I still can’t predict what will happen with Brexit (can anyone?) but it’s already clear that the UK economy is in for a rough ride. I live and work in an area of South Wales that largely voted to leave. There are many reasons for that but what is clear is that this is a part of the UK where many people feel ignored by Government, feel left out of the economic benefits of growth and are watching their public services and pensions get torn apart.
However, I do predict that whatever the outcome of Brexit, the years ahead will be a very important time for social enterprises.
The public are fed up with austerity and rising inequality. Big business has got a bad name and government contracting with large private outsourcing companies is a broken model. I was particularly horrified by the profits made by house-builder Persimmon that have effectively been funded by taxpayers through the Help-to Buy scheme, which incidentally has contributed to forcing up prices on new homes for first time buyers. That makes me angry and gives business a terrible reputation.
People are disillusioned with big business and governments that feel remote. But while I support a degree of nationalisation (such as the railway network), I am not convinced that largescale nationalisation or the economic policy of the 1970s provide the answer. And that is because I firmly believe that enterprise is at the heart of what makes a great economy. And social enterprise is at the heart of what will create a great social economy.
Because a strong economy post-Brexit isn’t enough. We need an economy that works for people. We need businesses to be solving the climate crisis. We need more entrepreneurs to tackle the big social problems like homelessness, poverty and much more.
As a nation we have to find a way for business and enterprise to meet these challenges and earn the respect of the public again. And I’m convinced that the answer to this is social enterprise.
The public are getting smarter about what they buy and who they buy from. As someone who started my career in vegetarian food, it is incredibly exciting to see that so many people are embracing a meat-free diet. So, if social enterprises start making more of a noise about how we contribute to society, to our communities, to tackling inequality and to solving the climate crisis, this will force other businesses to do the same.
Social enterprise is growing fast. In September last year, a Social Enterprise UK report showed there to be over 100,000 social enterprises contributing £60bn to the UK economy and employing two million people, considerably higher than previous estimates.
I am certain that the best is yet to come for social enterprise.
The way I see it is that social entrepreneurs must be at the heart of getting the public back on side with business and enterprise.
I believe that social enterprises must be prepared to focus on growth so that we can challenge the large outsourcers and become the sector of choice for delivering public services such as health, social care, employment support, immigration and asylum and much more. The Labour Party are talking about ‘positive procurement’ which should have a big impact on social enterprises who deliver public services. All parties should commit to this.
Social enterprises should be running the majority of nursing homes, public transport services, food distribution and much, much more.
We should begin to think of ourselves as the dominant force in the business community, no longer the new kid on the block.
But in order to do this we need to be educating the public. We should be prepared to shout out loud about our social enterprises.
We should be prepared to say why consumers should buy from us and not the large companies that exploit customers and employees and harvest our personal data.
We should be telling everyone why our products protect the environment and what we are doing to halt climate change.
And we should be challenging the larger companies. What are they doing to promote fairness, equality and diversity? Why are they not creating employee ownership as a significant part of their share structure? When will they open up their boards and become truly diverse?
We should help the public understand that buying from many large global companies supports excessive personal profit and greed.
In my view, if social enterprise is going to be the future, we will need to do more if it, we will need to do it better, we will need to grow it faster and most of all we will need to shout out loud about it.
For me social enterprise isn’t just about enterprise and society – it’s my politics and I hope that it’s yours too.
This is an extract from a speech I made to the School for Social Entrepreneurs in Bristol in March 2019