progress is not the elimination of struggle, but rather a change in its terms’ - Aneurin Bevan

co-op councils or council cop-out?

The news that 115 Labour council leaders have signed a mission statement on using co-operative and mutual enterprise to protect frontline services coincided with a government report on expanding mutualism from the Cabinet Office.

Tessa Jowell is correct when she says that following "the global financial crisis and the parliamentary expenses scandal, it is clear that people are no longer prepared to trust large organisations over which they have no control."

But then again, people have little control over the large corporations that dominate our economy - so why only focus on the public sector? Transnational firms can shift production overseas to lower-wage economies, throwing skilled workers on the scrapheap; supermarkets can squeeze suppliers and can out-compete smaller shops; and in the bailed-out banking sector, bosses are rewarded for failure with huge bonuses.

Luke Akehurst - a Labour moderate and therefore someone you'd expect to be enthusiastic about such public service reform - has expressed his mutual suspicion:
"I'd always seen mutuals and co-ops as an alternative to capitalist forms of ownership, not as a way of councils off-loading their responsibility to deliver public services onto the service users. Surely the whole point about council services is that they are already mutual in that the policies that govern them and the political direction of them is set by the people in an area - the service users - electing some of their fellow residents - also service users - as councillors? Our focus for promoting mutuals should be on taking businesses out of the capitalist sector and into mutual ownership, not on taking services out of the public democratically-controlled sector."
I completely agree with this - the solution for undoing the damage of privatisation of public utilities and transport is surely mutualisation. Employee benefit trusts should be the prefered model in rebuilding manufacturing in the UK - we have Supporters Direct to help fans gain ownership of their clubs, why not Workers Direct to help employees gain a stake in their business?

However, the mission statement from Labour council groups does not ignore the importance of CMEs:
"Mutually owned businesses and social enterprises have an important part to play in the national and local economies. They not only generate wealth and employment - but their profits are retained in the community to the benefit of other local businesses or, often, used directly for the benefit of the community. We will assist their development to ensure that they are strong and sustainable."
And there are reports that Labour's manifesto at the general election will include a pledge to enable local authorities to become generate and retail renewable energy.

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