Last week, Social Enterprise UK commissioned a van to drive around key sites across London with a big poster with a bold message: “Business as usual isn’t working”. Last night, we went around the City of London shining this message on the Bank of England, Guildhall and the offices of the Financial Times which are centres of financial decision making and opinion forming.
This isn’t usual behaviour for us.
Most of the time we will be championing social enterprises behind closed doors or through our research and publications. Our calendars are chocked full of meetings and roundtables with officials, politicians, businesses and journalists.
But it feels at the moment that many in the media and politics are living in a parallel world. This is a world where all you need to do is spend vast sums of money and all will be well. It is a world where you just need to “back business” and all will be well. You will see speeches and articles about tweaks to tax policy or investment in a new road, as if it is game changing. It isn’t.
It is like using a cup to bail out a sinking ship, when what we need to do is transfer to a new vessel.
We are facing many challenges as a society. Social Enterprise UK have described these as the “triple threat” facing our future: climate emergency, social division and economic stagnation.
These threats have emerged because of the current structure of our economy. They are not an accidental by-product of our system.
Focusing purely on profit and not properly considering social and environmental impact has created perverse incentives, delayed and deferred investment into decarbonisation and communities as well as seeing wealth unfairly concentrated.
Not only that, but the old methods of just allowing business as usual in return for decent economic growth and higher tax revenues to pay for public services has broken down. Economic growth is anaemic at best. Productivity is on the floor. Wages haven’t recovered since the financial crisis. And you don’t have to be a budget hawk to worry about the fact that a decade after the financial crisis, we still have a budget deficit and it is going to grow in the next few years. If we can’t run a balanced budget now, will we ever?
We need fundamental economic reform, and business should be at the centre of this debate. Why? Because it is the decisions that businesses make, or do not make, over the next decade that will define whether we meet the triple threat. Government has a critical role too, but we cannot ignore the 70% of our economy which is not run by the state.
We need businesses. Business is a way that people can come together to create solutions to the problems we face by providing goods and services that we need. We need more businesses, not fewer. We should not put a limit on the ambitions of people and communities.
But we don’t need business as usual. We need to align business with the needs of people and planet. This isn’t about eliminating competition or telling business what products to make or services to provide. It isn’t even specifying how they should do it.
What we need to do is reset the rules of the game so that everyone is competing on level terms. This means everyone running businesses with a focus on making society better and protecting the planet as the main goal. The real challenge is to make a profit whilst doing that. This is a game which is really worth playing. And it can be won. Just ask the tens of thousands of social enterprises that succeed every year, balancing profit and purpose.
What we cannot have is business “opting out” of the social and environmental crises that we face. Our current system lets business do that. This is why even the British Academy has said that we have an “extreme” form of capitalism.
This is what we mean by business as usual isn’t working. Politicians and media that do not recognise this, cannot be serious about changing the country.
During the remaining days of this election and when the new government comes into place, we need a big debate about building a New Economy. This is the issue of our time.
Social Enterprise UK will keep calling out the need for change over the election and beyond. If you want to help, please get in touch. Whatever happens in this election, we cannot let this issue die.