It’s been an interesting and surprising few weeks: hardly anyone predicted the election result (not even those within the various political parties) and few anticipated the situation we are now in – myself included (I didn’t have the worst prediction in the office, but not far off…). Working at an organisation whose role is in part to advocate and partner with government to make change on behalf of our members, it’s a result that raises some profound questions but also some opportunities about what to do next. Here’s 7 reflections on the current situation we find ourselves in and what to do:
1) Spread the influence: we are just coming out of our third election in three years, with a political landscape as unclear and uncertain as it has ever been: the idea that we spend time in a 5-year political cycle building with a solid evidence base and seeking to influence them gradually is punctured at this point. At this point, seeking individual political champions and issues with broad support would seem a better way forward – and spread the risk through multiple relationships, because none of us know who will be where anytime soon (housing policy colleagues were on the whole disappointed to see Gavin Barwell lose his seat in Croydon, only to see him become Chief of Staff in number 10 by the weekend)
2) Go (even more) local: Whitehall looks like being snarled up for years, whether it is through pre- and post-Brexit legislative work, through stalled and delayed parliamentary procedures, or a simple lack of consensus to get things through. Why spend too much time and energy there, when Andy Burnham, Sadiq Khan and Andy Street (et al) are more likely to be able to get things done, and arguably have a more progressive and transformative agenda anyway. The same could be said of local areas where the council, clinical commissioning group, housing association and local business are working well together and are broadly aligned. As our CEO Peter Holbrook has pointed out, other social enterprise champions have come and gone.
3) Think cross-party: if we are in a more uncertain phase, then policies and areas with cross-party support will have more sway and potential. This is an area of opportunity for charities and social enterprises either focused on a single issue or on broader policy change with widespread support. I’m thinking here of everything from successful mental health campaigns through to specific areas like the Social Value Act.
4) Think cross-sector: the other obvious thought that flows from an internally-focused political system and Brexit-stagnated public sector is to continue to amplify and maximise work that works with and through the general public, the private sector and the social sector itself. In short, the challenges aren’t going away, and there are lots of people and organisations wanting to be part of tackling them – so what are the new partnerships that might move faster, more nimbly and still with considerable impact?
5) Take the positives: the rise in the youth vote has been hugely welcome and these are the people who tend to be looking for more purpose, more optimism, and have an idealism they share with our movement: that things, put simply, can be different, can be better (of course, I’m generalising wildly here). Equally, less reported but noticeable nonetheless is that both main parties explicitly say that the economy is currently not working for all: they have enormously different policies on how to address this, but there is a central truth here for social enterprise – a recognition that the system has to change in fundamental ways, whether you are calling this a more responsible, more “inclusive economy” or making things work “for the many not the few”.
6) Present proven solutions: this isn’t new, but there is certainly a continuing need for good ideas, good practical policies, new thinking founded on strong credible evidence – and we have to do a better job of articulating and communicating and landing these. There is no shortage of these in our movement: see our General Election viewpoints, for example.
7) Act with urgency and ambition: this is perhaps the most important thing of all, and one which I’ve been thinking about much more in the months ahead of the election, as well as in the weeks after. At the recent NPC event launching their ‘State of the Sector’ report, Dan Corry noted in his introduction that the sector must be the most reviewed of any, to polite laughter and recognition from the audience. But I’m not sure we should be laughing (even politely) – I’m not sure the sector has kept pace with the responsiveness of the world we live in, relapsing instead to ‘inquiries’ and ‘commissions’ which can last 1, 2 or 3 years, by which point the landscape has changed so significantly as to render much of the work completely meaningless. Nor do they feel 21st century in their modes of engagement or distribution. Another system-change diagram in a report isn’t cutting it.
That’s not to denigrate long-term thinking or marshalling evidence and data, nor to underestimate how long real change can take, but to argue for better, more urgent action on what we already know, rather than duplicated analysis. Look at how the advocacy and clarity of messaging from Lloyds Bank Foundation has shifted the debate on smaller charities in a short time for example: because it’s been done with evidence but also with a sense of urgency. Look how quickly and effectively charities and social enterprises responded in the wake of the Grenfell Tower, including funders – action that in many different ways has put the public sector response to shame. But we shouldn’t have that urgency only in response to such situations.
This level of pace and urgency needs to be combined with a sense of ambition too: one thing to take from the election, arguably, might be that messages of hope are at least as powerful as messages of fear. And that things that are held to be ‘accepted’ are, potentially, no such thing. I set out recently in a post about what an inclusive industrial strategy might look like that we need to challenge what we understand some of these larger ‘accepted’ things: growth, opportunity, productivity, procurement, and value. Alongside being ambitious in our operational and programmatic work (like the punchy £1bn Buy Social Corporate Challenge target or trying to directly influence healthcare commissioning and delivery), we need to be as ambitious about changing the terms and parameters within which we are operating: looking for allies in unusual places, engaging outwardly, and taking our case for action to the people who can help us make change. And organisations like Social Enterprise UK can only do that successfully through and with the collective reach and impact of its members and partners.