Why social enterprises should get good at playing politics

As Scott Colvin admitted to the Good Stories conference audience, politicians aren’t always the most popular of people to work with.

“But I’m here to persuade you that politicians do matter,” he said, before explaining how getting the attention of MPs can prove a mutually beneficial relationship for those working at social ventures.

Good Stories is a new marketing and communications conference produced by Pioneers Post, NatWest and the SE100 Social Business Club. The event was held in London on 6 September.

Colvin is the head of public affairs at communications company Finsbury but prior to that worked as a political researcher and adviser in and around Westminster for 18 years. He was political adviser to the Conservative Party between 2001 and 2004. 

As public servants, MPs want to be seen to be doing the work they were elected to do, Colvin explained: “They want to keep their constituents on side and be seen to be engaged at a local level.”

Part of that was down to the principal two reasons he'd found that people want to work in government: a desire to changes things and political ambition. MPs have to keep their jobs to climb the political ladder, Colvin explained.

The reason for social ventures to work with MPs is that they attract publicity and wield influence. Colvin gave the example of how he had worked with a local MP to avert the closure of his local school.

Once they understand what you do, politicians might also be beneficial for your sector as a whole. Sitting alongside Colvin, James Butler, head of public affairs at Social Enterprise UK, told the story of Chris White MP. 

White had an interest in charities and social enterprises and was encouraged to visit them and see the work they were doing. He later proposed the Social Value Act, which asks commissioners to assess the social value in procurement, meaning many more social ventures stand a chance of getting contracts.

 

How to get a politician on your side

So how to engage an MP to get some publicity for your social venture? Colvin shared a slide on his spreadsheet that diarised a typical MP's day. It started at 6am and finished at 11.30pm, demonstrating the challenges in getting their attention.

Colvin advised asking an MP for 25 minutes in their day. “It’s very difficult for them to say they can’t spare 25 minutes in their diary over one or two months.”

He also advised suggesting a Friday meeting, as that is the day that MPs are usually working in their constituency. 

You’ve got to see these politicians as a means to an end

Once you’ve got their time, use it wisely, he said. Have something to say, be clear about what you are asking for and take some information to leave behind which will summarise what you are trying to achieve.

Because of the inspiring stories that social ventures have to tell, it often leads to corridors of power, Colvin related.

He gave the example of Jenny Dawson of Rubies in the Rubble, which creates chutneys and pickles from food waste, employing those who have found it difficult to previously get work.

“Everybody wanted a piece of her,” said Colvin. “All the political parties invited her to their conferences and she was invited to the World Economic Forum summit in Davos where she had lunch with members of the French cabinet… because they knew that it is a great story they want to be associated with.”

He was later asked how to create a relationship with someone with very difficult political views.

“You’ve got to see these politicians as a means to an end. Ask yourself: can they help me progress my cause? If that is the case, swallow hard,” he advised.

“If it is your local MP and you want to get them engaged and a local paper promises coverage if they can have a picture of them cutting a ribbon or whatever, you have just got to go ahead and do it.”

Although expressing some reservations about engaging with people with conflicting social views, Butler also found a reason to engage: “If we always spoke to people that agreed with us, we’d never get any change.”
 

Photo credit: Oregon Dept of Transport