Dr Dan Boucher stood as the Conservative Candidate in Swansea East at the General Election.
As someone who lives in Swansea, I am keenly aware that 100 years ago this month the Co-operative Congress met in the City and decided to create the Co-operative Party. They have been celebrating their centenary with their party conference in London this past weekend.
Part of the political significance of the presence of the Co-operative Party arises from the consequences of fact that if you want to join you have to sign the following statement:
‘I am not a member of any political Party other than the Labour Party or the Social Democratic and Labour Party.’
On this basis, the Party has had the unfortunate effect of appropriating the co-operative and mutual model of economic development to the left of British politics. This has not only enabled Labour to define itself in warm communal terms but has also made it easier for them to define us as one-dimensional, crude utility maximisers who don’t really get what it means to be human.
Jeremy Corbyn made the most of this in his speech to the Co-op Party conference on Saturday when, having celebrated the co-operative economic development model, he contrasted it with that of the Conservative Party:
‘The Conservatives believe everyone is motivated by the same base interests – selfishness and greed. For all their rhetoric they don’t even begin to understand the entrepreneurial spirit they claim to champion. When I meet entrepreneurs, and those trying to start their own business, their motivations are to express their creativity, serve their community, meet people’s needs, to create an income for themselves and jobs for others. Their inspiration is often closer to the pragmatic principles of the co-operative movement than it is to the abstract ideology of Milton Friedman.’
This comment is plainly informed by complete – and almost certainly wilful – failure to understand Conservatism and the Conservative Party.
Philosophically, Conservatives are committed to a rooted and organic conception of the human agency and as such Conservatism really stands in polar opposition to abstraction. Far from reducing people to a set of selfish, utility maximising goals, we believe that the human condition is immensely complex, forged by multiple levels of identity that inform motivation, and constrain selfishness, every bit as much as a desire to play a role in generating economic growth which – contrary to Mr Corbyn – need not be the result of selfishness anyway. In this context there is plenty of space for public limited companies, small businesses, mutuals and co-operatives, which can together help to grow the British economy for the benefit of the people of Britain.
Perhaps we are partly to blame for the current difficulty.
It is unfortunate that, in introducing the economic reforms of the 1980s, the impression was sometimes given that the only answer to the economic development model that denied people a stake – nationalisation – was the creation of public limited companies and the opportunity to invite employees to become shareholders.
The truth is, as I explained in my Bow Group pamphlet, Mutuality, that while there are economic development models like nationalisation that generally belong to the left, this is not true of mutuals, co-operatives or other employee ownership business models. The principal problem with nationalisation is that rather than investing employees with a genuine, personal sense of stake in the project, it is better known for generating a sense of disconnection through the knowledge that whatever happens the state won’t let its business go under. In that sense, co-operatives and mutuals could not be less like nationalised industries. Far from being unwritten by the taxpayer, they can go under the same as private sector businesses and on top of this their employees are invested, courtesy of the co-operative/mutual model, with a very sophisticated sense of a stake in and ownership of the business, which gives them a real interest in its success.
In recent years, the Conservative Party has been much better at celebrating the co-operative and mutual economic development model. Of particular importance has been the work started by Francis Maude in creating Public Service Mutuals in England. Today, more than £1 billion of public services in England are provided by Public Service Mutuals because of the commitment of the Conservative Party to this principle. Interestingly the generation of a greater sense of stake in the project arising from mutualisation has been central to its success, as Maude noted in his Oakeshott Memorial Lecture of 2014:
‘Staff engagement surveys bear out the simple truth that service improves and productivity rises when the staff have a stake; when they feel they belong; and that their individual voice and actions count. Our latest data shows that after an organisation spins out as a mutual absenteeism falls by 20 per cent; staff turnover falls by 16 per cent.’
In the battle of political ideas, this matters.
At the moment one of the things that undeniably attracts young people to Corbyn is his ability to portray himself in polar opposition to his definition of Conservatism. This definition, however, would become completely unsustainable if the proper relationship between Conservatism and the co-operative and mutual economic development model was understood. To this end, the 100th anniversary of the appropriation of this territory by Labour challenges us to deal with the problem. Perhaps steps should be taken to create a mutual/employee ownership movement linked to the Conservative Party so that some Conservatives can sit as Conservative/Mutual MPs, just as some Labour parliamentarians (38 in the current session – more than ever before) sit as Labour/Co-op MPs?