Theresa May's mutual manifesto?

06/10/2016 12:43
Damir Sagolj / Reuters


The Prime Minister's speech yesterday struck many observers as an attempt to take the middle ground in British politics vacated by Labour.

Appealing to the millions of people who feel left behind in modern Britain she called for a change, for a new kind of Britain that works for all, not just a privileged few.

Beyond a canny political strategy what we saw was May taking an approach that has been used by successive politicians - Tony Blair and David Cameron most obviously - of borrowing the language and aspirations of the mutual sector to chart a middle ground between capitalism and social democracy, between the market and the state.

The mutual sector - which includes employee owned businesses, building societies and co-ops, among others - is not political per se, but it has aspirations to build a better world by giving more people a say in the economy and a share in its benefits.

At its most direct, May's reiteration of her aim to put workers and consumers on corporate boards draws straight from the mutual model in which the members - whether customers, workers or others - are elected to the board. It is an approach that has worked successfully for tens of thousands of businesses across the world for over a century.

In her calls for business to act as a force for good by paying their fair share of taxes and contributing to their community, May is looking to responsible mission-led businesses like the Co-op, Nationwide or John Lewis, which align the interests of staff and communities with making a profit.

By citing Alistair Brownlee's sacrifice in the Mexican triathlon, in which he stopped in order to help his brother over the line, May appealed to the idea that as a society we should succeed and fail together rather than be driven solely by individualism and self-interest. Success and solidarity not incompatible she said.

And, indeed, May's big vision - of a country that gives people control over things that matter to them - is deeply mutualist in its thinking. In a mutual people create and control the means to meet their own needs and aspirations - from local care services or village shops right through to the places we work and the businesses we use. Unlike the mistrust many people feel for their mobile provider or bank, in a co-op those people own and control it together, meaning they are responsible for it and have a say in what it does.

There are of course different ways to give people control and build an economy that works for everyone and mutuals are just one route, albeit a tried, tested and simple one that works with the grain of markets and communities.

We have heard this before from politicians of all stripes of course. The question is now whether Theresa May's government will take this historic opportunity to harness the benefits of mutuality to create a more inclusive Britain.