Opinion: The feeling’s mutual, isn’t it?

The Coalition are feeling mutual love at the moment. A love for public service mutuals that is. A multiplicity of support programmes, funds and policy initiatives have been initiated since 2010 (although the process was technically kickstarted under New Labour), in the hope that a ‘mutual revolution’ will envelope public services and unleash a wave of latent entrepreneurialism from frontline workers. Francis Maude has expressed the rather utopian aspiration that by 2015, 1 million public sector workers will be working in one of these new public service mutuals.

On the face of it, what’s not to like about a ‘mutual revolution’ in public services? A growing body of evidence indicates that properly constituted public service mutuals increase employee engagement, reduce levels of absenteeism, and encourage the ‘co-production’ of services with input from end users of services. Seen in this light, public service mutuals possess a distinctly liberal flavour, encouraging as they do workplace democracy and the empowerment of individuals; be they patients, staff or even the commissioners of services.

Surely as Liberal Democrats then, this is one Coalition policy we should be shouting about? Actually, let’s not. It seems that when the Coalition says ‘mutual’ it doesn’t mean it in the traditional sense.

As Ed Mayo (the head of Co-operatives UK) has recently pointed out, many of these newly created entities struggle to meet the traditional definition of a mutual: ‘…the government’s entry definition of mutual ownership, with a paltry 25% for staff and no rights for service users, gives no guarantee of member control and leaves investors in charge.’

Given this, the reality of the Coalition’s enthusiasm for mutuals begins to look less like a revolution of worker democracy and empowerment, and more like an opportunity for keen-eyed private investors to work their way into the very infrastructure of public services.

Indeed, with such a loose interpretation of what constitutes a ‘mutual’, the Coalition is adding weight to the arguments of those who claim that the creation of these mutuals or social enterprises is merely ‘privatisation by the back door’.

Questioned on this point during Saturday’s Social Liberal Forum conference, Norman Lamb – a keen advocate for the creation of mutuals within the NHS – tended to agree with the thrust of the argument that more needed to be done to ensure that these new organisations are ‘genuine mutuals’.

If an attempt were made to create genuine mutuals then the policy would have the potential to inject a dose of radical liberalism into public workplaces and services across the country. But without safeguards to stop the creation of ‘mutuals in name only’, this much-vaunted ‘revolution’ will continue to feel less than mutual.

* Matthew Donnelly is a Liberal Democrat member in Wirral South.

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  • Matthew Donnelly 16th Jul '13 - 7:25pm

    Thanks Prateek, and thank you for putting on what turned out to be a very enjoyable and thought provoking conference.

  • Good article Matthew and Ed Mayo’s comments are worth reading in the full.

    Obviously, the Coalitions enthusiasm for public service mutuals only extends so far, as I note the word ‘mutual’ didn’t pass Cable’s lips when he announced the privatisation of the Post Office.

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