Social Enterprise UK has been going to party conferences for years, but I can confidently say that there has never been such an unusual party conference season. This isn’t just because it was virtual. COVID-19 has upended all the political and policy calculations of all the major political parties in the UK.

The main take away for social enterprises is a message of hope. The challenges the country faces in the wake of COVID are ones that we are well placed to fix. To be even bolder, there is no possibility to “build back better” without a massive expansion in the role of social enterprise in our economy. Social enterprise has never been more relevant.

Labour – cautious competence

We had a number of meetings at the virtual Labour Party Conference from talking about the future of business to getting more social enterprises involved in our health and social care system. Our Chief Executive, Peter Holbrook, was also on a panel with the Shadow Chancellor and Shadow Business Secretary hosted by Labour Business (which you can still watch online). The Shadow Chancellor even took a visit to  Change Please after her speech, which was a big endorsement of social enterprise.

As you would expect from an opposition party there was a lot of eagerness to engage and listen to social enterprise sector. However, there is an overwhelming sense of caution. Unsurprisingly after losing its fourth election in a row there is a lot of head scratching. One concern is that Labour has been consistently behind the Conservatives in polling on who you would trust to manage the economy (41% to 21% according to YouGov in June 2020, for example). Many in the party have inferred from the Corbyn years that a big problem was the leadership been seen to be “too radical” on the economy. Too much talk about public ownership. Not vocal enough in its support of business. This time Labour wants to be cautious and not seen to be too “out there” on the economy.

This presents our sector with opportunities and risks. The risk is that social enterprises are cast as “too radical” and Labour falls back on tweaking the status quo. The opportunity is for social enterprise to be seen as a credible, pragmatic response to inequality and the climate emergency.

There over a hundred thousand social enterprises on the ground delivering this work and it has demonstrated (to bring back an old classic) a “third way” between the state and profit-orientated private sector. We need to reassure the Labour Party that social enterprise has the transformational potential to change the economy, but isn’t scary.   

My advice to social enterprises would be to reach out now to your local Labour Councillors, MPs and relevant Shadow Ministers and help them to see that social enterprise can be a credible alternative to the status quo. We are happy to support you in making those contacts. There is a chance while the party is in “listening mode” to influence its future agenda.  

Conservatives – build back better

Conservative Party Conference was themed around “build back better”. There was not as much policy substance as you’d expect from a party of government’s conference, but there was a notable effort to flesh out in more detail Johnson’s vision for “levelling up”.

As with Labour Conference, we participated in a number of meetings with Ministers from discussing tax reform to support the sector and how social enterprises can boost local growth, making sure that our sector was visible and on the agenda.

Infrastructure investment took the fore, as has been the case through the Johnson Ministry, but there was greater focus on improving public services as a way of driving growth than before. Social enterprises will be familiar with concepts such as the “foundational economy” and “social infrastructure”. This new rhetoric from the Prime Minister about the importance of public services to economic performance is a big opportunity for social enterprises. We must make the case for how different methods of delivering local services can have a positive impact on people’s lives.

There was also a strong focus on the green economy. It is very unusual to have a Prime Minister make wind farms the centre-piece of their conference speech, but it is good to see that the political class has started to take the climate emergency seriously. A lot of the focus on the green economy is focused on finance but the real question is whether businesses will actually take the risk to invest and use that capital wisely? The data is not positive on this, as I have highlighted before, but social enterprises have a chance to show leadership in achieving NetZero.

Critics of the government have consistently highlighted a lack of policy detail on delivering “levelling up”. This conference is unlikely to silence those critics. But for social enterprises, there is a chance for us to put some flesh onto the bones of levelling up and give the government a practical way of delivering this agenda. Although we are coming up to one year into the Johnson Ministry, there is still a chance to shape its future direction.

Get involved

If your social enterprise is engaged in policy work or campaigning on particular issues, do please get involved. We are always keen to support members and social enterprises where they are making the case for a better economy and society.

SEUK is going to keep making the case for social enterprise to all political parties. There will be further meetings of our All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Enterprise on some of the issues that have been discussed in this article.

If you would like to support SEUK’s policy and campaigns, or would like to discuss this in more detail, do email me: andrew.obrien@socialenterprise.org.uk