What Mutualism means for Labour

By David Bicknell

It’s interesting that when a word starts to be linked with a trend or movement, everyone wants to be associated with it.

That’s beginning to be the case with mutuals. Now the Labour Party has seen an opportunity to put its definition on what mutuals are, with the publication of a new pamphlet from the Policy Network, called ‘What mutualism means for Labour.’

The Policy Network blog says this:

“The Conservatives, with their rhetoric of the “big society”, seem to have displaced Labour as the “party of ideas”. Their emphasis on empowering communities and decentralising power arguably reflects a cooption of traditional social democratic language and an encroachment on the ideological terrain of the centre-left. Many see mutualism as the left’s answer to the “big society” and a key pillar in Labour’s political economy. However, our definition of mutualism remains unclear and the means to achieve its goals intangible.

“This pamphlet sets out to develop a clear vision of what mutualism means for Labour and how it can be used to drive forward the social democratic project. It brings together prominent thinkers, politicians and strategists to lay down ideas on how mutuals and co-operatives can serve as models of post-crisis reform in both the private and public sectors. ”


Given that there are employees who want to set up mutuals, a practical, how- to guide might have been more useful, both to the mutuals themselves as well as to Labour in defining its mutuals credentials. Instead, although this pamphlet has some good essays, it is undermined in places by the usual anti-Thatcher fare that’s great for the Labour Party Conference, but not much practical use to anyone else.

“It is Thatcherism disguised as mutualism – witness the recent case of the awarding of a large NHS contract to a private provider. (Virgin Healthcare) rather than an employee-owned enterprise (Central Surrey Health). David Cameron made much play of the work of Central Surrey Health and indeed praised it publicly as an ideal example of what the ‘big society’ stands for. Yet when it came to the crunch, the progressive mutual organisation was gazumped by the private provider, just as Margaret Thatcher would have loved all those years ago.”

There’s also a dig at No 10’s Director of Strategy, Steve Hilton – “We need to authoritatively restate our values of co-operation, solidarity and mutualism in order to expose the difference between our vision of society and our opponents’. The difference between an authentic tradition, built upon the secure foundations of a century’s worth of history, and a ‘tradition’ built upon an overlap in one of Downing Street strategist Steve Hilton’s Venn diagrams.”

Knockabout stuff, but Punch & Judy politics and of little practical help to today’s fledgling mutuals. 

Is this really what mutualism means for Labour?  On the face of it, not much then.

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