Manchester, home of the Co-operative movement, was an appropriate host for an event on the future of the mutual model of ownership, held jointly by Progress and the Co-operative Party. Around 70 people filled a room at Manchester Town Hall to participate in the debate and enjoy fair-trade refreshments courtesy of the Co-operative Group.
Minister for the Cabinet Office Tessa Jowell was visiting the North West to learn more about mutual ownership models in public services, following her December speech to Progress which announced the creation of the ‘Commission on Ownership’, which will look to promote mutual ownership in public services. Tessa confirmed she had identified social care, SureStart, and housing as areas likely to benefit from an expansion in co-operative ownership.
General Secretary of the Co-operative Party Michael Stephenson agreed with Tessa that this could be the ‘mutual moment’. The credit crunch, the renaissance of the co-operative movement, and a growing recognition that neither centralised state-monopoly services or profit-driven privatised services are providing the quality public services we require; have all contributed to this ‘mutual moment’. Government needs to get on with the job of allowing more mutualised public services to flourish, combat the fears of trade unions about alternative ownership models, and force the Treasury to stop treating mutuality as high risk and untested.
Chief Executive of the Co-operative Group Peter Marks agreed that this is the time for mutuality. Only since the credit crunch has the mainstream begun to question standard business ownership models. The public are beginning to examine mutual models – witness the rise in interest in building society savings accounts. The question posed for the mutual sector is: is the mutual model credible? Four years ago Peter would have said ‘no’. For decades the Co-operative Group had declined steadily, reducing its share of the food market from 40% in the 1960s to 4% today. Only recently has the Co-operative Group reversed the decline, and started to flourish again. The co-operative model does not equal success on its own – it has to be efficiently and rigorously managed.
Finally Phil Arnold gave a personal perspective from his role at one the country’s first mutually-owned schools, in Reddish Vale in Stockport. The school is one of the most improved in the country, and an excellent example of a successful mutually-owned public service.
A questioner asked what was the biggest barrier to expanding the mutual model of ownership. Michael Stephenson said civil servants, Tessa Jowell argued it was a variety of vested interests, whilst Peter Marks thought the Co-operative movement itself could be the biggest barrier to expansion in public services.
Another questioner controversially stated he believed the Co-operative movement was a minority interest appealing to the well-intentioned and well-heeled. This sparked some interesting debate, with most agreeing that most Co-operative organisations boast a varied and reflective membership. Peter Marks pointed out that he is still kept on his toes by the scrutiny of the Group’s regional boards – a truly democratic process.
Tessa concluded the discussion by exhorting Mancunian activists to get talking about and campaigning for mutualism. It will be an important theme of the coming election, and we need to ensure this inherently Labour concept can flourish further in the future.
In a speech to Progress last night Tessa Jowell launched an exciting new Commission on Ownership which will look at extending the mutual model of ownership into public service provision much further than just Co-op schools and Foundation Hospitals. In her speech she said that there was a “fundamental difference” in Labour’s approach to public services compared with the Tories. She said: “Instead of learning lessons from the Co-operative and John Lewis, Tory local authorities - which David Cameron offers as a model for how the Tories would govern - have decided that their model of public service delivery is the budget airline.”
She continued: "in the hands of the Tories, the principle this appears to encapsulate - that ability to pay should determine the level and quality of the service - is not how most of us think care of the elderly or children's services should be delivered. It is also far removed from the principles of mutualism - of collective action as a means to fulfil individual aspiration, of equity, democracy and accountability."
Today we can see that fundamental difference between the two parties in action, as news filters through that a plucky group of UK Pensioners has managed to derail Barnet Council’s plans - the ‘easycouncil’ cheerleader - to remove wardens from sheltered housing in Barnet. The High Court judge who upheld the Judicial Review of the Tory council’s actions said that councillors had “not adhered to their obligations under the disability discrimination act”.
Sir Jeremy Beecham, Leader of the LGA Labour Group, said in response to the welcome news: “Today’s judicial review ruling against Barnet Council is a welcome defeat of the reckless Conservative approach to slashing public services which people depend on.
"Barnet Council has adopted a cost-cutting programme dubbed the ‘easyCouncil’ approach after the budget airline, which provides basic core services while higher levels of provision cost residents more.
