In his inept and inarticulate way, George Osborne is doing his best to portray the Tories as the public sector's friend. Nurses and teachers are encouraged to forget the fact that he has a large knife in his back pocket and listen to his honeyed words about them being able to enjoy greater control.
The co-operative economy was and still is about ownership and control. We still own the Co-operative shop, the Phonecoop and the Nationwide Building Society. Our votes decide who is on the board and, broadly, what policies the businesses follow. Of course we also, in a broad and indirect sense, own the schools and hospitals which George Osborne is suggesting can become co-operatives. While they remain in the public sector, our votes can make a difference - if a far too indirect one - to how they function and the services they offer.
In the UK the strength of the co-operative movement has been on the consumer side, yet the co-operatives George Osborne appears to be suggesting for the public sector will be worker co-operatives. If the Tories meant this, it could mean that your surgeon or job counsellor would decide what operation you needed or how long you could claim benefit before you were struck off the list.
But of course he does not mean it. This is not a proposal to empower public-sector workers, but a cynical first step on the road to the privatisation of the health service. With US corporations eager to take over hospitals and clinics - and pharmaceutical corporations already dominating the policy agenda (viz. the recent massive waste of money buying unnecessary and ineffective anti-virals) - we should be very cautious indeed about responding warmly to Osborne's weasel words.
Many of our public services began as mutuals - working people joining together to pool their resources and provide each other with health and education when the state did not. Especially in health, these local and empowered solutions were swallowed up into the National Health Service, and the mutual impulse and local accountability were lost. This history offers a sense of the potential of co-operatives, but it would require a much greater shift of political power than the Tory proposals countenance.
This is the first attempt during this election campaign for one side to claim the laurels of the co-operative movement, which has drawn increasingly positive attention since the advent of disaster capitalism. But if it was the private sector that screwed up so badly in recent years, why is mutualisation being suggested for the public sector? George Osborne might gain considerably more credibility with the co-op movement if he gave support to the campaign to remutualise the Royal Bank of Scotland and introducing financial support for employees who wish to take over their own workplaces, rather than offering public-sector workers a share in schools and hospitals which his own policies will make unmanageable