by Gregor Gall
The longstanding cross party consensus on cooperatives has taken a nasty turn. Traditionally, all the main parties have all supported – albeit a token way – the ideas of cooperatives.
For ‘old’, social democratic Labour, this has been about supporting workers and extending industrial democracy. Here the notion was that workers should be supported when they try to buck the outcomes of the market, even if cooperatives were a far from perfect means to do so.
For the Tories, workers’ cooperatives have always been more about workers being entrepreneurs and capitalists. They hoped that capitalism could be given a smattering of a people’s property-owning democracy – as in the way that they trumpeted share ownership as creating a form of people’s capitalism back in the 1980s because of privatisation.
But now both Labour and Tories have happened upon this forgotten idea and turned it into something quite different. No longer are they talking about coops in the private sector but coops in the public sector.
Faced with a desperately fought forthcoming election, the discrediting of the neo-liberalism consensus and the desire to further reduce the size of the public sector, both main parties have decided that workers’ cooperatives can be used as a clever way to further dismantle the public services.
This is a game of smoke and mirrors. Give workers what seems like control over their jobs and the services they provide but only allow them to do so where they have to operate under market conditions.
Guess which bit will have more influence on the other bit? Yes, the market will influence the coops far more than the coops will ever influence the market.
So these coops will be in competition with each other for resources and customers – yes, users of services will still be called ‘customers’.
And with competition, the benefits of cooperation and coordination will be lost.
But there is much more that is worse about this vision of a brave new world for our public services.
One the one hand, the workers of these coops will get the blame for making the difficult decisions that will affect our services in times of reduced funding. This will shift the blame away from the party in government and the economic system that we live under.
On the other hand, the element of popular control over our services that we currently have will be drastically reduced. These coops will be able to empire build and protect their vested interests.
Here, the real and present danger will be that they put their interests before those of the public they are supposed to serve.
So upon the launch of the Tories’ new fangled coops policy, Unison was correct to say ‘don’t be fooled by the Tories conversion to co-operatives … This is just another Tory Party plan to break up public services, plunge them into confusion and then let the private sector pick over their bones’.
And so UNITE was just as right to point out that ‘David Cameron is using the language of socialism to mask the break-up of public services. He is mangling the English language to advance his anti-state ideology’.
The GMB pitched in with this is ‘the wrong idea at the wrong time’, questioning the supposed democracy and accountability created, and suggesting the idea was ‘just a political gimmick’.
But in the heat of an election period, let’s not be so naive here that we think if we just reject the Tories’ policy that everything will be alright.
Labour’s plans are no better. Labour may favour a model based on an imitation of the John Lewis partnership. But this will produce the same results as the Tories’ plan, give or take a minor detail or two.