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.