"Residents of Barnet are being subjected to the trail of a ruthless approach which reduces local services to a minimum and adds extras only at a cost. This hits vulnerable groups the hardest, who have to pay more to receive much needed support. Not only is this approach economically and socially unsound, but today it has also been found to breach the law.
“This decision should send a clear message to Cameron if he’s listening – people will simply not accept local government renouncing responsibility for vital services, and he should think hard before adopting such an approach nationally. Labour’s plans for John-Lewis-style partnerships locally, on the other hand, should give people a real stake in their communities and a clear role in taking decisions on local services and priorities”.
Looks like Labour is finally developing its dividing lines on public service reform…
Some of you may have read the latest edition of Progress magazine which carries a striking image of a gagged woman standing outside Parliament to illustrate a brilliant piece written by Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, on why we need to reform England’s awful libel laws in the interests of social justice.
I have to say that I’ve only recently woken up to the fraught and decades-long debate about our libel laws after Progress was served by Carter-Ruck and had to face the ignominy of crumbling in front of a legal giant with a powerful client, or trying to find the thousands of pounds it would have required to hire lawyers and fight the action. Shame and spinelessness it was. There was no way a tiny publishing outfit like Progress, even with the impact we have, could have stumped up the money to fight Carter-Ruck. And so it is with many organisations from football fanzines to small independent publishers. Even bigger outfits like the New Statesman pull investigative journalism because they can’t bear the extortionate cost of fighting a legal action.
At the launch this morning of a petition by The Libel Reform Campaign which is supported by English PEN, Index on Censorship, Sense About Science and other organisations, John Kampfner, former Editor of the Statesman quoted a Fleet Street editor who had said “lay off the oligarchs – we can’t afford it”. Ben Goldacre of Bad Science fame explained that even when you win a libel case, it ends up costing you. Goldacre’s case against Mattias Rath, a chap who seems to think his vitamin pills can cure HIV better than AIDS drugs, ended up costing the Guardian £170,000 even after their costs were paid. But it isn’t just the cost which worries most campaign supporters, it’s the fact that it means certain discussions – around pharmaceutical companies for example – take place in a culture of fear. Instead of thinking, and writing, freely, authors start by worrying about framing what they say so they don’t get stamped on with that Orwellian boot. As Goldacre put it “It’s the censorship that happens in our own heads which is the danger”.
A number of luminaries have signed up to the campaign including A C Grayling, Nick Cohen, Ben Goldacre, Monica Ali, Ian Hislop and Stephen Fry. One of the other panel speakers this morning, John Micklethwait from the Economist, set out the changes we need:
There will inevitably be discussion about whether we need all these changes and how they will look exactly in law, but Denis MacShane MP who has campaigned for changes to libel ever since he was President of the NUJ said that the next step must be to get the changes into Parliament, and quick. He criticised Jack Straw for suggesting in the New Statesman that he was going to be radical on this, but instead of pushing for legislation made the brave decision to set up a committee. Apparently Lord Leicester has said he would be willing to introduce a libel reform bill in the Lords, and there is always the chance that we will be able to persuade political parties to include reform in their manifestos. Meanwhile, Progress is urging its supporters to sign up to the campaign and to write to your MP to support EDM 423.
As the scope for citizen journalism grows with the expansion of the internet and print journalism wanes, the power of wealthy individuals backed by ruthless lawyers will become ever greater. This threatens our right to genuine freedom of speech – a right which we have got used to taking for granted. Reform of libel law is something all political parties can unite upon in a spirit of Christmas peace, let’s try and make them act on it.
Yesterday saw the latest lecture in Progress’ lecture series ‘New thinking for Britain’s next decade’ given by Rt Hon John Healey MP, minister of state for housing and planning.
John Healey stated that in order to see our way forward we must first look at our present position. He went on to say that the Labour party is in a difficult position to go on to a fourth term, saying that being in your third term puts the government in a difficult place having been in government just long enough so that all the mistakes made are remembered, but not long enough for all the benefits to be shown. He also stated that the media cycle was against the party, claiming that many media sources have already decided the outcome in their own minds and written off the Labour party, in his view too early. However he argued that whilst the odds are against us, Labour has won against the odds before.
