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Archive for September, 2010

My last blog had a bit of a Johnny Cash theme. This time I’m continuing with the theme of artists that have influenced my life and this week I’m going with Billy Bragg.

I saw a member of the union UNITE wearing a t-shirt emblazoned on the front with the message “No to privatisation through the back door” – so far so good. I was gobsmacked to see an altogether different message on the back… “No to social enterprise”.

Trouble is brewing, and I think it might be more than a storm in a tea cup. It seems to me that a couple of the large unions fundamentally misunderstand the premise of social enterprise. I’m keen to meet union leaders to sit down and explore their fears and concerns, and establish our common ground.

A few months ago I was fortunate enough to share a stage with a senior union official. Before we took the stage we chatted and I was pleased to hear that she had no ideological issues with what our movement sought to achieve, or indeed our growing role in the delivery of public services. Empowering and putting ownership into the hands of staff and the communities that services are meant to benefit we agreed was in the shared interests of us all. The origins of many unions are to be found within the values that we as social enterprises are proud to share: mutuality, co-production and co-operation.

Fast forward a few months as I left the Lib Dem conference. On the train I sat opposite someone who looked vaguely familiar. It only took a couple of moments before I realised it was the very same union rep. She was clearly on the phone to a journalist and was animated as she rightly outlined the potential implications of outsourcing all manner of public services to the private sector, whose legal obligation is to maximise share holder value, otherwise known as profit.

But then they got onto the involvement of social enterprises in delivery and as I listened I grew increasingly concerned by the number of inaccurate comments I was hearing. These included a suggestion that most of the social enterprises which have spun out from the public sector have failed, and that adopting a social enterprise model leads to cuts to staff terms and conditions.

I sank into my seat and decided we must have a meaningful debate with union leaders and must do it immediately.

We need real engagement with the unions to avoid an unnecessary public battle that will divert all our energies from the real issues we face. In simply defending the status quo the unions and their membership will miss an opportunity to actively shape and influence the debate and the direction of travel. And they will miss the opportunity to deliver massive benefits to their own members.

The political ideology has shifted across all political parties. Business as usual is simply not an option.  Nor should it be. Beveridge recognised towards the end of his life that he had failed to recognise the power of active participation in the design and delivery of public services and of the welfare state in his earlier publications. Creating opportunities for workers to have a greater stake, a greater say, is surely an opportunity rather than a threat. We need the unions to make sure that the necessary transformation of public services benefits both staff and the end recipients of whatever is delivered.

And besides, thousands of union members are already working within social enterprises, large and small. I know from talking to many that leaving the employ of the state was not the disaster that some unions seem to be implying is inevitable. Many talk of liberation, about being able to make a real difference, of a renewed sense of purpose. I want those unions to see the opportunities social enterprise offers workers, communities, and disadvantaged groups. And at the very least they must see that social enterprises can offer a far better option than the alternative; PLCs delivering and designing services with only profit in mind.

Together we can ensure that their public sector members are provided with the information to make the right choices about their futures and that models of social enterprise maximise staff and beneficiary ownership. They can help ensure that the new markets being created are benign for new social enterprises to trade in and have the very best chance of succeeding.

Like Billy Bragg: ‘I’m waiting for a great leap forwards’.

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