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In the free-for-all over the spoils of the public sector, Tory ministers are playing fast and loose with the concepts of co-operatives and mutuals. They talk blithely about ‘the John Lewis model’. One might smile at the fact that Tories have to raid progressive history, such is the crisis of legitimacy of big business. Rhetorically, one can simply apply the ‘private sector test’. Would ministers apply the right to form a co-op to workers in privatised services, as a recent Unison report proposed? Would the investment managers proclaiming ‘John Lewis style’ academies apply the John Lewis model to private companies?
Genuine co-operative alternatives are making headway. The pressure to marketise grows in parallel with the mounting evidence of failure – the Southern Cross care home operator heads a growing list, as patients, users and medical staff become more confident whistle-blowers – but few want to return to public management as we knew it. There is urgent interest in how to defend public services but managed in a more responsive way.
The co-operative movement, with its practical experience of democratic management, its labour movement traditions and its significant resources through the Co-operative Group (see page 30), is proving a distinctive source of support for alternatives to the marketisation of public services.
In education, a key development is the spread of co-operative trust schools, supported nationally by the Schools Co-operative Society (SCS) and funded through local authorities, which also provide what support services they can on diminishing budgets. There are now 200 co-op schools, with numbers growing rapidly.
Rather than be forced into an academy, schools are looking for alternatives that enable them to realise their public service values. ‘Especially important,’ explains the enthusiastic Mervyn Wilson, head of the Co-operative College, ‘is the way SCS has helped schools develop effective collaboration’ – in dealing with Ofsted inspections, for example, and sharing resources.
Trade unions are becoming warily supportive of the development. SCS is working closely with the unions, which stress the contrast with academies. ‘Academies are about marketisation, whereas co-operative schools maintain education as a public service, funding [it] on the basis of social need,’ says John Chowcat, a leading official in the Prospect union. (The Co-op does sponsor some academies in very specific circumstances, but this is not their main concern.)
What does this mean for local authorities that see the role of the state as both to deliver public services and also to enable the means of delivery to be more responsive to users and staff alike?
Enter the Co-operative Council Network. One of the network’s members is Newcastle Council. Labour councillor Nigel Todd welcomes its formation because it ‘brings the authentic socialist imagination back into the labour movement’. It does so with a stress on opening services to greater involvement from users and staff.
This is what inspires Unison branch secretary and Co-op party member Jonathan Sedgebeer from Telford Council, a new recruit to the network: ‘This is an opportunity to move beyond simply reacting to the Tory agenda [and] setting out our alternative strategy.’ He reflects the position of Unison nationally, which also sees the co-operative model as a basis for intervening in privatised services and helping staff create co-operatives that will improve services as well as wages and working conditions.
‘We are walking a fine line,’ admits Sedgebeer, fully aware that talk of co-ops, mutuals and social enterprises can ‘simply soften the path to privatisation’. Unions, the co-operative movement and councils are exploring ways of locking assets into trust arrangements that prevent private takeovers. They are looking at collaborative – rather than outsourcing – models around very specific services where co-ops or other transparent and accountable social enterprises can improve the service delivery.
‘You work out together what the council and the co-op does best from the point of view of meeting social needs.’ That’s a word of advice from Alison Page, who has six years’ experience of working with Lancaster Council through a recycling company and the charity Furniture Matters. According to the New Economics Foundation assessment of the social return on investment, the partnership has achieved a £5 return on every £1 of public money invested in terms of jobs created in the local economy, the benefits of recycling and savings on landfill.
The word ‘socialism’ in the English language had its origins in the co-operative movement of the 1820s. Its opposite was competitive individualism. In the context of state-promoted competition of wild west proportions, the co-operative movement is opening once again a contested space for developing what socialism means in practice.
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament