VitalSpark: Coalition Blog

Posted: 24 February 2010, in Blog

Co-ops are back in the news. The Co-op party is not impressed with the Tories for advocating an expansion of employee owned, co-operative, mutualised and social enterprise models to deliver public services – in England. It’s a problem when your political opponents steal bits of your manifesto and policies.

Predictably, the Co-op – Labour Party alliance, has attacked the Tories on the basis that they don’t ‘get’ the values of co-operation and mutualism. This therefore is an attack on public services dressed up as something else.

Check out and for the latest on this co-op debate. Be sure to the catch the bit from the Tories that these enterprises would be not for profit (sic). Let us be clear and if you know any Tories make sure you enlighten them. Co-ops and social enterprises are competitive businesses. They need profit to grow and develop. If they are not businesses, they are projects – doomed to close when the funding runs out.

So, does ‘the left’ have a monopoly on social enterprise norms and values? Then again, does the anti-statist critique implicit in social entrepreneurship correspond with right wing analyses on the ‘imperfections’ of municipal public service monopolies? These are typified as being bureaucratic, unresponsive, indifferent towards consumers, inadequate and producer led etc. Unlike (some) social enterprises.

Back to Scotland, where the political discourse is dominated by a centre left consensus formidably defending the status quo. To suggest that social enterprises could substitute the state in many areas of life would be anathema to our nomenklatura. Why is municipalism our dominant orthodoxy and defending it an end in itself? Surely it can’t be because of a limited and diminishing democratic mandate?

For example, why do we accept underperforming state schools as the only legitimate education provider for children in areas of deprivation? Could an alternative social enterprise model better tackle entrenched illiteracy, innumeracy and low aspiration? Would co-op schools work better than state schools?

And yet. Little chinks of light have appeared. Mike Russell is encouraging Trust models for school management in East Lothian. His proposals are nowhere near what Cameron is advocating but a start is a start. Anyone up for a revolution in public service provision out there? Economic history demonstrates that systemic economic crises are golden periods of innovation, destruction and opportunity.

Interestingly, the State operates the Franchise Model for privatised rail services. I can’t recall anyone ever telling Richard Branson that Virgin Trains must be not for profit. Or, that he can’t use profit projections to help raise investment capital. Could we not franchise other public services to social enterprises and raise investment capital in a similar fashion?