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