James Butler, our Public Affairs Manager, looks at politics in 2016 and wants to know what you think Ministers’ New Year Resolutions should be…

Oh, and get a cuppa, it’s a long read!

(Originally posted December 2016)

Brexit, Trump, Pokeman Go, the refugee crisis, Syria, RIP David Bowie and Muhammad Ali.  The events of 2016 shook politics and society like never before. Looking back, it’s always tempting to see things in a flattering light through rose tinted spectacles. This year seems so raw and diffuse that perhaps it’s better to use a kaleidoscope; 2016 is different every time and from every angle you look at it.

But to social enterprise. You know what? The movement has done well in very testing times, continuing to demonstrate its relevance and importance.

Lost in the post?

This time last year, it wasn’t particularly clear how successful the Social Economy Alliance – a group of likeminded organisations in the social sector, led by us, which came together to campaign for change – had been at influencing mainstream party manifestos and government policy. Looking back now, there is some welcome news. It’s a bit like receiving a Christmas card that got lost in the post a year late; it’s nice to have, but it would have been better had it come a bit earlier.

Welcome, but not actually in the SEA manifesto is the Government’s renewed commitment to looking at support for mutuals, the government’s consultation on company reporting and board representation, and the change in name of the social investment team to the inclusive economy unit could be the beginning of good things to come.

The nutcracker

Progress, like the year’s review, can be seen from different angles. Sometimes progress can be judged by what the Government didn’t do. There are three stand out moments.

The Government has effectively U-turned on the anti-advocacy (“gagging”) clause. It was always a hammer to crack a nut: ill-thought out and supported by a pretty flimsy evidence base. After some serious conversations from SEUK and others, the Government has wrapped up the clause in guidance which taken as a whole seem to be a perfectly acceptable response to the Kids Company revelations.

Government seems to have, for now, resisted an urge to reinvent the wheel in terms of the social economy. We should reflect on the origins of the Mission-led business review, which came about from the Social Investment Strategy to “have a better understanding of the full range of organisations that make up the social economy” and consider the “tools that industry and government could use to better identify, support and promote mission-led businesses”. Ourselves, and others, have considerable experience of what is needed to grow the sector – what we didn’t need was a group without much experience of the sector telling the government what we need. The Mission-led business recommendations were considerably more reasonable and pragmatic than feared.

Technically not the Government, but very much prompted by the Cabinet Office, the Financial Conduct Authority consulted on ‘Regulatory Barriers to Social Investments’ in the first part of the year. We work in a gloriously messy, evolving sector of the economy, governed by a mish-mash of regulators. There are issues around unequal rules around small investments, but the FCA were right to conclude that “we do not believe regulation is preventing the social investment market from developing”. What’s needed is that social sector regulation in its widest sense needs to be examined as a whole rather than piecemeal.

Brexit: it’s all about De ‘Keyser so say’ lawyers

The Supreme Court case, technically R (on the application of Miller and Dos Santos) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and associated references, will make for compulsory reading for constitutional lawyers for years to come, focusing on it the extent and/or limitations of the royal prerogative. The Government’s primary argument rested on Attorney-General v De Keyser's Royal Hotel Limited from the 1920s – it made for a very different line up from the (ahem) usual suspects we tend to see brought up.

We’ll have to wait a bit to see whether the Government will be obliged to bring an exiting the EU Bill to the Commons, or whether the PM has the power to do it without reference to Parliament. The point is that if the Government does bring a Bill, it’s not entirely impossible that some will seek to amend it to limit the Government’s negotiating hand in respect of single market access and guaranteeing non-UK EU citizens already working here the right to stay.  I can’t be only one to be slightly frightened to hear Lords recommend that EU citizens start getting a file together to prove they really do live here. How on earth did it come to this?

SEUK is looking at the challenges and opportunities of Brexit for affect social enterprises. Frankly, it’s complicated. We see surprising issues crop up all the time. In the meantime, we’re active in the Small Business Taskforce which is pushing for guarantees over EU worker’s rights – given that a substantial number of our members, including ourselves, employ staff from the EU – and also asking for Export Vouchers to help the movement grow its exports.

More broadly, Brexit and Trump both seem to be result of the wider influences in society and politics. It may not be the death for globalisation, as some on the more extreme left and right think and desire, but it feels like beginning of the death of the particular form of neoliberal globalisation that we’ve been handed. What’s interesting is that politicians are beginning to articulate their response to the public mood. Not all of this is necessarily positive, but both the Conservatives and Labour in their different ways seem to feel the need to address elements of the system that don’t appear to be working. On the right, we have Theresa May’s passion for grammar schools, desire for greater worker representation on Boards, and an Industrial Strategy. On the left we have Jeremy Corbyn talking about platform cooperatives, tenants’ rights, and community owned renewables. The penny is beginning to drop for politicians from across the political divide. Capitalism, as we know it, isn’t working.

