The UK political party conference season concluded this week, with the main three parties having outlined their key policy areas with only 20 months until the next general election. Despite no ostensible mention in the keynote speeches in the main conference halls, the spectre of the social economy loomed over all three conferences.
In no small part this was due to various fringe events at all three, looking at the role of mutuals, the role of business in the local community, and plenty of others where social enterprise was referenced as part of the solution to wider challenges, including on topics as varied as youth employment, education, and health among others.
A strong presence for social economy organisations was also ensured thanks to the Social Investment Forum, a network for providers of social investment and social finance, and the Social Economy Alliance, a consortium of 22 UK cooperatives and social enterprises, universities, think tanks, and charities.
The Liberal Democrats kicked things off in late September with their conference, which had the tag line “Fairer society, stronger economy”. The main thrust of their message was that neither of the other two main parties – Conservatives or Labour – could be trusted to deliver both, so the Liberal Democrats could be relied upon as a regulatory force.
But in spite of a tagline that seems a natural fit with the wider social economy movement, there were few policy announcements that could be considered social enterprise-friendly, and the Social Economy Alliance fringe event was poorly attended by party delegates. Much of the economy policy focus was on encouraging big business and banks to play more fairly, such as reducing the use of offshore tax havens for instance.
A week later the Labour Party resurrected the spirit of old, paraphrasing ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair by talking about “an economy and a society which is not only for the privileged few”. One of their key policy proposals was to introduce a 20-month freeze in energy prices if elected. This announcement prompted a four point gain for Labour in the opinion polls whilst simultaneously causing mild panic on the markets, with £2 billion being wiped off the value of some of the big energy companies. Labour leader Ed Miliband also announced that they would introduce a £800 million tax break for small businesses, which by default would include many social enterprises.
The Social Economy Alliance responded to the energy announcement by emphasising the existing work of cooperatives and social enterprises in the energy sector. In an open letter the Alliance asked for a “21st century debate”, arguing it “must not be about big state versus big business. But about big problems versus big opportunities”.
The response in the mainstream media to the Labour conference focused on the return of socialism, providing a benchmark against which the Conservatives would further define and distinguish themselves. A principal message of the Conservative Party conference concerned how they were “pro-business” and Labour were “anti-business”. While the conference was light on policy announcements which could impact on the social economy, Prime Minister David Cameron emphasised the party’s pro-business stance, exclaiming “profits, tax cuts and enterprise… are not dirty, elitist words”.
The fringe event at the conference brought home the scale of the challenge still facing the social economy. At the event Minister for Civil Society Nick Hurd said, ”You would think in a government obsessed with growth, someone would notice that one part of the economy was growing faster than the rest”, referring to the low profile social economy organisations still have with many government departments. While largely advocating the role social economy organisations could play in the future, he challenged social enterprises in particular to reach the scale required in order to make them attractive to government commissioners.
The conference concluded this Wednesday, with the Social Economy Alliance responding to David Cameron’s keynote speech by urging all political parties, not just the Conservatives, to better explain what sort of businesses they want to see thrive in the UK.
“Business is key to solving our economic and social problems. Society and the economy cannot exist without one another and the Prime Minister is right to promote the critical importance of genuine enterprise. What all parties must do now is explain the sort of businesses they want to see thrive in this country”.
Despite differences in their politics, what is clear is that politicians of all persuasions support the idea of social enterprise and entrepreneurship in principle, but do not yet see it as being a significant enough area to justify substantial policy interest. With just 20 months to go, it remains to be seen whether the sector as a whole is able to change that.
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