Social economy rising

Written by Sam Simmons
August/September 2014

The Social Economy Alliance first formed in June 2013. It has quickly swelled in size, and now has 26 partners and more than 500 members — social enterprises, think-tanks, cooperatives, and charities including The Young Foundation and Turning Point, among others — collaborating to create a more social economy in the UK. The goal is to work as one bold movement ahead of the 2015 General Election.

We aim to put people and society at the heart of the economy, to use business to address tough challenges that put a strain on communities, like fuel poverty and youth unemployment, and to encourage politicians to support Britain’s growing number of social economy organisations.

The Alliance is a sign that the expanse of organisations campaigning for social change — faith-groups, charities, social enterprises, universities, charitable foundations and housing associations — are coming together. There is a growing consensus that our approach to tackle the major challenges of our time needs to change. Business and social policy must be brought together.

Advances in the social economy and the innovations emerging from our movement have the potential to help the UK economy evolve into one that is fit for the challenges we face in the 21st Century. The problem with the UK’s approach as it stands is that it ignores a simple idea: economic policy and social policy are entirely interconnected — they depend on one another to succeed. The Social Economy Alliance is trying to get this way of thinking off the ground and show how our sector is already applying it in communities across the country.

Now the main political parties seem to be listening. And not a moment too soon.

In August new figures showed that, despite a fall in unemployment levels and an increase in economic growth, average wages remain well below inflation. The prosperity that promises to follow economic growth is certainly not being felt by everyone. The wealth being created is stored up in small pockets of the country, a catalyst to the 2009 financial crisis that brought the economy to its knees.

The IMF warns that inequality is the biggest threat to sustained economic growth. In the UK, GDP per person in the richest area is nearly ten times that of the poorest area — the biggest gap between richest and poorest in the G7. This is a terrifying figure. It is a recovery at its most dangerous: centralised and driven from the top down for the benefit of a small minority.

Bottom up growth

We believe the social economy has some of the solutions to create a more equal society, where bottom-up economic growth helps spread the fruits of a strong economy across the country — and the UK’s decisions makers are getting wise to this. Months of hard lobbying and some positive meetings with individuals working at the centre of the party machinery are paying off. There’s a strong possibility that we’ll achieve our goal and see our recommendations appear in the manifestos of all the main political parties.

We have the collective might of the sector to thank for our progress. When the stakes are high, the social enterprise and charity worlds are good at rallying together to make sure our voice isn’t drowned out by other, often heavily financed, lobbyists. Over the past 12 months, we’ve certainly made a lot of noise. In February we amassed widespread support for our local election campaign, urging local politicians to back the social economy in their area and support local organisations, like credit unions and social enterprise housing groups. Along with hundreds of supporters we took our message to councillors and local election candidates and received positive responses, from Brixton to Bristol.

The ideas behind the campaign are crowd sourced, too. Over the past 12 months, we’ve embarked on an intense period of policy development to build our sector’s solutions to tough social problems like youth unemployment and the housing crisis.

Experts from the Alliance and supporters from the sector shared their thoughts during a 10-week consultation process. 70 big ideas emerged, which fall under six themes: unemployment, economic growth, the cost of living, fair finance, public services and responsible business.

Our policies are designed to equip people with some radical tools to build a stronger, more equal and prosperous society. And in most cases, they are already being implemented by social economy organisations on the ground.

Rise of the sector

Take community energy for example. The rise of this sector, which enables people and communities to buy, save, create and sell energy, is helping achieve fairer energy prices for consumers. Demand for this type of initiative is huge — our poll published this year showed the majority of people would switch to providers that are community owned and led, and that reinvest profits back into society given the opportunity.

In housing, cooperative and social enterprise alternatives are providing affordable housing and reducing the cost of living. Co-operative home-share schemes and social enterprise property guardians like Dot Dot Dot are utilising empty buildings and bringing down costs for renters and buyers. Crystal Fountain, a retirement village in Woodchester, Stroud, has been turned by its residents from a private equity-owned village into a mutually owned asset.

There are also emerging opportunities with the potential for new garden cities, eco-towns and other large scale urban extensions to develop models which are pro-social and designed with communities at their heart. These models are working for our cousins abroad. In neighbouring countries co-operative housing represents a much larger percentage of the market than in the UK: 18 per cent in Sweden, 15 per cent in Norway and 8 per cent in Austria, compared with just 0.6 per cent in Britain.

Party conference season

In the space of a year our united sector has made enormous progress. But the fight is by no means over. There is still a great deal to play for and a critical window remains to convince politicians to support the social economy. September is one of the busiest times in the political calendar. Party conference season kick-starts the final countdown to the General Election next year.

These political hootenannies are useful for the sector to create some noise and encourage politicians to support social economy policies backed by voters. The Social Economy Alliance will be out in force, representing social economy organisations on the ground at a number of roundtables and panel debates. These are open to anyone with a pass to the conferences, so please join us if you are attending.

September also sees the Social Economy Alliance takeover Westminster tube station with a high-impact advertising campaign — a rare opportunity to get our message seen by politicians in the right place at the perfect time. The adverts are being crowdfunded by the sector, and will launch the Alliance’s own manifesto.

As we turn the last corner before the general election, we need the whole sector to get behind the campaign.

We need more social organisations and charities to unite and help turn the Alliance’s manifesto asks into a reality. Lobby your MP, arrange visits to social enterprises and charities in your area and share the Alliance’s manifesto at every opportunity.

There’s still time to add your voice to ours by joining as a member. People-power is what our movement is built on and it is people-power that will get us heard. Be part of the movement that puts the social economy at the centre of the next general election. You can join the Social Economy Alliance as a member by visiting: www.socialeconomyalliance.org.uk

Sam Simmons is campaigns officer at the Social Economy Alliance



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