Which national party is best for Impact Investment?

There are roughly six weeks to go to the General Election so it seems appropriate to offer an opinion on the policies of the different national parties from the perspective of the impact investment (II) sector and those who care about policies which maximise social impact.

The Coalition Government has been exceptionally supportive and its actions have been the envy of II proponents all over the world.  Rarely will I meet someone from another country who does not gush with envy.  For this I credit the Conservative Party which has dominated thinking in this area and whose Big Society Programme has meticulously informed their policies and strategy.

What has emerged is a joined-up torrent of policy which has dramatically moved the market forward and has made the UK the widely-recognised global leader.  Most significant among these have been the establishment of Big Society Capital (BSC) and a host of support programmes to grow the intermediary sector and facilitate the development of enterprises whose focus is social impact, including the ICRF and Mutual Support Programme.  Social investment Tax Relief is one of the more recent positive developments, and the G8 Social Investment Task Force (SITF) have received a great deal of attention, but I believe that less celebrated initiatives, such as the publication of a “Unit Cost Database”, are equally important.  The Social Value Act, which entrenches the need to take social value into account, has been recently enacted, but it was a private members bill, rather than action of the Conservatives.  The Tories did accelerate the process begun under Labour which encouraged spinouts from the NHS into enterprises which target social impact.

The Liberal Democrats, despite being members of the Coalition, get little credit from me for this work and have played no apparent role in any of these initiatives.  Furthermore, I cannot discover any significant commitment to II or initiatives mentioning “social enterprise” in recent policy documents or the 2010 manifesto—they are eerily silent about II.  My own personal enquiries of Lib Dem officials were not responded to, despite ClearlySo’s role in the markets.  All three other national parties were more forthcoming.  This was particularly embarrassing as I am still a card-carrying member of the party!!

Observers must not forget, however, the central role played by Labour in the importance of II in the UK today.  It was Chancellor Gordon Brown who initiated the SITF which set the ball rolling, and it was Labour which conceived the idea which eventually became BSC.  In addition, CICs developed under Labour, UnLtd, the key funder of early stage organisations, was founded under Labour, and Futurebuilders was also a Labour initiative.  Those who might worry about Labour’s continuing its support for II are misplaced, and Chi Onwurah, who shadows the Minister for Civil Society, seems engaged and keen.  And let’s not forget that Ed Miliband, who could be the next PM, was a strong and effective proponent for the sector.

I have had the privilege of being personally engaged with Caroline Lucas MP, the sole Green MP, and can report that there could not be a more effective champion of the concept.  Policy documents on the Green Party website contain many references to the values of the II sector, without mentioning some of the more prevalent buzzwords.  Nevertheless, I believe the Green Party would act as a significant voice in support of socially impactful enterprises and their values are fundamentally in sync.

In summary, the sector has little to fear from either a Tory or Labour-led government in May.  Were the Greens in a coalition, this would add to the sector’s voice.  There is little evidence of Lib Dem enthusiasm but they are certainly not fundamentally opposed.

First published in Third Sector in February 2015.

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