I joined Ed Miliband and a group of Labour council leaders in Rochdale today to launch the Cooperative Councils Network. This new grouping of leading Labour councils will work together to set a new agenda for Labour local government based on handing more power to local communities.
The cooperative tradition is very strong in the north of England, and traces its history back to the Rochdale Pioneers who set up Britain’s first cooperatives over 150 years ago. We paid tribute to that proud history by launching our own pioneering network in Rochdale’s magnificent Victorian town hall.
The idea for cooperative councils was developed in Lambeth, but it is an initiative with a history that goes way beyond our borough. Labour has always had a cooperative tradition running through it, based on values of fairness, accountability and responsibility. But other impulses have sometimes led Labour governments to take a big-state approach that delivered real benefits but also created a dependency culture that is unhealthy for people and communities. Our job now is to take the power and resources of the state and put them at the disposal of local communities. Not rolling back the state, but changing the role of the state so it’s firmly under the control of local people.
Each cooperative council is trying out different ways to run services, and we will learn from each other what works best. Rochdale plan to convert their housing service into a cooperative giving all their residents a real stake in the place where they live and the way their homes and estates are managed. Stevenage are turning their adult care services into a social enterprise – setting frontline staff free from layers of management and giving older and disabled people a bigger say in the care and support they receive. Salford in Greater Manchester are setting up community trust schools answerable to local parents and the wider community. And in Lambeth we plan to hand control over youth services to local communities so that each neighbourhood can choose the balance of services that will most help their own young people. We are all finding new ways to hand ‘power to the people’.
I’m often asked if this is the same as the Tories’ Big Society. The answer is no, it isn’t. Lambeth announced our cooperative council plans months before David Cameron ever mentioned the Big Society. And the Big Society has a hidden agenda revealed in the longer name it once had – ‘Big Society, Small Government”. For the Tories, the Big Society is about using the language of cooperation to mask an agenda based on cuts, privatisation, and replacing skilled professionals with volunteers. By contrast, our cooperative councils are about strengthening public services by giving the people who use them more control over how they work.
Labour’s cooperative councils are shaping a new agenda for public services that will end the top-down, get-what-you’re-given approach of the past. And in doing that, we will strengthen the bond of trust and confidence with the public. I believe that will guarantee the survival of stronger, more responsive public services into the future.