Whilst there was a coherent, competent response from the Co-Operative Party on Left Foot Forward, regarding Francis Maude’s announcements of the so-called ConDem cooperatives/mutuals project, Unite’s Tony Woodley gave a less than satisfactory reply:
There is no appetite from the public sector workforce or the public generally for these so-called co-operatives. It is insulting to think that these DIY co-operatives, set up on the cheap, can replace a well-established and joined-up public sector.
To think that cancer treatment can be equated with the values of the retail sector beggers belief. And to keep repeating the words ‘John Lewis’ as the reasoning for these changes is just mangling and perverting the English language. You go to John Lewis to buy a sofa or a fridge, not to have chemotherapy.
It is not clear whether he supports or disagrees with the cooperative and mutual movement per se, rather than just the Tories’ cooperative movement – the latter disagreement being understandable. This isn’t the first time that Unite have had such a damning critique of cooperatives and mutuals; for example, Gail Cartmail proclaimed early this year that the Tories are:
using the language of socialism to mask a break-up of public services [and] mangling the English language to advance his anti-state ideology.
In the same statement, there appears to be an assumption that cooperatives per se would pose a threat to the public sector:
He said that certain national standards will have to apply for education and health – however, national standards already apply for public services, so why break-them up to only recreate them? It does not make sense.
Whilst I agree that the Tories’ proposals for mutuals/cooperatives are an attempt to break the public sector up and make a profit, it is failure on the part of Unite in not distinguishing between the Tory plans and the visions of organisations/parties such as the Co-Operative Party. Mutuals and cooperatives can be a real way to provide power and democracy to the workers within organisational arrangements, it doesn’t have to be done in a way that threatens or undermines the public sector. It can be a way to give workers genuine power, only if done in accordance to the appropriate values and goals, which includes prohibiting cooperatives being used for privatisation ‘gains’.
If the left is going to re-vigour itself, it has to embrace these new ideas of ownership. They shouldn’t be seen as a threat to socialism or whatever, it should be seen as a way to bring in real local democracy. We shouldn’t become set in a thought that the state is the answer to everything, there are ways to reform areas of life so that we can provide real face-to-face democracy, real control and thus, real self freedom. It doesn’t help when the left and those supporting worker’s rights, seem to conflate meanings and undermine the cause of progressive movements such as the cooperative/mutuals movement. It appears from the press releases that Unite are not keen on cooperatives in general – I may be wrong, and would be happy to update the blog post if someone can prove me wrong – but even if I am wrong, they haven’t made it clear in their statements.
Cooperatives and mutuals (more so the former, in my opinion), if done correctly, are a radical source of empowerment and democracy. They aren’t only useful for productive arrangements, there can be creative cooperatives such as musical cooperatives. The potential for such a movement is something the left should embrace, whilst clearly denouncing the vacuous governmental attempts.