History and politics are comprised of, among other things, the forces of continuity and the forces for change. But everything is not always quite as it seems. Take the support of both Tory and Labour parties for the transferral of public-sector services over to workers' co-operatives. For Labour, this has traditionally been about supporting workers and extending industrial democracy. Here the notion was that workers should be supported when they try to buck the outcomes of the market, even if co-operatives are a far from perfect means to do so. For the Tories, workers' co-operatives have always been more about workers being entrepreneurs and capitalists. Here, there was the hope that capitalism could be given a smattering of a people's property-owning democracy - similar to how the Tories trumpeted share ownership as creating a form of people's capitalism back in the 1980s because of privatisation. So this is the sense of continuity.
But in another sense - and this is now far more important - both Labour and Tories have happened upon an old idea and turned it into something quite new. No longer are they talking about co-ops in the private sector but co-ops in the public sector. Context is all here. Faced with a desperately fought forthcoming election, the discrediting of the neoliberalism consensus and the desire to further reduce the size of the public sector, both parties have decided that workers' co-operatives can be used as a clever way to dismantle the public services. This is a game of smoke and mirrors. Give workers what seems like control over their jobs and the services they provide but only allow them to do so where they have to operate under market conditions. Guess which bit will have more influence on the other bit? Yes, the market will influence the co-ops far more than the co-ops will ever influence the market. So these co-ops will be in competition with each other for resources and customers - yes, users of services will still be called "customers." And with competition, the benefits of co-operation and co-ordination will be lost.
But there is much more that is worse about this vision of a brave new world for our public services. One the one hand, the workers of these co-ops will get the blame for making the difficult decisions that will affect our services in times of reduced funding. This will shift the blame away from the party in government and the economic system that we live under. On the other hand, the element of popular control over our services that we currently have will be drastically reduced. These co-ops will be able to empire-build and protect their vested interests. Here, the real and present danger will be that they put their interests before those of the public they are supposed to serve. We can already see this process at work with many housing associations. Sure, they are not co-ops, but there are similarities. In the case of the Glasgow Housing Association, the biggest in Britain, salaries for senior managers have now outstripped anything like they were paid while under local authority control. And, just as in the case of housing associations, the professional experts will increasingly displace the users in a power play where the experts tell the users: "We know what is best and right for you."
So upon the launch of the Tories' new-fangled co-ops policy, Unison was correct to say: "Don't be fooled by the Tories' conversion to co-operatives. This is just another Tory Party plan to break up public services, plunge them into confusion and then let the private sector pick over their bones." And so Unite was just as right to point out that "David Cameron is using the language of socialism to mask the break-up of public services. He is mangling the English language to advance his anti-state ideology." The GMB pitched in with this is "the wrong idea at the wrong time," questioning the supposed democracy and accountability created and suggesting the idea was "just a political gimmick." But in the heat of an election period, let's not be so naive here that we think if we just reject the Tories' policy that everything will be alright. Labour's plans are no better. Labour may favour a model based on an imitation of the John Lewis partnership. But this will produce the same results as the Tories' plan, give or take a minor detail or two. Now, more than ever, is the time to stand up for publicly delivered, publicly funded and publicly accountable public services.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.