Mrs May, It’s time to start dancing to the movement of the Social Enterprise beat

Earlier this month, as Mrs May sashayed across the stage to the tune of the Dancing Queen, and the audience rose to greet her, I reflected on a meeting I had with her in June, alongside fellow leaders of Social Enterprise.   Unlike her predecessor David Cameron who talked a lot about the social economy (and did little!) Mrs May has never publicly shown a lot of interest in the social enterprise business model.

However, the indefatigable Lord John Bird, founder of the Big Issue and a man for whom I have a deep affinity persuaded her to host a meeting with ten social enterprises in June this year. Quite an achievement in the midst of Brexit Island.

Our meeting with her was warm, she chaired with a mixture of curiosity and decorum. We were asked to bring some clear asks that the Government and the social enterprise sector could do together. We would never underestimate the slow workings at Westminster, so we kept it simple.

Our requests were about public amplification of the social enterprise message and breaking the barriers to procurement; a challenge that is as old as the sector itself. The steps to this were laid out in terms of access to supply chains, analysis of the how the social value act is operating, opportunities to build consortia without prohibitive upfront bond payments and investment funds for innovation especially in rural areas. I asked the PM to champion social enterprise and endorse childcare models which can play such a key role in unlocking broader societal benefits.

Since then, there have been two significant events which raised the profile of the social enterprise business model. The first was the launch of the Social Enterprise UK report The Hidden Revolution.


This report told a new story about social enterprises. In summary:

  • The social enterprise sector accounts for 3% of gross domestic product, three times larger than agriculture and as important as creative services for the UK’s economy.
  • The size of the social enterprise sector is double the size we previously thought – around £60bn and employing 2m people. (5% of UK workforce).
  • There are 5,000 large social enterprises for the first time.
  • Half of social enterprises say they grew in the past 12 months, compared with only 34% of traditional businesses.
  • Politicians and policy makers need to stop thinking in the past and understand the fundamental changes taking place in our economy.
  • Businesses need to think about how they are going to respond to the pressure to become more socially responsible and ethical in the way that they do their business.
  • Nationwide and Co-op Group are two multi-billion pound businesses which show how social enterprise can operate at scale.
  • The top five cooperatives in the UK also pay more tax than Amazon, Facebook, Apple, eBay and Starbucks combined.

Last month, a second event when another woman leader (apart from Jez and Vince, all other UK leaders are women) Nicola Sturgeon opened the Social Enterprise World Forum.  She too spoke warmly but was much more informed about how the Scottish Government can partner social enterprises to transform the market.  She championed the value of social enterprises responses to the economic failings which so often result from poverty. The OECD report Why Less Inequality Benefits All described how growth has disproportionately benefited higher income groups leaving lower-income households falling behind and dragging the GDP down with it. The UN Sustainable Development Goals 2015 sets out its ambition to tackle the root causes.

Piketty’s 2014 investigations into Capital in the 21st Century  linked getting rich faster with growing inequality.  x He argued that we recalibrate the balance between the growth on capital and growth to have a fairer distribution for the benefit of all.

Mrs May took to the stage singing the Dancing Queen. She might have been better choosing “Money, money, money, it’s a rich man’s world”.

She promised to help better manage the fallout from austerity, lead a fairer economy in the home of the free market – where enterprise creates wealth to fund great public services.  Social enterprises can help. These businesses put their social mission at the heart of the business; pursuing purposes which combine prosperity, people and planet.  Critically social enterprises work to address inequality, sharing the gains from trade more equally while generating growth, jobs and wealth.  By demonstrating that businesses can do well by doing good these businesses are influencing wider markets.  They show that trade can be fair, supply chains can be ethical and employees can be treated well and empowered, governance can be more democratic business can be more responsible environmental citizens. I know it’s possible, I use this way of doing business running nurseries. I would like to share that much more.

Mrs May says she backs business. She told us that creating opportunity for other people – is one of the most socially responsible things you can do.  Now let us see her lead another dance. One that champions social enterprises as a business model she admires.