The progressive Left should support the Tory co-op policy...or damage itself

As expected, Tessa Jowell and the Co-operative Party went into into convulsions of rage when George Osbourne launched the Tory policy on public sector co-ops this morning. Tessa Jowell took to LabourList and declared that ‘the values of mutualism are inherently Labour values’ (implication: how dare the Tories claim to support them?!) and The Independent quotes the Co-operative Party General Secretary describing George Osbourne as ‘clueless’.


Luckily, however, some on the Left have a more objective view. Take Martin Bright. He describes the principle of co-operatism as a ‘great one’ and his conclusions about the Tory policy warrant quotation at length:


‘What the shadow chancellor was saying this morning could have profound implications for the way we run our society. If, as he specifically said, Jobcentres could be run as co-operatives, we could break out of the silo-based approach to work creation that currently dogs attempts to get people back to work. And if we could link Jobcentres to co-operatively-run schools and FE colleges then this starts to look genuinely revolutionary.’


Make no mistake about it: this Tory policy is genuinely progressive. It retains the state’s role as the funder of public services, but allows workers to take far more control over the actual running of local services. The new co-operatives would be run as not-for-profits, with the potential to use surpluses both to improve services and increase wages.


Public sector workers would therefore have the incentive to run services very efficiently – to increase the chances of an end of year surplus – combined with increased accountability to the users of local services. Peter Hoskin points out that, if a local service is run by a co-operative, local people know exactly who to blame if the service is bad. It is not a minister or invisible civil servant in Whitehall, but the public sector workers themselves. A successful implementation of this policy across the country should lead to higher standards of service and higher wages for workers: a true win-win situation. And I haven’t even begun to mention the benefits of freeing services from one-size-fits-all approaches forced upon then by central government and allowing them to adapt and develop in response to the specific needs of their communities.


Whatever the progressive Left feels about the Conservative Party, surely this is a policy that warrants support? Trying to discredit it will – perhaps – win the Left some political points and create false dividing lines between the parties. But this will damage progressive politics more widely. If the Left truly wants progressive reforms in Britain, then all progressive policies should be supported. Instead of attacking this policy, it should be welcomed: the way to cement a progressive, modernising strand firmly within the Conservative Party is to nuture progressive policies, not to undermine them.


On many issues – co-ops, fighting poverty and climate change among them – elements of the Left are determined to discredit David Cameron’s efforts to modernise the Conservative Party. This is a self-defeating approach. The more the Tories’ progressive credentials are attacked – and the party presented by the Left as ‘the nasty party’ and a resurrection of Thatcherism – the less the public will expect progressive policies to come from the Tory Party at all. This will in turn lead to the less pressure on the Conservatives to implement such policies in office.


If the Left truly wants to put progressive politics above partisan politics, then this morning’s Tory policy on public sector co-ops should be cheered, not attacked. To do otherwise will damage progressive politics in Britain and discredit the Left’s own aims. The Left should not cut off its nose just to spite its face.


Thomas Haynes (Policy and Media Intern, Conservative Co-operative Movement)

Co-operatives UK

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