Co-operatives and mutuals offer the best model for the reform of public service delivery, says Michael Stephenson

It was good to see media reports last week of the government’s genuine interest in the role of mutuals in the delivery of public services.

This is something the Co-operative party has promoted throughout its 92 year history and has campaigned on vigorously in recent months.

In the last decade we have been instrumental in introducing specific examples of a mutual approach – from the co-operative trust schools announced by Ed Balls at the Co-operative party conference to the many NHS Foundation trusts in operation around the country. Yet these are only the beginning of what should be a logical policy path for Labour in government.

At a time when we need to demonstrate conclusively to a sceptical electorate that we believe in public services and have the radical answers to the challenges they face, both in funding and delivery, there is nothing more compelling or attractive than the idea of a mutuality-based value system permeating our schools, hospitals and other parts of the state.

Mutuality offers one of the few genuine alternatives to the discredited model of full scale privatisation and the time-honoured orthodoxy of full state control. And at a time when an opportunistic Tory party will say anything to dispel the stench of its Thatcherite past we must re-claim mutuality as a genuinely progressive idea. Not something churned out of a vague notion of social enterprise, not something cynically exploited to portray an opposition as closer to the centre than the hard right, but something that is a clear and identifiable part of the philosophy of the Labour and Co-operative parties.

In our manifesto for the next general election  ‘A Co-operative Agenda for a Fourth Term’, we set out several practical ways the government can make this dividing line clearer, including more opportunities for mutual solutions in the commissioning decisions of Primary Care Trusts, the expansion of direct payments mutuals in social care and Sure Start centres being run as community mutuals.

We believe that co-operative and mutual models offer the best model for the reform of public service delivery. They provide the efficiency gains of the private sector while providing real democratic accountability, giving users, employees and other stakeholders a real say in how their organisations are run.

This way the quality of service is not dependant on the commands of producer interests or the whims of market forces but on frontline expertise and the needs of the people that they serve. Public assets are locked into community ownership, providing further protection against privatisation and asset stripping.

And the government can continue to improve public services through better involving staff (at all levels), users and local communities in the delivery of those services.  That is something that is crucially important in proving to the people who vote for a Labour government that we are on their side.

This article first appeared on Progress Online