The Conservative Party has recently won considerable publicity by renewing a pledge to allow workers' co-operatives to own and run public services.In so doing, the party has been accused of 'stealing political clothes that will never fit them'. Co-operatives, it is alleged, are an intrinsically left-wing concept and will never be natural Conservative terrain - despite claims to the contrary by Jesse Norman, founder of the Conservative Co-operative Movement, and Phillip Blond, the 'Red Tory'.
But this is not the first time that Conservatives have entertained the idea of working with co-operatives, and certainly not the first time they have endorsed the notion that employees should have a stake in the ownership and/or the management of their workplaces. That idea dates back to the 1920s, when such schemes were proposed by the Conservative MP Noel Skelton as the solution to a 'lop-sided' distribution of property.
Skelton - whose writing has been an acknowledged influence on Blond - observed that the reforms of the nineteenth-century had left the 'working people' with their political rights and educational status much enhanced, but their economic status unaltered. For Skelton, this 'imbalance' accounted for much of the social and industrial unrest of the interwar period - not to mention the rise of the Labour Party - and a vast extension of property-ownership was required if British society was to be restored to equilibrium. His preferred means was the introduction of industrial co-partnership schemes, which would give ordinary working people a shareholding in the company for which they worked (including a portion of the profits and the possibility of seats on the board). This platform offered the Conservative Party 'the ideal ground on which to fight Socialism'. And Skelton even had a name for the type of society which would emerge as more and more working men became owners - he called it the 'property-owning democracy'.
The Conservative Party displayed little initial enthusiasm for co-partnership, but the principle of extending ownership (and particularly the idea of the 'property-owning democracy') was seized upon as a powerful political weapon. In reviving the concept at the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden noted that the extension of private property ownership offered a 'constructive alternative' to the policy of nationalisation pursued by the Labour government. By the 1950s, however, the focus had shifted away from industrial capital to housing. Although the Conservative Party was still committed to wider distribution of property, it had now come to the conclusion that, in the words of Minister for Housing Harold Macmillan, 'of all forms of property suitable for such distribution, house property is one of the best'. The party was also no doubt aware that homeowners were more likely to vote Conservative than private renters or council tenants.
Although housing continued to play a role in Conservative attempts to create a 'property-owning democracy', under Margaret Thatcher's leadership the party rediscovered an interest in the ownership of industry. By making shares in newly privatised industries available to the general public, the Thatcher administrations hoped to create a 'capital-owning democracy' in which ordinary people would become shareholders feel a 'heightened sense of pride in British business'. Together, the privatisation campaign and the 'Right to Buy' formed the centrepiece of a strategy to extend property-ownership to all levels of British society - a goal which Mrs Thatcher referred to as 'the great Tory reform of [the] century', and which the plans for a 'peoples' bank bonus' suggests is still a Conservative objective.
Plans to allow workers' co-operatives to own and run public services are merely the latest manifestation of this longstanding theme in Conservative ideology - a fact implicitly acknowledged by George Osborne when he compared the proposals to the sale of council houses. And by offering public sector workers the opportunity to own and run the services which they provide, David Cameron could arguably come closer than any previous Conservative leader to fulfilling Skelton's vision.
However these proposals have not descended directly from Skelton, but rather draw on numerous Conservatisms - including Thatcherism. Although Cameron and Osborne have been careful to sell the policy as 'progressive', the detail of the proposals - from the Conservative Party, and from think-tanks ResPublica and The Innovation Unit - has been couched in the vocabulary of the market. They have relied on many of the same justifications as the privatisations of the 1980s - efficiency, productivity, and the needs of the 'service user'. The plans also allow considerable room for private sector involvement - either in managing the co-operatives or as partners in a 'joint venture'.
Warnings that we should be careful to 'count the spoons' are, therefore, entirely justified. Although these plans have been sold - and so far bought - as 'progressive', they are far from unambiguous. Co-operatives may mean more independence for our public servants - or they may represent a form of back-door privatisation. Are these just warm words from a Cameron still trying to appeal beyond his party's natural constituency? Time will tell.
Matthew Francis, PhD student in the School of Politics and International Relations