We estimate that as many as 12,000 new social enterprises were set up in the last year. That’s on top of at least 100,000 established social enterprises trading for people and planet, reinvesting profit. And at least 2 million voters in terms of staff. So how well do these businesses – vital to our nation’s future – think that political parties are serving their needs? It’s party conference season so in the September Social Enterprise Advisory Panel survey, we asked social enterprises for their perceptions about how well UK political parties relate to social enterprise.
Three things are clear from the results. First, none of the UK’s political parties are nailing it when it comes to articulating relevant policy for social enterprise.
Over a third of survey respondents selected ‘None/Don’t Know’ when asked which parties best understood and were best supporting social enterprise. Several respondents said that they simply didn’t know what the parties’ positions were on social enterprise.
This is a very tricky question. I personally feel that none of the parties understand or represent our sector.
To be honest, I’m not sure where many of the parties sit with regard to social enterprise. Maybe the fact that I don’t know says a lot about how vocal they are (or aren’t) around social enterprise
There is minimal explicit reference to social enterprise in party manifestos from the 2019 election. Unsurprisingly given that cooperatives form part of the social enterprise family, the Cooperative Party (which has an electoral pact with the Labour Party, so its 25 MPs sit in the Parliamentary Labour Party) makes five mentions of social enterprise in its 2019 manifesto – including specific focus on social care provision, and social enterprise model and asset locks to protect school support services. Our results show limited recognition of this explicit support, as only 5% said that the Cooperative Party has the best policies to support social enterprise. However, prominent Cooperative Party MPs are vocal supporters of social enterprise (Alex Sobel, Annaliese Dodds etc), so this is perhaps because the message is lost due to being the junior partner in the electoral pact.
No other party manifesto referred directly to social enterprise, although the Labour Party manifesto refers to CICs and co-operatives in the context of supporting small business and improving education about business in schools, and the Green Party manifesto also refers to CICs and co-operatives. The Conservative Party Manifesto makes 21 references to ‘community’, including to community assets and organisations as well as focusing heavily on support to small businesses and start-ups – as well as saying that businesses are ‘good for society’.
No party at the moment has clear policies to support social enterprise. There [is a lack of] innovative thinkers who might use this Covid opportunity to rethink how we support businesses, increase employment and reduce inequality through a business model.
Social enterprise crosses party lines
Second, social enterprises come in all political colours. There is often a perception that social enterprises are either a ‘bunch of lefties’ or that it is a ‘Blairite’ or centre-right movement with little traction left of the political centre ground.
Our findings show that neither is true. We still see significant variation in terms of perceptions of the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ parties for the sector.
Almost half of respondents think that the Labour party has the best policies to support their business, although fewer (43%) think that Labour has the best overall social enterprise policies – and nearly one in ten think that Labour policies are least useful to their business. Although the Conservatives are widely seen as least associated with social enterprise, one in ten respondents think that the Tories are most likely to ‘get’ social enterprise, and nearly one in six think that Tory government policies are the best to support the needs of their business.
I think all parties could do a better job at supporting social enterprise. Although there seem to be more key MPs in Labour that understand it and support it practically, I’m not sure this converts into policies.
Social enterprises respond to political engagement
Third, respondents indicated clearly that whilst there may be variety in perceptions and practice at national party level, there is clear impact and benefit felt when individual MPs and local politicians engage with social enterprises.
The support we tend to get comes from MPs, not parties
I believe that Labour and the Conservatives can both talk a good game on social enterprise, it depends on whether they actually implement it. We have a new Mayor in West Yorkshire who appears very keen in promoting the third sector so it will be interesting to see how far we get with this.
There are lessons for Westminster-based politicians from the success of greater policy attention given to social enterprise in Wales and in Scotland. The sample size in this survey was too small to rate Scottish and Welsh social enterprises rate incumbent national governments. However, we’ve seen from past data that Scottish social enterprises in particular recognise the additional attention social enterprise has received from Holyrood in recent months including being referenced in the new Green/SNP Government Agreement as well as more rapid support during COVID-19, where 0% interest loans were available to social enterprises within weeks of the crisis. In Wales, as well as COVID-19 emergency support, the Welsh Government has opened up the Development Bank of Wales to social enterprises, mainstreaming social enterprise business support.
To a large extent, sector, region and other factors influence the policy impact felt by social enterprises. It matters that social enterprise voices are part of key national and regional policy making.
I am aware of local focus on social enterprise in Manchester but yet to see this translate into material policy and action. There is much to do to level the playing field and acknowledge the true, ethical costs of services.
The party’s view on Health and Social Care Bill is key to us and the role of social enterprises within the integrated care systems structure. We have concerns about the Bill but we also have concerns about the grounds of Labours opposition to it
 The original survey question included the Brexit Party. This party was renamed Reform UK in January 2021 (SEUK error in the survey), won 2% of the vote in the 2019 elections and holds no seats in UK or devolved nation parliaments. It received no positive votes in the survey, only negative. This data has been removed from these results but is available on request.