What's so bad about a Blue Peter economy anyway?

If Cameron was referring to an economy that takes apart the assumptions and bad habits which led to the problems of the past, that might be seen as a sign of progress.

I wasn't a huge fan of any of the leaders' speeches this year. Miliband attempted grand and defining statements with all the vigour of a schoolboy revolutionary. In response, Cameron seemed to deliberately take a more restrained tone – the result being one part 'statesman', two parts 'grandad'.

But, speechcraft and delivery aside, the real issue was that the speeches pandered to the same old partisan debates: "Red Ed" vs. economic stoicism, public spending vs. public taxes, hard workers vs. other hard workers. In their predictableness, neither caused much of a stir beyond the dwindling numbers of party members present.

As usual, the most innovative debates were on the fringe. One of the most vibrant discussions took the form of the social economy alliance, a movement of entrepreneurs, activists, investors and campaigners. While such a consortium might sound like the material for a bad joke, the effect was that the re-hashed divisive policy debates were cast aside in favour of fresh approaches to the social and economic problems that have been found to be the most pressing of our generation. From energy to public spending, banking to local services, the discussions highlighted the successes of these high-growth, profitable and investment-ready enterprises that work not only in the interests of society (which any job-generating business purports to do), but for tangible social impact. Together they form economic solutions that are genuinely different to the tedious left-right refrains.

Rather than being devoid of tradition and ideology, however, I would argue that the growing social economy movement draws on proud heritage from across the political spectrum, from principles of economic subsidiarity to the lessons from the 1980s venture capital market, the Rochdale pioneers to pre-enlightenment virtue ethics and gift exchange. Again, a counter-intuitive combination, but at a time when trust in the ‘business as usual’ models has hit rock bottom, these ideas are at the very least a curious alternative.

It is clear the old models aren’t working, so what is wrong with crafting new models and new structures? This is why I failed to appreciate Cameron’s point in deriding a "Blue Peter economy". Is it even an insult? If it is an economy which takes apart the assumptions and bad habits which led to the problems of the past, then I don't see anything wrong with that. Perhaps a Blue Peter metaphor would do better to highlight a high trust base, creativity and pursuit of fulfilment, or the values that inspire young people to be active citizens?

The social economy has the potential not only to capture but to realise these ideals, and whilst it is increasingly recognised by and inspiring a generation of young people (university graduates in particular), the parties are missing a trick by not talking about it.  Because living standards are not something passively received by people. The Reaganite tack of comparing people's circumstances to how they were five years ago is fundamentally flawed in that, when asked to consider their living standards, it the personal things which people remember: achievement and loss and grief and celebration, on a local scale which factors in social networks and relationships, not what the state does or doesn't do. And for the right, ambition and opportunity is not just about tax cuts, it is also about personal opportunities and the opportunities to change your lived experiences from one day to the next. Profit is good, but only if that profit makes a social and economic difference on a local, tangible level. This is a leader’s speech-in-waiting.

In terms of the agenda for social economy movement itself, there is still a lot to be done to achieve coherence and public recognition. Ed Miliband had it right in practice but not in principle when he produced clearly packaged retail offers for the 2015 election that describe the added value for people as consumers. This is what this movement should be working towards, and the party that capitalises on this potential for fresh and genuine approaches is one that will find themselves having struck electoral gold.

Caroline Macfarland is the founder of CoVi (Common Vision), a new visual think tank which uses film and interactive media to produce innovative, shareable ideas about politics, economics and society

David Cameron delivers his speech at the Conservative conference in Manchester earlier this week. Photograph: Getty Images.

Caroline Macfarland is manging director of ResPublica

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.