The Conservatives have announced plans to allow public sector workers to set up cooperatives to run services such as primary schools and jobcentres. Unsurprisingly the response from the Cooperative Party has been sceptical, and my own initial reaction was to wonder whether this might be a way to privatise public services by the back door: set up cooperatives which are then “allowed” to demutualise.
More to the point: George Osborne says that these mutuals “would be contracting services to the local authority or the National Health Service [or] for community nursing or for primary education”. I’m not an expert on public procurement rules, but presumably if mutuals were set up to contract with public authorities at arm’s length then it would be necessary to have a competitive tendering process.
Is the real story here a Tory plan to put primary schools, jobcentres and nursing services out to competitive tender – with the figleaf option of encouraging bids by workers’ mutuals? At the very least, I hope journalists will start probing into how competitive tendering would affect this plan – let’s see if it holds up any better than the last few policy announcements from the Conservatives.
Setting such cynical thoughts to one side, however, supporters of the cooperative movement should take some comfort in the fact that the Conservatives – along with “ownership doesn’t matter!” Blairites and centralising statists in the Labour party – are now expressing support for mutualism and cooperation. As Slavoj Žižek observes, the surest sign that a political ideology has triumphed is when it is appropriated by its former opponents:
The true victory occurs when the enemy talks your language. In this sense, a true victory is a victory in defeat: it occurs when one’s specific message is accepted as a universal ground, even by the enemy.
If the Conservatives are sincere in their support for mutualism, that is a good thing. Even if they are insincere or skin-deep, the very fact they perceive talk of mutualism to be a vote-winner is a sign that this may indeed be “the mutual moment”.