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

There’s a rhythm to Government. A Prime Minister comes in, new ministerial appointments are made, doors are opened, and then policy implementation kicks in. Gradually, imperceptibly, the doors begin to close again and ministers begin to run out of things from the manifesto to implement, and start to draw upon policies found at the bottom of think tank filing cabinets. We saw it with Cameron: a positive start with the Big Society, everything looked like it was about the Third Sector, and towards the end ministers were trying to prevent the sector from speaking out.

We currently appear to be in the early phase. It’s a welcome and refreshing change. Chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board (a sort of policy equivalent to the 1922 Committee, linking the PM to backbenchers) wants to see mutual train companies; International Development Secretary wants to see more great companies like Divine and CaféDirect; the BEIS team, perhaps for the first time in a decade, get that social enterprises are businesses; the Prime Minister wants to see more inclusive business. There’s new openness and Government has a choice: the relationship between the Government and the social enterprise movement doesn’t have to follow the pattern of previous administrations.

Festive Cheer?

We can anticipate a slightly merry Christmas in the Farron (Leader of the LibDems) household, following the Richmond Park and Sleaford and Hykeham by-elections, whether they came first and third respectively. In winning Richmond Park they not only increased the number of MPs by 12% they also now have a female MP. It was always going to be a hard slog back to political relevance for them, but they can now say with some justification that they are heading in the right direction. Farron needs to be given credit for laying out a clear election strategy: his party will seek to give a voice to the 48% who voted against Brexit. Pundits, probably correctly, attribute the two swings to the LibDems as a consequence of former Labour and a few Conservative remainers responding to their unambivalent pro-EU stance.

Labour has fewer reasons to be cheerful, but at least they’re not tearing each other apart quite so publicly. Nevertheless, it’s not looking good for them. Recent polls give the Conservatives a 14% lead over Labour. They face losing pro-EU voters to the LibDems in the south, and Brexit voters in the north to UKIP. And yet the last leadership election seems to have settled the internal arguments – for now. There is significantly less sniping from Labour MPs. Despite a desperately slow start, senior frontbenchers are now beginning to attract good teams around them. The Party is the largest left wing political party in Europe. The possibility of a General Election in May 2017 has focused minds somewhat, and brought what might be described as an element of functional unity. Basically, it’s like the large family Christmas get together where everybody puts aside bitter grievances for the sake of granny and the kids.

In Parliament they’ve suffered a few knocks but north of the border, the SNP continue to govern with very little attention and scrutiny from the (London-based) media. The Scottish Government (SG) has just published a social enterprise strategy. The UK Government could learn a thing or two from the SG.

Meanwhile, similarly under the radar of the London-based media, Wales seems to continue to develop its own distinctive cooperative agenda. And there is an awful lot of talk in the Northern Ireland Assembly about “social investment” – though it appears be different from its cousin in England.

If there is one thing to be said for devolution, it’s that it appears to be nurturing talent: there seems to be no shortage of impressive politicians in the devolved Parliaments.

The social enterprise Almanac 2017

Not everyone in the office agrees – frankly not even everyone in the Butler household does so – but my assumption is that we’ll see a General Election in May. It works like this. The Government unveils the Industrial Strategy in spring, alongside the principles by which the UK will hold its Brexit negotiations, triggers article 50, and holds a Budget. Taken together it feels like a new start. The PM then challenges the opposition parties to agree to revoke the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and calls an election for the first Thursday in May.

Labour, despite its functional unity, has difficulty articulating a coherent narrative which cuts through the noise of Brexit, and has only marginal gains in Scotland. The LibDems win in a few urban pro-Remain areas, UKIP damages Labour more than it hurts the Conservatives, and the Tories win with a majority of a 100, securing a large personal mandate for the PM. Calling an election is a risk for the apparently cautious Theresa May -but so is governing with a small majority. She’ll go to the country in 2017, I’m convinced of it.

New Year’s resolutions

Of course, Nostradamus never got pulled up for being wrong, so this may not pan out – and it doesn’t radically alter what we campaign for (although an election would influence the mechanisms we choose). Broadly, we will still seek to progress our established aims: the broad aims in the Social Economy Alliance’s manifesto and more on social value, Social Enterprise Places and Buy Social with members being at the heart of what we do.

But the New Year does offer an opportunity to look at things afresh and let you, our members, tell us what you would like to see Ministers’ New Year Resolutions be. Drop me a line and let me know: James.Butler@socialenterprise.org.uk

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