The housing minister spoke of how the Labour party has always and will always be the party of Britain’s low earners and will continue to be that party. However, we cannot just be that party. John Healey stated that the party must reiterate our commitment to middle Britain. The former local government minister stated that in recent years the media has focused on the metropolitan middle class, those with a combined income of £88,000+, and that we should not be fooled by this. We should focus on the real middle Britain - the 7 million median earners in the UK as they were the ones who have been truly affected by the recession - those who have an annual income of less than £19,000 pa and those with a combined household income of less than £25,000.
For the full speech click here.
John Healey in response to a question on what the Labour government could do to alleviate spiraling house prices, said the answer was simple - we need to build more homes, and more affordable homes. He explained that in 2007 there were over 107,000 new homes built in Britain in conjunction with private contractors and land developers and that the government needs to continue to work with the private industry to build more affordable homes. He believes that this is the way in which the government can help in alleviating spiraling house prices and therefore allow more of median Britain to get their foot on the ladder. To do this he said we must not be afraid of using public money to assist in building.
Private renting is something which is becoming more and more common in Britain, and the housing minister talked in his speech about making this a more attractive option. The housing minister explained that the government will be introducing more legislation to improve the rights of tenants, as well as introducing the respect kite mark standard which increases the standards for landlords and increases the rights of landlords on dealing with antisocial behavior of their tenants. John Healey also stated that the government is very keen on improving the standards of private rented accommodation and the rights of tenants.
In summary John Healey’s speech focused on the fact that in order for Labour to exceed the expectations of the media and to defeat this underdog status that the Labour party has been awarded in recent times the party needs to show its commitment not to middle Britain but to median Britain, and use this ideological cycle to our advantage.
Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, yesterday writing for the Independent called for the Queen’s speech to be scrapped in favor of a programme of wide ranging political reform. Nick Clegg claimed that the Queen’s speech will be a work of fiction as Gordon Brown will only have 70 days to implement the legislation set out in the speech, and therefore would be little more than a road test of Labour’s next election manifesto and policy gimmicks to see whether they may save the governments skin.
The Lib Dem leader claimed that in the wake of the expenses scandal this parliament has lost its legitimacy, and therefore the only job that this ‘rump parliament’ is good for is the reformation of parliament. In his article for the Independent the Liberal Democrat leader suggested that parliament should focus their efforts on agreeing on an action plan to reform parliament in the few months until MPs leave for the election battle. The Lib Dem leader suggested a series of steps towards the reform of parliament. The first step in the Liberal Democrat leaders plan is for parliament to approve proposals to be set out by the public administration committee which would curb the powers of the commons whips and increase the autonomy and influence of the backbench MP’s. Nick Clegg also suggested moves to introduce fixed-term parliaments, agree a code of conduct for election candidates, sack corrupt MPs, make the House of Lords fully-elected and reform the Commons voting system. Nick Clegg stated that the one gift this failed parliament can give its successor is a fresh start.
The truth is that although Clegg may be right about the need for parliamentary reform he is way off the mark on two counts:
One: the Queen’s speech serves more of a purpose than merely announcing the legislative programme of the government for the next term of parliament. The monarch’s speech at the state opening of parliament is a tradition that has been in place for over 500 years, it is after all her government. If the speech were to be cancelled especially at this late stage it would not only be done at huge cost to the British tax payer as all of the security procedures will already be in place for the Queen’s journey from Buckingham palace to parliament. But the cancellation of the speech would also signal a much more significant constitutional change. If the government were to stop the Queen’s speech then it would be the prime minister effectively overruling the head of state, effectively in one action removing the presumed authority in the crown. This action in itself would symbolize a major shift in British constitutional politics.
Two: his argument that the Queen's speech will be a complete waste of time and would be little more than a road test of the Labour party manifesto can be said of any Queen’s speech near the end of a parliament, both Labour and Tory. Harriet Harman rejecting this claim stated that this Queen’s speech would contain important plans to foster economic growth and make the banks more accountable.
The call by Nick Clegg is quite simply a blatant example of pointless politicking, the kind of which the British public has come to detest. I suggest that the Lib Dem leader gets off his high horse and takes a look around. This Labour government has introduced and passed legislation, which became an act of parliament in the summer, which will make sure that MPs no longer set our allowance system. And Gordon Brown announced his plan to have a referendum on electoral reform after the next general election.
Yes there does need to be reform in politics, but significant steps have already been taken, and Nick Clegg’s announcement seems to be playing politics in an area that needs unity and coherent action.