It seems extraordinary that both Labour and the Conservatives are working flat-out to woo the co-op movement, but they are. Speaking recently, Gordon Brown — the first Co-operative Party member to ever become Prime Minister, incidentally, has said that co-operative and mutual ideals will be an integral part of Labour’s platform in the forthcoming manifesto.
And this morning, George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, told R4’s Today programme that under a Conservative government public sector workers will have the right to form employee-led co-operatives to deliver services in such areas as primary schools, job centres and nursing teams. Oddly, he went on to claim that this policy would effect “as big a transfer of power to working people” as the sale of council house homes in the 1980s.
But the story gets even stranger than this.
In 2007 Cameron established the Conservative Co-operative Movement. The CCM’s first publication, Nuts & Bolts: How to Start a Food Co-operative, claims that food co-ops are inherently conservative and entrepreneurial but also offer an alternative community-based model to the stranglehold of monopoly supermarket capitalism. It’s by Amy Coyle, the sister-in-law of Jesse Norman, Conservative writer and thinker (as his blog describes him) and prospective parliamentary candidate for the Conservative Party for Hereford.
Writing in the Guardian, Norman has gone further, claiming that the assumption that co-ops are “intrinsically leftwing” is fundamentally mistaken, because, first, the values they espouse (“voluntarism, personal responsibility, teamwork, shared ownership, independence, the importance of education and mutual support, and concern for the wider community”) are “rather small-c conservative; second, because the energy, vision and entrepreneurship needed to make a co-op succeed are characteristic of capitalism at its best; and third, because co-ops are not generally seen as leftwing in other countries, notably the US.
It seems, then, that Conservatives see there is a prize to be won if co-op ideals can be ‘detached’ from the Labour movement (which may not be difficult: many in the co-op movement would say they only hang on by the weakest of threads in any case) and reinserted as key aspects of what radical conservative thinker Phillip Blond has called “communitarian civic Conservatism”. (Blond is the ex-theology lecturer who caused a massive stir in political circles last year with his book Red Tory.)
So, is this all just a cynical manoeuvre for votes by both right and left, or is a more fundamental ideological realignment in process?
Certainly, it does seem to be the case that some parts of the social enterprise movement share a curious near-convergence of thinking with radical Tory circles. For example, Blond and his disciples believe that neoliberal economic policies must be challenged in order to counter the centralisation of power and wealth inherent in capitalist monopolies. Blond wants to see greater community ownership of assets and wealth so that the barriers to market entry — to owning and trading — for ordinary people are removed. Social entrepreneurs want to see as many state services (‘public assets’) as possible delivered by social enterprises.
In this, both radical Tories and social entrepreneurs share a distrust of the state as ‘welfare provider’. Both believe in — but clearly have different interpretations of — the ‘market’. Blond sees the potential for a new kind of popular capitalism (for “recapitalising the poor”, as he has put it); social entrepreneurs see the potential for building a ‘social marketplace’ which would have similar community empowerment qualities. And New Labour, of course, has spent over a decade ‘marketising’ the third sector.
What do others think? Is social enterprise the unwitting tool of both left and right as the main political parties seek to hammer out a new interpretation of market values?
I think the social enterprise movement has some serious thinking to do about where it does sit in relation to the market, to state provision, and most importantly in terms of its core political values…