When our office learned of shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley's largely overlooked announcement at the NHS employers conference in Birmingham last week, a big cheer went up. According to Lansley, under a Conservative government, healthcare providers would be restructured locally along the lines of a John Lewis-style partnership model, giving staff collective ownership of the service they delivered.
As a matter of full disclosure, ResPublica had recently kicked off this debate by proposing just such a model of radical new public ownership in Phillip Blond's report The Ownership State, but our cheer was less in recognition of the take-up of our own idea (or, more accurately, an idea which we support and the John Lewis Partnership has been actively practising for decades) and more in acknowledgement that such an approach could radically transform the basic structure of public services. If we give ownership to the employees of public services then we can develop the ethos and sense of purpose that has been allowed to wither under Labour's target-driven New Public Management regime.
Mutualism, in both the public and private sector, is an idea that could radically extend ownership across society. The NHS alone is the world's third-largest non-military employer, after Wal-Mart and Indian Railways. Giving its employees shares in mutually owned service-providing companies would give them more control over how those services are delivered, an increased sense of responsibility and could even entail the right to share in any efficiency gains that they could produce.
Giving public sector employees more control over how services are delivered is not only progressive, it also reduces the need for the enormous managerial bureaucracy that has been allowed to build up between the central state and the infantilised frontline. In 1997, there were a manager for every 12 beds in the NHS. By 2007, there was a manager for every five. A lot more decisions need to be taken at the coalface, by the professionals and committed employees involved rather than by remote managers. Public sector workers, from police officers to social workers, are clamouring for more responsibility, and giving it to them can save the public purse billions in reduced managerial costs. The advent of mutualism in the public sector should mean flatter hierarchies and more workplace democracy for our schools, hospitals and bin collectors.
In short, mutualism summarises everything that is appealing about the philosophy underpinning David Cameron's civic conservatism: responsibility (both individual and fiscal), devolved power and radical enfranchisement.
This week – in an announcement reminiscent of Alistair Darling's belated plan to tax non-dom oligarchs and Jacqui Smith's all-too-familiar proposal to introduce some elected members to police authorities – Labour has once again moved quickly to shoot the Tories' proverbial fox, saying that (if Labour had their way) public services would be "transformed into John Lewis-style partnerships" whereby "public sector bodies, which would also include leisure centres, housing organisations and social care providers, would be allowed to take control of their own affairs if staff and users voted in favour".
According to an unnamed Labour official, this plan will mark out "clear territory" from the Conservatives, as Labour alone is committed to a big state approach in order to fund and foster this "bottom-up" revolution. If this is indeed the sort of clear territory on which they want to stake their manifesto, then Labour will need a convincing answer to the very interesting question of how a statist leftwing mutualism will be distinct from the civic rightwing mutualism promised by Cameron.
While everyone should support mutualism no matter who is proposing it, we're holding off cheering this announcement for the time being in the hope that mutualising the public sector won't go the way of Labour's announced and aborted non-dom tax and elected police authorities. If a policy this great is worth stealing, it should be worth enacting too.
originally appeared in The Guardian, 12 November 2009.