Do social entrepreneurs really ‘get’ politicians?

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.


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5 responses to “Do social entrepreneurs really ‘get’ politicians?

  1. David, one of the things I’ve kept track of over the years, are the interactions we’ve had with politicians. Here for example, with something which can now be revealed, focussing mainly on the US Senate Commission on Foreign Relations which controls funding of USAID.

    In my comment, you’ll find an appeal to David Cameron, where I’m pointing out to him that his ideals of a compassionate form of capitalism are already a work in progress.

    Going back to 2004, there was a presidential candidate called John Edwards and this was the fax he received to suggest that he adopts a social enterprise policy, deal with the issue of taxation and an “egregious, ill-begotten war in Iraq”

    It’s a theme that will recur later and find a champion in another presidential candidate, a former member of that Foreign Relations Committee.

    “My grandfather once advised me that there are two kinds of people in the world – those that do the work and those that take the credit. He advised me to stick with the first group where there’s less competition” – Indira Gandhi


  2. I was reminded today, reading the line up for each of the party conferences. For the Lib Dems one of these was Ed Davey who I’d attempted to contact 3 years ago on the subject of social enterprise.

    Sent: 19 December 2008 21:15
    To: Sarah Ludford MEP (Lon)
    Subject: Edward Devey and Ukraine

    Dear Ms Ludford,

    I’m contacting you on a matter that may interest both you and Mr Davey. His website does not process emails, there is a technical fault. Perhaps you would be able to forward it to him?

    In a Westminster Hall debate this week Mt Davey raised concerns over the economic and social meltdown in Ukraine. It’s a situation of which I am well aware, from the perspective of an organisation with a social mission in Ukraine.

    I’d like to draw your attention to a paper produced by us two years ago which I recent submitted as a proposition for the European Citizens Consultation.

    Kind regards,

    Jeff Mowatt

    People-Centered Economic Development UK Ltd


  3. Good post, David, and congratulations on joining the Council of Social Enterprise UK; they need critical friends like you on board :0)

    I always think of it in terms of markets. The public sector is a big (and relevant) market for social enterprise….and engaging with government at all levels is part of (and a way of) accessing that market. And that should be the role of those advocating for social enterprise: unless it’s ultimately benefiting the members (or those they represent) by creating, opening or making markets for their work, then why do it. Some of that work can be long-term and strategic (landscape shaping etc) but if that rule is always in mind, it’s difficult to go too far wrong.

    But it is also only one market; can those representing help social enterprises get in supply chains of big companies, for example? Can they help them access international markets? Can they help them support + buy from each other? And so on…

    All the preparing the ground, market-making and opening up access in the world can’t make success happen, though. As you say, that’s down to the social enterprises delivering impact + quality.


  4. admin

    Thanks. I think you’re right about the need to be clear that the public sector, though potentially an important market for social enterprise, is only one market.

    There does seem to have been a shift within the social enterprise lobby over the last year or so towards talking about how social enterprise can make more impact on the wider economy – mainly by being a bigger part of it. I think that’s a positive thing.


  5. In the context of international markets it’s interesting to look back only 5 years to when I joined the SEC and introduced our social purpose business approach and how we were deploying it internationally.

    They responded:

    “Thank you very much for your email which we have read with interest. At present, your area of work lies beyond the focus of our work, however, we know of some people who may be more aligned with what you are going. Please see details below:”
    (contact list removed)

    As I’ve since realised, albeit slowly, we were talking a rather different language from that which focussed almost exclusively on the public sector. We certainly had public sector customers in government and NHS Trusts, but were also operating in the corporate supply chain, for example to GE, Honeywell BASF and others.

    In early efforts, a business plan to fund our social re-investment approach to business, we’d said:

    “Traditional capitalism is an insufficient economic model allowing monetary outcomes as the bottom line with little regard to social needs. Bottom line must be taken one step further by at least some companies, past profit, to people. How profits are used is equally as important as creation of profits. Where profits can be brought to bear by willing individuals and companies to social benefit, so much the better. Moreover, this activity must be recognized and supported at government policy level as a badly needed, essential, and entirely legitimate enterprise activity.”

    As my first link above indicates, the author lived and died by these principles, going toe to toe with organised crime whilst government left him hanging out to dry. I can only hope that the social enterprise sector will be big enough to attribute him for his work.


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