Who remembers back in February when George Osborne laughingly tried to explain how a Conservative government would set up worker cooperatives to run public services?

His excruciatingly awful attempt on the Today programme to answer some basic questions about how this would work in our schools allowed me to respond that day on TV and radio that the Tories didn’t understand co-operatives because they don’t have co-operative values.

I labelled them as clueless and opportunistic and contrasted their time in government with Labour’s substantial but often unnoticed track record, including cooperative trust schools, NHS foundation trusts, football supporters’ trusts and the most comprehensive package of legislation in the history of the cooperative movement.

Yet while the Tories’ faux commitment to something as progressive as the cooperative ideal could be easily dismissed at the time, it did little to deter them from exploiting the idea and using it as a stalking horse for a bigger strategic ploy – moving them closer to the centre ground of politics and dispelling their Thatcherite past.

Their manifesto and the subsequent Big Society narrative, although badly intentioned and ill-thought through, nonetheless had some resonance as it appeared to promote in some way the idea of people having a say in the running of the institutions that affect their lives.

Labour’s manifesto, like its performance in government, was very strong on cooperative ideas. Twenty four of the Co-operative Party’s manifesto proposals were incorporated into Labour’s document, including the remutualisation of Northern Rock, the establishment of mutual Sure Start centres, allowing supporters to buy a stake in their football clubs, encouraging energy cooperatives and giving communities the opportunity to run local services.

Yet many voters would not have made the connection between those 24 initiatives and a bigger theme of cooperation and mutuality. It was clearly the golden thread that ran through Labour’s policy agenda and was ideally suited to the battle of ideas in the first election campaign of the post-credit crunch era. But the manifesto, while rich in substantial policy ideas, was not overtly cooperative in theme and narrative.

It was the most radically cooperative manifesto in living memory, yet the potential to use this as a unifying message that chimed with the economic and political mood of the campaign was not completely fulfilled.

Was this a missed opportunity? In some ways, yes. Mutuality is the perfect ideological next step in the evolution of New Labour. It neatly combines a modernising agenda with the challenge of reconnecting with the party’s base and the values that drive people to activism in the movement.

It is a progressive agenda that reconciles that activism with the important progress made by Labour in government in combining the best of the public, private and third sectors. This was very successfully demonstrated by Labour Co-op MP Ed Balls, at both the treasury and department for children, schools and families, and by Tessa Jowell in her announcements on the ‘mutual moment’ in public service delivery.

It was further demonstrated by the 115 Labour groups in local authorities around the country that pledged in the campaign to become ‘co-operative councils’ and introduce measures that would put local people in control of local services.

Labour’s cooperative policy ideas, both in government and what it proposed for a fourth term, were not lacking ambition or scale, but they needed to be presented to the public in a way that anchored them in a set of values with which they could identify. However, that opportunity is not lost.

As Labour thinks carefully about its future direction and the choice of its next leader over the coming months, there is considerable scope to promote cooperation and mutuality as not just a set of disparate ideas but a visible guiding influence on how we respond to the challenges of opposition.

Those challenges are as much about how we connect with the values and aspirations of the people we seek to represent as the detail of our ideas.

Cooperation and mutuality are ideas whose time has come back. We should make sure they take their legitimate place in the very successful ongoing relationship between Labour and its sister organisation the Co-operative Party.

This article first appeared on Progress Online