What does Corbyn mean for mutuals?

by Craig Dearden-Phillips 14/09/2015

What does the election of Jeremy Corbyn mean for Labour’s approach to mutuals?

To date, Labour has been reasonably supportive and indeed oversaw the first moves to mutualisation in the NHS in the late 2000s.

While in the Miliband years this support became more qualified, this didn’t stop scores of Labour councils from establishing new mutuals – York, Warrington, Leeds, Salford and Lambeth to name just a few.

However, the election of Jeremy Corbyn may well signal a stronger change of tone. The reason I believe this, is the influence of left-leaning unions who now have unprecedented influence over the Labour leader.

Although it isn’t much discussed, I will say it here, that, with certain notable exceptions, trade unions tend to be very negative about public service mutuals. They view them as a form of privatisation and the thin edge of a wedge that begins with a degree of staff control but ends with private sector takeover.

While the evidence for this is limited, I think there is something in the view that nothing is guaranteed for any mutual. It eventually has to win a tender, fair and square, in the market and, if found wanting, may well lose out to a private sector player who, in turn, will wreck terms and conditions for staff.

I get that. My own view is that this isn’t enough of a reason not to set up a mutual. Trade unions who oppose mutuals tend to believe that it is better to keep something in the public sector as a struggling service than see something different tried out in the form of a mutual.   

I also want to be clear that this hasn’t, to date, been a Labour position. The vast majority of Labour politicians recognise that the party has a tradition of self-help and mutual aid that pre-dates mass provision of public services by the state. Many in fact get very excited about the idea of staff-owned companies as the highest expression of Labour ideals. Not all, of course, but many. 

Jeremy Corbyn’s election however puts another group into the ascendency who equate public service with public ownership. Implied in this, is hostility to alternative delivery models that are not state-owned or run. And along with the likes of Serco, Capita and so on, this includes, in the hard-left playbook, public service mutuals.

Having said this, I may well be contacted by one of Jeremy’s supporters and reassured that I have got their man wrong and in fact he’s bang on our side. But I suspect I may be in receipt of other kinds of missives, should they bother to read my humble blog.

Back to stepping out now