Saturday, February 9, 2008

Why I flirted (for a minute anyway) with David Cameron

I’ve got a secret, one which leaves me red-faced and I’ve been wondering whether or not to share it with you. But I’ve decided to because I don’t think I am alone. Not anymore anyway.

My secret is that I was, for a short time, seriously thinking of voting for David Cameron in 2009/10.

I have since woken up and joined the Lib Dems but it was a strong feeling while it lasted. So brought to it?

In two words Gordon Brown. I don’t believe he has a vision for social enterprise that puts us in the forefront of change in this country.

Don’t get me wrong, he’s not hostile, just limited in his view of our potential.

At best, we are enriching rather than transforming the social landscape, a kind of Social Heineken quenching the parts the public sector cannot reach.

By contrast, Tony Blair saw us as a much needed bottle of Snakebite We know that Blair envisaged us replacing the state as provider of certain public services. Brown has not pursued a similar view.

He has been ominously silent on Trust Schools. Brown’s emphasis is on grafting third sector dynamism into public services, not opening them up to genuine competition. ``Personalising' the monopoly - as if you could do such a thing.

This, of course, would be like pouring a can of Red Bull into an elephant and expecting it to pole-vault.

As you’ll have surmised, I have got a problem with Gordon. We’ve tried his way with public services – Public Services Agreements, thousands of targets - and it hasn’t done the business.

People I meet daily – the parent whose child is disabled, the 17 year old with schizophrenia- tell me things are actually getting worse not better.

Yet the state, by and large, remains Brown’s weapon-of-choice.

Back in 1997, when I was a Baby-Entrepreneur, I was excited about what a Labour government could achieve with the third sector on-side.

However, the most visible legacy for my organisation has been regulation. Next month I’ve got three inspectors coming from the Adult Learning Inspectorate to monitor a very modest project run by disabled adults.

This project won a National Training Award last year! The Inspectorate want to set up base-camp in our boardroom for the week. It feels like the world has gone slightly mad.

But it hasn’t gone mad, its just gone Labour. All these silly agencies are the natural culmination of a social-democratic approach to solving social problems.

After a lifetime of voting for them, I’ve finally realised that Labour people believe that it is Government’s job to fix problems, not society’s.

Big State = Better Society. And they don’t mind spending a lot of money to do it.

Social enterprise? We’re just Polyfilla in the wall of state provision.

In 2008, I dream of a Government which says, “Look, we can’t do this, we need social entrepreneurs to help – you connect better to people, you can run a tight ship and attract the right kind of talent – You do it!

I really wish Gordon would heed Osborne and Gaebler’s seminal 1992 book “Reinventing Government”.

In this book, they introduce their concept of an "entrepreneurial" form of government. Their central premise it is not government's obligation to provide services, but to see that they're provided.

In short, it says that Government should solve problems by inviting competing solutions rather than creating new public programmes.

More social entrepreneurs are now realising that competition is the best way to energise organisations in all sectors.

This may sound odd, but the worst thing that could happen to Speaking Up would be to have no competition, to have our bank account filled up by the Government every April.

Am I kidding? No, because we would lose an important imperative to excel. T

his is precisely the position of most of the public sector – and why nearly all of it should be opened up to competition.

It’s a bit early to see what the parties will be offering in 2009/10. But I have a strong feeling that Cameron’s Tories will be the most explicit about the future contribution of social entrepreneurs.

A centrist Conservative Party with a commitment to a reasonable level of social spending and a hawk-like eye for bureaucracy and waste is be a proposition which social entrepreneurs should be taking seriously.

Equally, the Lib Dems could well win all our votes if they started to be similarly explicit about our potential.

And if I, with a lifetime of Labour-supporting behind me, could, if only for a moment, contemplate marking my ballot for Cameron in the interests of social enterprise, then I don’t think I will be the only one with a red face in 2009.

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