Party Conference season is now over and we have probably experienced one of the most significant conference seasons in our country’s recent history. For the first time that I can remember, both parties have started to think about the fundamental structure of the economy and whether it is delivering for the country.

Social enterprises can take a huge slice of credit for this. Our campaigning over the years has constantly begged the question of whether business is doing enough to create the fairer, greener society that we want to see. It’s a question that business leaders have tried to avoid, but after the instability of recent months and the pandemic, it is something that cannot be ducked much longer.

As a consequence, both Labour and the Conservatives are having to look towards alternatives. At both party conferences, both parties started to consider what those alternatives could be. At both party conferences, social enterprises have emerged once again as a credible policy solution. 

Labour and the purposeful economy

A recent buzzword in politics has been the need for more “purpose” within business. Effectively, this means putting profit on an equal footing with social and/or environmental mission. Social enterprises have been doing this for years, but some of the private sector are starting to catch up with our movement.

The benefits are clear from a more “purpose-driven” approach, whether this is better jobs, higher levels of innovation and reducing inequality. You’d think that Labour would have been banging on about this for some time, but internal politics, elections, Brexit and COVID have obscured this movement from the political leadership of the party.

In Brighton this year, however, we started to see the Labour Party slowly grasping the potential of this new model of business.

A theme throughout conference was the need for a “partnership” between business and a future Labour Government. For the most part, this partnership remains vague. But there were some glimpses of something more substantial under the surface.

At our fringe event with Ed Miliband (which you can watch online), our Chair, Lord Victor Adebowale, confronted Labour about its lack of engagement with the sector and why it was ignoring this rapidly growing part of the economy aligned with its values. To his credit, Miliband responded that Labour had to do more to not only support social enterprises but to spread the ethos of the sector throughout the whole economy. There was an acceptance from Miliband that social enterprise not only drives a better society but also a stronger economy.

Even more surprising, Keir Starmer mentioned company law reform in his speech calling for companies to be forced to act “in the long term interest” of the company. This does not go as far as we would like, but social enterprises and others have been pushing for changes to make all businesses more socially and environmentally responsible. To get a dry subject like company law reform into a speech means we must be doing something right.

The more that Labour talks about “high expectations” of business, a “partnership with business” and “purposeful business” the better for our sector. Our fundamentals are strong and there are few sectors that can match our scale and impact.

Conservatives trusting the people

Just after Labour’s gathering in Brighton, the scene moved to Manchester. The first big event of the conference was a talk by the new Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Michael Gove, at a panel with Conservative Home. He was launching a new pamphlet written by ten Conservative MPs called Trusting the People.

The pamphlet, Gove and MPs that spoke at the event (which you can watch online) spoke about the need to more to put power for public services into the hands of local people through social enterprises, mutuals and other means. There was a recognition that levelling up is not going to be achieved through just the state developing big central pots of money, but that new models were needed.

It also contained a serious interest in the need for economic reform, promoting more employee-owned businesses, more cooperatives, more social enterprises and reforming business so that they are encouraged to take social and environmental responsibility. We’ve not heard this from the party in over a decade.

This message, one of the first substantive discussions by the Conservative Party about how to level up the country, has been covered by The Sunday Telegraph, ConHome and the Spectator. The phrase “social enterprise” was heard repeatedly and positively throughout conference, as Conservatives realised once again that there were businesses in this country that could be relied upon to deliver the levelling up agenda.

Boris Johnson’s own speech confirmed that the Conservatives are shifting their view of business, away from a traditional free market approach to one where business has to act in the ‘national interest’ by investing in people and places. There are opportunities abound.

It is a big leap between warm words and interest towards policy action. But for those of us who have been watching politics and pushing for politicians to take the sector seriously, this is the start of something that could help to get political momentum back behind the sector. 

Words into action?

Conferences are often a time for eye-catching speeches, interesting papers or devastating attacks on opponents. The question is whether all this talk about a new way of doing business or reforming public services will actually translate into results and change. This is much harder to predict.

However, as I started this post, the options are running out for politicians. Ignoring social enterprise is becoming harder to do.    Social Enterprise UK will keep engaging with politicians on all sides to ensure that they better understand the importance of the sector and the value it can have in addressing the big issues. But this conference season, we look like we have a bit of progress towards our goal of showing social enterprise is the future of business.