Is it time to move on from trying to influence from the inside and fight harder from the outside (with all the risks that entails)?
There is lots of rhetoric around right now about rebuilding post Covid-19 with a better economy. We all hope for kinder, fairer, more inclusive, environmentally enhancing policies for the future.
How might we achieve this? For many of us working at the sharp end of local economic policymaking with local government, local enterprise partnerships and others, this is a vexed question as we already experience countless frustrations around the lack of, or slow pace of, change – or, sometimes, even willingness to listen.
In my experience, in Plymouth and the wider south west, engagement with economic policymaking spheres has had mixed results. There have been some notable successes – Plymouth’s Social Enterprise Investment Fund, levering inclusive growth into local strategy and developing the Heart of the South West’s social enterprise business support scheme. But there have also been many frustrations, with policymakers apparently paying lip-service to inclusive economic and social enterprise concepts while all too easily slipping back to a business as usual, ‘growth’-focussed mindset and supporting only high-productivity sectors.
"If we are overly confrontational, we risk alienating the very people we want to influence"
So, should we be angrier? Should we beat our fists on boardroom tables and rage about the lack of social and environmental justice in economic policy?
Just before the coronavirus broke across the UK, I attended the New Economy Conference in Oldham. There was a beautiful moment where the co-operative, community business and social enterprise planets aligned, and I felt a surge of optimism about working collaboratively to make a difference. There was also talk of needing to be more hostile, belligerent or muscular about our interactions with policymakers.
At this I hesitated. A sentiment of being bolder resonates with me but the idea of outright hostility made me wince and think: if we are overly confrontational, we risk alienating the very people we want to influence. And all this in the context of a Conservative government not exactly known for their pro-social and environmental credentials.
On the inside or the outside?
There is the old argument about whether it is better to be in the tent, at the table, shaping the agenda – or outside the tent waving placards, shouting and getting protesty.
I recently read Yanis Varoufakis' excellent political memoir Adults in the Room. There is a telling passage early on, where the former Greek Minister of Finance describes meeting Larry Summers – a previous Secretary of the US Treasury, Harvard president and chief economist to the World Bank. Summers challenges Varoufakis on whether he is an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’. Varoufakis reports Summers as saying:
“The outsiders prioritise their freedom to speak their version of the truth. The price of their freedom is that they are ignored by the insiders, who make the important decisions. The insiders, for their part, follow a sacrosanct rule: never turn against other insiders and never talk to outsiders about what insiders say or do. Their reward? Access to inside information and a chance, though no guarantee, of influencing powerful people and outcomes.”
This chimed with my experiences. I am the elected chair of the Plymouth Social Enterprise Network. Through this role I have a seat on the Plymouth Growth Board. This board oversees economic strategy and policy and is made up of institutions such as the City Council, Chamber of Commerce, Federation of Small Business, universities, other trade bodies and even individuals deemed to have something to say about our great city's economy. We discuss current economic activities and strategise about the future. So, on the face of it, we have a seat on the ‘inside’, at the table of influence, right at the heart of local economic policymaking. This was hard won and there were years of preceding work promoting social enterprise in the public affairs of Plymouth.
"I was once criticised for attempting to engage with the Local Enterprise Partnership who were seen, by some, as the epitome of business as usual"
But ‘at the table’ I feel I have to moderate my language if I want to work collegiately with organisations that are not the natural bedfellows of the social enterprise movement. Almost by default, what I say could be seen as a criticism of organisations which represent business as usual.
On the outside at least you can say your piece more openly and angrily, but there is a risk that this is batted away by those on the inside as extremism or too alternative. Then you do not get any change at all. I was once criticised for attempting to engage with the Local Enterprise Partnership who were seen, by some, as the epitome of business as usual. I was shocked – to me at least trying to engage with them was important, otherwise we effect no change in their thinking at all, no matter how gradual or small scale.
The simple answer is probably that there is a time and a place for both methods. The militancy of the suffragettes seemingly achieved more than the painstaking years of suffragists working within the system. Extinction Rebellion has catapulted the climate crisis into the news with its confrontational tactics – although it has also alienated some who deem them too extreme.
I know I am not a militant at heart. Sure, I feel passionate about social enterprise and creating a fairer system but getting overly combative and confrontational is not in my nature. But I do also have a nagging feeling that I – and we, as a movement – need to be stronger and bolder about the changes we feel are necessary to bring about a better economy.
So, judgment – the essential leadership skill in my view – is needed. We need to carefully consider when to act, when to be bold or even to be angry. Pick our battles, be savvy in our relationship building and win the arguments and hopefully we can: ‘build back better’.
This article appeared in Pioneers Post on 5th June 2020
Supported by the Rank Foundation