Handshake

The Social Enterprise revolution shaking up Westminster

By: Peter Holbrook, Social Economy Alliance
Published: Friday, September 26, 2014 - 08:31 GMT Jump to Comments

Margaret Thatcher and Che Guevara would have made an unlikely alliance. But that’s what happened earlier this month in the heart of Westminster.

Famous faces from the left and the right of politics – Che and Maggie; Boris and Marx; Chuka and Hague - were combined in an advertising campaign in Westminster Underground. The political face swaps aimed to confound politicians and challenge traditional concepts of left-right politics. It points to what can be achieved if the best of both worlds are brought together.

The campaign is the work of the Social Economy Alliance: 450 organisations from the business and charity sectors united under one banner. It is calling time on outdated political debates that pit business and society against one another.

The UK’s economic challenges cannot be fixed by the market or private sector alone, and social challenges cannot be solved exclusively by the state or volunteerism. But too frequently the ‘left vs. right’ or ‘big business vs. big state’ debate ignores this important point. It’s damaging communities across the UK.

Employment figures may be rising, but wages remain stagnant. The benefits of economic growth are not yet being felt by everyone. The wealth being created is stored up in small pockets of the country, a catalyst to the 2009 financial crisis that brought the economy to its knees.

As it stands, GDP per person in the richest area is nearly ten times that of the poorest area – the biggest gap between richest and poorest in the G7. Many people are struggling to keep up with the increasing cost of living. In recent weeks, rising inequality and a disconnect between Westminster and communities was one of the central arguments that threatened to split the nation in two.

The Social Economy Alliance is part of a growing and formidable movement taking a different approach. Social enterprises, cooperatives, charities, entrepreneurs, housing associations, universities, foundations and many more are bringing together business and social policy. We are using enterprise to create economic growth and tackle social problems.

Across the UK, more people than ever before are starting up social enterprises and buying from co-operatives. Social enterprises now have three times the start-up rate of traditional businesses, and account for 15% of all SMEs. The number of co-operatives has increased by more than a quarter since 2009 with a combined turnover of £37 billion last year.

Some of the most important social and economic advances to happen in the 21st century are emerging from this movement. On the ground, the social economy takes many forms. Community energy projects - which enable people and communities to buy, save, create and sell energy - are on the rise, helping achieve fairer energy prices for consumers. In housing, co-operative home-share schemes and social enterprise property guardians like Dot Dot Dot are utilising empty buildings and bringing down costs for renters and buyers.

Eight months ahead of the General Election, there has never been a more important time to bring our political debate in line with the social and economic progress that is happening in communities across the country.

Behind the Westminster ad campaign is the Alliance’s 2015 election manifesto, including 25 recommendations that, with the support of politicians, will help build a more social economy in the UK. It outlines solutions to tough social problems like youth unemployment and the housing crisis. It’s the result of more than a year’s hard policy grind, including many months of consultation with members of the public.

Most importantly, it’s based on decades of experience that our sector has of using business to create social change. Most of the content is crowdsourced – it is a manifesto shaped by the people, for the people.

The policies it outlines are far reaching. They aim to permeate British infrastructure, public services, private business and national institutions, to make them more socially-productive and more beneficial for every citizen.

Firstly, the UK economy must become more pro-social by design, starting with our financial systems. Research shows an increasing number of citizens want to spend and invest their money with socially responsible businesses. The government should incentivise this type of pro-social spending and investment. Introducing a French-style pension fund would allow savers to choose a social investment fund, which directs their money towards social enterprises, cooperatives and other socially responsible companies.

In public service markets, taxpayers’ money must not be used to fund oligopolies of irresponsible firms, particularly when they are delivering failed services. Government can strengthen existing social value laws to ensure public money is spent with companies that provide the greatest social and environmental value, pay a living wage and are open about their tax arrangements.

The Social Value Act, implemented less than two years ago, is already changing the public service landscape for the benefit of communities. It requires public bodies to consider the social and environmental value created by providers. According to our research, more than two-thirds of local authorities and housing associations say delivering social value has led to better service delivery and community relations.

Pro-social ownership of local infrastructure and utilities is another recommendation. The manifesto calls for ‘Right-to-Buy’ options for communities, so that local people can benefit from new energy, water, road, rail and other developments in their area. Also proposed are incentives for landlords to turn empty buildings and unused land into economically and socially productive spaces. This is critically important when the country faces a housing crisis.

The Social Economy Alliance’s goals are certainly ambitious. The recommendations outlined in this article are just a glimpse of how we aim to achieve a more social economy in Britain. Fortunately for our politicians much of the work is already being done. A revolution is happening across the UK. People and communities are arming themselves with some radical tools to build a stronger, more equal and prosperous society. The best and brightest in politics have already pledged their support. Now it’s up to the rest to ditch the old thinking and embrace Britain’s rising social economy.

The Social Economy Alliance is present at all party conferences. Download the Social Economy Alliance 2015 Manifesto here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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