Where’d everybody go? Social Enterprise and the General Election 2015

By Dr Simon Adderley
Post Doctoral Research Fellow
Birmingham Business School

Social Enterprise is the next big thing. It’s been lauded as such by politicians across all parties for a decade now at least. First it was an emergence of a ‘third way’ of doing business, a mixture of social and economic aims which together would herald a new type of active citizenship. Recently the coalition government (mostly pushed by the Conservative party) has done much to promote social investment through the establishment of Big Society Capital, the Social Value Act, the Investment and Contract Readiness Fund and the Mutuals Support Programme.

So where is it in the General Election discourse? In the Labour party manifesto it gets one mention and, while a recent policy announcement has supported the creation of a “British Investment Bank”, to support social enterprise there’s no direct funding identified, nor a sense of exactly what it would do. In the Conservative manifesto it is mentioned two times and I can do little better than quote Cliff Prior, a spokesperson for the Social Economy Alliance and Chief Executive of UnLtd, the Foundation for Social Entrepreneurs, who said:

Given that David Cameron recently described the social economy as a UK success story, and this government has put a lot of work into supporting social enterprises to grow and scale, it is a little disappointing that the Conservatives aren’t proposing more radical, ambitious ideas. On a more social economy, the manifesto is strong on the past, but less so on the future.

But at least they are better than the Liberal Democrats who haven’t mentioned social enterprise in any policy documents for a number of years now and seem unlikely to in the future. Of the other parties UKIP seem completely oblivious to the concept (although to be fair their manifesto is only 8 pages long including the front cover and a poster so there’s only space to fit the word social in once – social housing to be prioritised for local people in case you were wondering) while the SNP and Plaid Cymru, seem to think it is something to do with charity. Only the Greens do mention it a lot in policy documents and their manifesto promises a co-operative development fund and a £2bn investment in community banks to support social enterprises and co-operatives.

So, apart from the Green’s, has it been forgotten – lost in a traditional argument about tax and spend policies focussing on whose going to fund what and where they are getting the money from?

Well certainly that discourse has dominated the campaign so far. All seven parties represented in the initial Leaders Debate seem to be focussed almost exclusively on an argument about what exactly the state will fund and how it will generate the money to do it. That paradigm, easy to understand as it is, is not really very much more developed than that entered into by Gladstone and Disraeli at the end of the nineteenth century. It still sees the state as the mechanism which firstly decides socio-economic policies, then generates the money to pay for them through taxation and borrowing and then implements its policies. In fact if we are honest, it isn’t that different from the paradigm which has existed since the early modern period.

But the problems we face now are different than those faced by Victorian Prime Ministers and certainly different from those faced by Tudor monarchs. We no longer live in a world too large for us to understand. We live in a smaller world, smaller in terms of our ability to communicate, smaller in terms of our ability to transport people and goods and more importantly, smaller in terms of the levels of population growth we are witnessing and the subsequent increased use of global resources. Regardless of the economic crash at the beginning of this decade the UK economy, indeed the western economy, was always going to be dominated by an ageing population requiring additional resources as they age, a shrinking working population, increased economic competition from new international competitors and from a commitment to welfare systems which are no longer fit for purpose. 

In Britain for example we are, for all its many changes, still, more or less, committed to a Beveridgean welfare state, or at least politicians across all parties say they are. But Beveridge wrote his Social Insurance and Allied Services Report in 1942, when the aim wasn’t to improve quality of life but to improve economic productivity through a healthier population of working men. It didn’t envisage people living as long as they do now (I for example have parents and grandparents who have both retired and yet are still alive – something unimaginable for someone from Stoke in 1942) and it didn’t envisage that the costs for care would rise as much as they have done.

So if we can’t afford to maintain a high spending welfare state then how should we respond?  The neo-liberal response is of course to simply spend less.  Some want to spend a bit less, some want to spend nothing at all.  I won’t discuss that view here – if you think that social-economies are best served by a retraction of the state and that individuals should be left to sink or swim by their own devices then nothing I write here will change your mind and we are probably better off agreeing to disagree.

However for many there is another option – a third way, if you will, based on a ‘big society’. It’s about finding ways to change the paradigm of tax and spend. Finding ways in which ordinary citizens can be part of creating their own services and can even live lives which mean they utilise less services.  It’s not impossible and it’s not a pipe dream. Twenty years ago no-one recycled, now they complain if their ability to recycle is taken away. In twenty years time can we get more people to eat healthily, to exercise more and therefore to reduce their need for health care later in life? Can we get them to do it jointly, to form groups of old and young which benefits the mental health of both and reduces the demand on the state? Can we get them to use tech smarter to make more socially responsible choices in their consumption? To use public transport more? Or shared transport? All of these things are possible – indeed all of these things are necessary – and often they are exactly the sort of products being promoted by social enterprises. Businesses are operating unashamedly for profit, but generating that profit by delivering socially responsible products and utilising it to support a social good.

This is not a fad, nor is it a flash in the pan. It is more important than who spends £8million or £80million or £800million on the NHS. That debate is meaningless. It’s not a real figure, it will get eaten up by the Treasury before it gets spent, money “saved” will count towards money “invested” and even if it is all delivered by front line services It will only go to mitigate extreme circumstances for those using services when they access them. It will not address the systemic issues which are inherent in our economy and which caused them to need help in the first place. Those issues cannot be solved simply by directed state spending. They must be solved by communities of citizens acting jointly to redesign the paradigm by which we live. A new social economy is not just possible it is vital – and unless our politicians, our media and ourselves start to debate these issues we will have missed an opportunity for another 5 years.