Regardless of the election, our message must be the same: business as usual isn’t working

When your message isn’t getting through, it’s time to add some theatre. Social Enterprise UK’s director of external affairs on how the membership body has taken a new approach in its latest public-facing campaign – drawing inspiration from an unlikely combination of sources: Extinction Rebellion and Boris Johnson. 

The election is over, the die has been cast. Boris Johnson has won a stonking majority, and the natural instinct of many in the sector is that it is time to keep our heads down and wait to see what happens. But this would be the wrong strategy and a failure of leadership at a time when communities need social enterprises and campaigners to step up.

During the election campaign, Social Enterprise UK took the unusual step of taking to the streets and sharing our message directly with the public. Although we have done some direct campaigning before (most notably through the Social Economy Alliance putting up adverts at Westminster tube station), most membership organisations are focused on more “insider” influencing than going out to the public. But we felt there was far too much focus in the media and by politicians on the “theatre” of politics and not enough on the substantial issues facing our country.

So we decided to use a bit of theatre ourselves, but to highlight the fundamental truth that is shaping our economy and society. Business as usual isn’t working.

Our economy has been growing continuously for 10 years. Yet wages are below where they were before the financial crisis. Our country is still significantly divided between London and everywhere else. Productivity is on the floor. Business investment is low by both historic standards and international standards. We also face a housing crisis, rising social division and a climate emergency.

There is far too much focus on the “theatre” of politics and not enough on the substantial issues... so we decided to use a bit of theatre ourselves

These facts are driving the chaotic political, social and economic circumstances we find ourselves in.

So, we decided to take our “business as usual isn’t working” message directly to the people. We projected it onto City of London buildings at the heart of our financial system, and hired an ad-van, taking it on tour through the UK’s political centre of gravity in Westminster. We wanted to make our message impossible to ignore. Over the course of the campaign we reached over 500,000 people on social media, and prompted a few raised eyebrows outside HM Treasury – excellent cut-through given the recent chaos of the general election.

Ad van - SEUK campaign December 2019


No more ‘patch and mend’

We must not run our campaigns in silos. Tempting as it might be to focus narrowly on a single issue, our first port of call must be to build a shared diagnosis of the mess we are in and how we got there. Unless people accept that things as they are aren’t working, then why would you seek to change anything? Sadly, there is still not widespread acceptance that our economy is failing to deliver. Patch and mend are still the order of the day.

Central to this is business. It is the decisions that businesses make which fundamentally shape our economy, our living standards and the environment we live in. We must not let businesses off the hook. Far too much of the election was focused on what government can do itself, rather than how it should be shaping the private sector to deliver for people and protect the planet. Hence the focus of our own campaign.

Unless people accept that things as they are aren’t working, then why would you seek to change anything?

One of the factors behind the success of campaigns such as Extinction Rebellion (or ‘XR’) has been their willingness to call things as they see it. Looking around the planet, they saw that we faced a climate emergency, but that governments and media were not speaking in the right language. Although people can debate the merits of their tactics, the clear message cut through and has got politicians, opinion formers and the public to take notice.

What XR has done for the climate emergency, we need to do for the triple threat of social division, economic stagnation and ecological breakdown that we face as a country.

This isn’t the first time that Social Enterprise UK has tried to go beyond traditional campaigning channels. Back in 2015, through the Social Economy Alliance, we championed the idea that politicians needed to reach across the aisle and focus on the “best ideas from both left and right”. Social enterprise was an obvious example of this, with historic links both into the Labour and Conservatives. This was the right message for its time.


Bold, persistent experimentation

Things have now moved on, both in terms of the political and economic situation but also the public. If we accept that business as usual isn’t working, then we need to understand that campaigning as usual isn’t working either. Campaigners and networks need what FDR called for in response to the Great Depression: bold, persistent experimentation.

Everyone who believes in building a new economy which is based on social justice and environmental responsibility needs to combine a range of methods. Right now there will be a lot of focus, correctly, on engaging with the new government and shaping their policy agenda. Social Enterprise UK will be throwing itself into this, as will other organisations.

If we accept that business as usual isn’t working, then we need to understand that campaigning as usual isn’t working either

We also need to keep reaching out to the public and the media. The methods will have to adapt to the circumstances; some will be familiar like traditional press releases and research. But we shouldn’t rule anything out. Whatever can help us to reach as many people as possible with our clear message about the UK’s dire economic performance should be on the table. This campaigning will reinforce our policy case. Bold “outsider” campaigning must be linked to “insider” policy influencing, and vice versa.   

If there is one thing that links Boris Johnson and Extinction Rebellion it is this. People want campaigns which have a clear and coherent narrative. People can feel that something isn’t right, and they want politicians, the media and business to speak boldly. People know that tinkering around the edges isn’t going to cut it.

Social enterprises need to respond to this demand for clarity and bold policy prescriptions. Even if this can make us feel uncomfortable at time. Nature abhors a vacuum, and if we don’t fill it with our positive and practical agenda for the future, someone or something else will. 


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Photos: The campaign message projected onto the Bank of England in early December; the ad-van (photo credits: Social Enterprise UK)