The popular women’s magazine, Cosmopolitan, has a section called ‘Inside His Mind‘, which gives readers the chance to find out what real men really think while exploring key issues such as ‘How to go from seeing a guy to dating him’ and ‘What he says vs what he means’. The Guardian‘s Social Enterprise Network moves into similar territory next week with an online discussion entitled ‘Do politicians really ‘get’ social enterprise?’
The on-off romance between social enterprise and the UK politicians has been going on for a while. It began around the year 2000 when New Labour and the then embryonic social enterprise lobby first began to flirt – their eyes meeting across an empty room that, until 1994, had contained the Labour Party’s ideological principles. In those days, social enterprise wasn’t much of a catch, some junior ministers thought it looked good but most people had never heard of it and it didn’t have much money…
Fast forward to 2011 and politicians on all sides are now completely smitten. David Cameron believes: “Social enterprise is the great institutional innovation of our times”, Nick Clegg says: “Social enterprise is a shining example that good business sense and social responsibility can go hand in hand” and this year’s election campaign in Scotland saw Alex Salmond proclaim that “Scotland’s Social Enterprises Will Be Key Partners for an SNP Government”. Labour are also still keen.
The problem with the question of whether politicians ‘get’ social enterprise is that it presupposes that, if they did, it would be a good thing. I imagine that the average comfortably-off teenager is, at best, ambivalent about whether their parents ‘get’ their fashion choices as long as – in between exclamations of weary incomprehension – they agree to hand over their credit card. And maybe I’m wrong but I’d be very surprised if there are many social entrepreneurs who would really prefer a long period in which politicians really felt what we do at the core of their being if that coincides with a situation where they give us no money whatsoever.
Of course, money vs. understanding is another false dichotomy. Most leading politicians in the UK (or their advisers) now have an understanding of social enterprise and some will spend some money on supporting social enterprises, while others will attempt to improve conditions for social enterprises to business.
I’ve recently been elected to the Council of Social Enterprise UK* and I’m supportive of their work but, in the new Labour era, I felt that parts of the social enterprise lobby were – clearly with honorable intentions – providing the then Office of the Third Sector with deferential support almost worthy of a civil service pension. It’s clearly right for both individual social enterprises and social enterprise leaders to have a constructive relationship with government, it’s not right (at least in my view) for the social enterprise movement to function as a tool for politicians to drive through controversial policy agendas.
I’m not suggesting that this was something that social enterprise leaders actively sought but it was definitely something that they failed to adequately guard against. The problem is not that politicians are evil. Contrary to what much of the media (and, I suppose, many people) – think, in my experience most people in UK politics went into that world with good intentions and make a genuine effort to put those good intentions into practice after they’ve been elected.
But the job of politicians is to advance their political agenda while remaining in power. Doing their job properly means incorporating social enterprise into their agenda not changing their agenda to suit the needs and interests of the social enterprise movement. That’s not a problem for the social enterprise movement as long as we maintain a position of constructive independence. It is important that politicians are aware of and interested in social enterprise but, ultimately it doesn’t matter whether politicians ‘get’ social enterprise, it matters whether social enterprises can deliver more (or less) for people as a result of what politicians do.
*The views represented here are my own personal views and not those of Social Enterprise UK, its members, staff, board members or council members.