Where did everybody go? Social enterprise and the General Election

Social enterprise is the next big thing. It has 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 is no direct funding identified, nor a sense of exactly what it would do. In the Conservative manifesto it is mentioned just twice.

But at least that is 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, while the SNP and Plaid Cymru seem to think it is something to do with charity. Only the Greens mention it frequently 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 Greens, it has been forgotten – lost in a traditional argument about tax and spend policies focusing on who is going to fund what and where they are getting the money from. That paradigm, easy to understand as it is, is not much more developed than the debate entered into by Gladstone and Disraeli at the end of the 19th 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. In fact, it isn’t that different from the paradigm which has existed since the early modern period.

But the problems we face now are different from 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, as well as a shrinking working population and increased economic competition both from the new international competitors and from a commitment to welfare systems that are no longer fit for purpose. 

In Britain, for example, we are 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 was not 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, and it didn’t envisage that the costs for care would rise as much as they have.

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 simply to spend less. However, for many there is another option – a third way, if you will, based on a ‘big society’. It is 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 live lives that mean they utilise fewer services. It is not impossible, and it is not a pipe dream.

Twenty years ago, no-one recycled – now they complain if their ability to recycle is taken away. In 20 years’ time, can we get more people to eat healthily, exercise more and therefore reduce their need for health care later in life? Can we get them to do it jointly, to form groups of old and young to benefit the mental health of both and reduce the demand on the state? Can we get them to use technology 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 £8 million or £80 million or £800 million on the NHS. That debate is meaningless: it is 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 accessing services when they access them. It will not address the systemic issues inherent in our economy that 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 we ourselves start to debate these issues we will have missed an opportunity for another five years.

Dr Simon Adderley, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, Birmingham Business School