David Cameron was doing his best yesterday to have us believe that Conservative co-operatives are not a contradiction in terms. Taking up an idea he first floated in 2007, the Conservative leader delivered a speech in which he laid out his hope to allow teachers, nurses, social workers and other public sector workers to combine and run their own not-for-profit organisations. Standards of service will be laid down by the government. And the funding will come from taxpayers. But it will be left up to co-operatives themselves to decide how they organise themselves and deliver.
It is a bold idea. And new ideas on improving productivity in the public services are always welcome. As for the grumbling of the unions, that is probably a good sign. But the question is whether this is a serious proposal from the Tories or merely some superficial political cross-dressing?
The proposals seem rather light on detail and in some senses politically naïve. Mr Cameron claims that co-operatives embody "conservative values". But the political orientation of co-operatives will surely depend on their membership. Freedom is an unpredictable thing. And so is giving away power.
Yet any government that wants to preside over an expansion of public sector co-operatives will need some degree of foresight. What is the contingency plan for circumstances in which a co-operative fails to deliver? Any major disruption felt by the users of the service – whether children or patients – would be politically unacceptable. Would Whitehall take control under such circumstances? And, if so, at what stage? Does it wait for collapse, or move in at the first signs of failure?
The Conservatives have compared the plan to the right-to-buy scheme for council tenants in the 1980s, in that its intended effect is to shift power into the hands of working people. Yet that is not necessarily such a happy precedent. Right-to-buy was taken up by many tenants. But councils were barred from investing the proceeds in building new social housing. This has created problems of supply for such housing that we are still living with today. It was a policy whose social consequences were not fully thought through.
There are signs that the Tories are not thinking things through on social policy once again. They made an embarrassing mistake in a dossier released at the weekend outlining Labour's failures which stated that teenage pregnancy rates in deprived areas are 10 times greater than the true figure. Labour leapt upon this error. And the gaffe has been somewhat overblown. But it was sloppy nonetheless. And it was damaging because of a political context in which the Conservatives are projecting themselves as a party whose priority is to tackle poverty.
The Tories are daring to attack Labour for failing to meet its own traditional progressive ends. As a pitch for the political centre ground it makes a lot of sense. But it is also risky because of the Conservatives' own history. If the Tories are going to succeed in convincing the British public that they are serious about inequality and the public services, they need to be sure that their policies, arguments and use of statistics are watertight. If that means focusing on fewer policies, so be it.
The electorate is not as obsessed with novelty as politicians often think. But they do care about competence. Any more sloppiness in planning or presentation and Mr Cameron and his party run the risk of a serious credibility crisis.