolutionise the concept and practice of public service and, if Cameron’s grasp of the NHS reforms is anything to go by, it is not too bothered about the detail of how it is done. But for the co-operative movement the stakes could hardly be higher.
A half-baked outcome, with reluctant and confused workers effectively forced into economically failing structures they don’t understand would be a recipe for damaging failure. It is the last thing co-operators want to see and we trust our leaders know that.
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