Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Whose mutualism is it anyway?

Mutualism is an intriguing contender as a significant idea for the next left, not least because a surprisingly wide range of voices recommend the principle at least.

The cooperative party have been campaigning for it as a traditional value arising from the heart of the Labour movement's history, with their feeling's mutual campaign and manifesto.

Tessa Jowell will give a Progress speech tonight, previewed here, which will make a case for mutualism, participation and accountability as the next phase of public service reform, though there is also at least an implicit critique that this takes New Labour away from the command and control model.

On which point democratic republicans like Stuart White may find common ground, and that suggest it offers an opportunity for Fabianism to revive the tradition of GDH Cole in search of a more empowering, participatory and decentralised idea of how society and state interact.

While Will Hutton's involvement as chair of a new independent commission on ownership could bring New Labour back full circle to its initial interest in stakeholding, quickly ditched after a brief flirtation before 1997.

The Compass left sees it as a way to put ownership back on the agenda, advocating mutualist solutions for the post office, the railways and other public services, while environmentalists keen to see local community involvement in low carbon energy provision.

On the right, the Red Tories suggest that it is a tradition which the left lost, and one which the right will now lead on, though suspicions that the conservative cooperative movement was primarily motivated by wanting an eye-catching, counter-intuitive launch with the party leader may well be borne out by the apparent lack of much significant activity since.

Mutualism is certainly an idea worth exploring. And yet this breadth of support may be a strength and weakness. I am not sure that the broad agreement extends beyond the idea that mutualism sounds like a jolly good thing, with a range of different ideas as to what it could or should mean.

Is there a public appettite for a major push on mutualism?

As a general idea, I suspect it may well be rather abstract.

Hence all of the references to the John Lewis model in providing one popular symbol of employee ownership of a successful commercial business.

And mutualism in public services may make more concrete sense in a local context, if it can be seen to mean a different type of involvement in local schools or SureStart centres.

Jowell could well strike a public chord too by lamenting the loss of the old building societies. That will have popular resonance. Yet demutualisation was driven not simply by impersonal market forces - but by the decision of the owners of the assets to cash them in.


Stuart White said...

Thanks for this overview, Sunder. One might also mention as a possible example of mutualism, Michael Gove's proposals to enable parents to set up their own schools using public money. While it might be true, as Ed Balls claims, that the Conservatives are not pledging the resources to make the proposals work, the principle is arguably consistent with 'mutualism'.

While I am very sympathetic to this sudden interest in mutualism, I think you are right to enter a cautionary note about the level of abstraction at which the discussion is sometimes pitched - the detail is crucial.

And even at an abstract level, we need to know more about the motivation for 'mutualism'. Just how is it supposed to advance the defining ideals of the left? There are lots of answers one can give to such a question, and they can point to different types of 'mutualism' in practice.

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks. It would be interesting to get yr take on Jowell's speech when she has given it, or on the various different motivations and projects. (A mutualism map?!). It does sound as though this is going to be a significant theme in the next three months, so that would be worth looking into at some point, even if not straight away.

Offers from others to contribute on this theme very welcome too - particularly on specific examples of what it could and should mean and why.