Labour and Tories woo co-op movement

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…

  1. Simon Lee Reply

    There’s some interesting parallels with the ‘right to request’ for employees of PCTs so (on a practical note) I would prefer politicians to deal head-on with some of the stumbling blocks to R2R in healthcare before rolling it out in similar form to other public services.

    The cynic in me says that this is all to do with cutting costs and saving money (perfectly understandable in the current economic climate) and perhaps winning votes, and not much to do with people genuinely supporting co-ops / the wider social enterprise movement.

    However, the pragmatist in me says that one should “never look a gift horse in the mouth”. Will we ever again have seeming cross-party support for social enterprises?

    • Sue Gazey Reply

      OK I have to say this is the first bloggy thing I have ever replied to but felt the need come over me. I think that the whole purpose of social enterprise is to give people who want to do something other than follow the party line (both big and little P) a vehicle for doing so. It is not about cheaper, better or anything else as in all systems there are good and not so good points. For me it is to give me the freedom to try and provide services that are not purely motivated by shareholders and profit and perhaps in some instances to work in markets that mainstream commercial organisations are unwilling to do so. Any support from any political party can only raise the profile of social enterprise and the benefits for statutory bodies to contract with them.Whichever political party comes to power there will always be those that just get on with it and not constantly worry about distracting politics.

      • Alun Severn Reply

        Sue, I don’t think we can just ignore politics. That’s like saying we’ll embrace anyone who wants to see more social enterprise (or more co-ops or whatever) irrespective of the cost that might be attached to that… You have to look under the rhetoric to try and work out the political motivation.. What’s the underlying agenda? Is it ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Does it tend to the greatest good for the greatest number, or does it have other, less benign drivers?

        I don’t think these things can be ignored. In that sense politics isn’t a ‘distraction’ — for good or ill it is the environment we inhabit…

  2. Sue Gazey Reply

    I only have the energy to develop my businesses and not much left for all of the other stuff. I just think that successful social enterprises will always happen and be successful despite the politics and not because of them

    • Alun Severn Reply

      I agree, Sue, but if social enterprises are unwittingly aiding the dismantling of universal provision — what then? They would objectively be making things worse for many rather than delivering social benefit.

      There is another interesting take on the issue of ‘postcode lotteries’ in this piece by one of the Guardian’s columnists:

      ‘Power sharing with local people will result in a public services lottery’

  3. Sue Gazey Reply

    There already is a postcode lottery with public services and what is available. Have you ever watched the Secret Millionaire. I am ashamed sometimes to part of a democracy that can allow areas to become so dilapidated and down trodden and leaving communities with little hope. If it wasn’t for the passion and compassion of the third sector who knows what would happen. I do believe that if we insist on being paid fairly for what we do in the sector that businesses will survive, become stronger and provide better.

  4. Sue Gazey Reply

    Sorry Alan I did mean I do believe and not NOT believe (6th line down)

    • Alun Severn Reply

      No problem, Sue — I have amended your comment accordingly.

      I also meant to say, if you are interested in seeing the origins of some of the ideas currently fuelling new Conservative thinking, this article by Phillip Blond from OpenDemocracy illustrates very well (if somewhat opaquely!) where he’s coming from:

  5. Sue Gazey Reply

    OK cheers Alan

  6. Paul Kalinauckas Reply

    Have a look at our new website for co-operative enterprise in the West Midlands

Leave a Reply