In an article in Cooperative News on 6 February this year, Ed Miliband waxed lyrical on the merits of cooperative forms of enterprise, stating that ‘the cooperative ideal is more important than it has been for a generation’. Yet less than 3 months later, the Labour Party Manifesto fails to follow through on these sentiments, with only a derisively brief mention of charities, mutuals, cooperatives and social enterprises’ pioneering role in the social economy (p. 21), unsupported by any detail or vision. This is a glaring example of a general lack of corporate institutional imagination across the major parties. While lending lip service to current forms of social enterprise, cooperatives and mutuals, their manifestos provide negligible support for enterprise diversity, understood as policies that might lend support to developing more variety in corporate organisational forms and corporate governance models.
Across all the major parties, there is a disproportionate emphasis on the broad issue of finance for social enterprise, cooperatives and mutuals. The Conservative Party lays claim to launching the world’s first social investment bank, and to introducing more social impact bonds than the rest of the world combined – but as the UK Alternative Social Impact Investment Commission’s recent report makes clear, these innovations have inflated expectations over and above achieved outcomes and have not necessarily actually increased the flow of capital to socially useful investment. While the UK has a positive recent history of productive innovation around finance, particularly in relation to community share offers and the right of communities to bid, there is little new in the current manifestos to develop this.
And while finance is undoubtedly important, it would be much more stimulating to have a robust and explicit debate about the different political implications of internal ownership, structure and governance, as Will Hutton’s recent book, How Good We Can Be, calls for. Instead, the major parties’ policies are politically malleable, each supporting their overall ideologies. Thus, the general direction of the Conservative manifesto is to support moving services from the public to the ‘third’ sector, particularly in terms of the mutualisation of the public service sector to ‘free up the entrepreneurial spirit of public servants’ (p.49), starting schools or taking over parks, town halls and sports facilities. Pubs are also mentioned. There is very little detail as to how such organisations will be supported other than a strengthening of the Community Right to Bid. Labour says surprisingly little other than a sentence praising the third sector for pioneering initiatives that deliver social value, financial inclusion and empowerment. They promise to improve access to finance and say that they will consider how to support employee buy-outs. The Liberal Democrats also focus on financial support for social enterprises, and wish to encourage energy cooperatives to save members money rather than as a means of empowerment. Elements of this are similar to the Conservative manifesto; the encouragement of mutuals in the provision of public services for example. They wish to extend the Community Right to Bid to a Right to Buy. They do, however, mention promoting employee ownership – although there are no details on how this might be achieved other than that employers will be ‘encouraged’ to support it.
Beyond the major parties, both the Greens and UKIP, from radically different starting points, have expressed frustration with the current corporate landscape. UKIP, however, for all its rhetoric on ‘standing up to corporations’, has developed no clear policy on corporate alternatives. The Greens provide a refreshing contrast, and by far the most food for thought. They offer a clear outline of what support might be made available to mutuals and cooperatives in terms of not only finance, but also training and even education, thus building in a long-term view of future generations. They respect the contribution of small-scale operations, even advocating the express break-up of larger-scale ‘builder cartels’. Their manifesto illuminates ways in which social enterprise, cooperatives and mutuals can provide an antidote to the seductions of ‘scaling up’, showing a nuanced appreciation of the potentially explosive ways in which ‘small is powerful’ , as Adam Lent will argue in his forthcoming book. And they discuss these various corporate models expressly as an alternative and more democratic form of economy.
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