Co-operatise the state?

Can the co-op movement be one source of alternatives to marketisation? Hilary Wainwright explores

May 14, 2012
4 min read


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


  share     tweet  

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency

Empire en vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy

Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network

Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences


75