The 2024 UK election manifestos: slim pickings for the social economy?

As the UK enters the final days of pre-election campaigning, has the role that social enterprise and social investment could play in the country’s future been completely ignored by the politicians? We examine the key manifesto commitments and gauge the reactions of sector leaders.

“Has politics fallen out of love with social enterprise?” 

This question was on the cover of Pioneers Post magazine seven years ago. Today, the answer may well be: yes.

We asked this question in 2017 because we had noted that in several preceding years, social investment and social enterprise had always had a place in pre-election party manifestos. The most significant was the Conservative Party putting forward its plans to create a “Big Society Bank” in its 2010 manifesto, which soon became what is now Better Society Capital, the UK’s social investment wholesaler. 

In 2015, policy pledges across the political spectrum committed to support the social economy as a pivotal solution to the country’s pressing problems, and even praised the achievements of the sector. But by 2017 support was fizzling out – that year, only the Liberal Democrats mentioned social enterprise in their manifesto, which prompted our cover story back then.

This time around, the phrases “social enterprise”, “social investment” or “impact investing” don’t appear at any point in this year’s main party manifestos, which have been released during the past few weeks ahead of the UK general election that will take place on 4 July. Current polls predict that the current opposition Labour Party will win an overwhelming majority in the parliament, securing as many as 425 seats out of 650.

While the role of social enterprise and social investment has held ground in detailed budget statements in the past few years, it is clear that it no longer appears at the foreground of the debate. 

We asked leading figures in the UK social impact sector what their reactions were to this omission – and how the impact community should react. Their responses varied from incredulity to pragmatism. 


1. Politicians have an ‘insulting’ lack of understanding of what social enterprises can do

Bayo Adelaja - Do it Now Now“When the manifestos came through, my first thought was that it was incredibly disappointing – it was downright insulting actually, that they do not highlight the [social enterprise and charity] sector,” Bayo Adelaja (pictured), founder and CEO of social enterprise Do it Now Now, tells Pioneers Post.

Following more than ten years of austerity and “bad policymaking” at national and local levels, the UK population is suffering poverty, mental health challenges, isolation and more, she says. Social enterprises are helping to address these challenges, but the politicians fail to recognise their essential role – which is particularly shocking as social enterprises and charities often provide essential services that the public sector is failing to deliver, she argues.

Do It Now Now supports the development of Black-led impact organisations, including charities and social enterprises. Adeleja’s experience means that she understands the challenges that social enterprises face – a drop in resources, for example in accessing investment, at the same time as demand for their services rise, she explains. 

While politicians may not be thinking of the social sector, they can’t deliver their pledges without it, argues Dean Hochlaf, head of policy at membership body Social Enterprise UK.

I don't think any future government is going to be able to address the problems facing the UK without social enterprise

He says: “I don't think any future government is going to be able to address the problems facing the UK, without social enterprise, without social investment, without challenging the role of business and society.

“The benefit of social enterprise is that these are profit-making businesses that are socially responsible, that are investing and that are creating employment. We need to see our business community doing these things, if we want to create growth, and if we want to actually tackle some of these very entrenched social challenges that we all face.” 

Nick Temple - SIBSome specific policies would naturally benefit from the sector’s unique expertise. Nick Temple, CEO of UK social investor Social Investment Business, gives the example of Labour seeking to “raise £3 of private investment for every £1 of public investment”: this way of using catalytic capital to deliver positive social outcomes is exactly what the social investment sector does, he points out. “If they’re talking about external investment coming in, then it’s sure that social and impact investment is a part of that conversation,” Temple says.


2. Politicians are missing the opportunity to drive the movement for better business

General political discussion tends to put all businesses in the same basket, failing to distinguish what “business for good” can achieve, Social Enterprise UK’s Hochlaf explains, adding he would like to see more discussion around that.

“Sometimes there can be this view that all businesses are the same and when you take a step back, that idea actually does look a little bit absurd,” he says.

“The reason why we really support and champion the social enterprise model is because it represents the best business behaviours, businesses that are focused on their community, that deliver what people need, but in a socially responsible way. This is the foundation for sustainable economic prosperity.”

Chris Turner B Lab UKChris Turner (pictured), executive director of B Lab UK, a charity that campaigns for “business for good” by promoting the B Corp accreditation in Britain, says the manifestos have missed an opportunity to highlight the possibility of driving business towards better practices that can help the government solve pressing challenges. “Ultimately, it’s really disappointing. Across all of the manifestos there is very limited reference to the reform of business practice corporate governance.”

B Lab UK leads a campaign for a “Better Business Act” – proposed legislation that would require businesses to benefit society and the environment alongside shareholders.

The only party coming close to supporting such a change in legislation is the Liberal Democrats – which are unlikely to lead a government after the election, according to the polls. Their manifesto pledges to “reform fiduciary duty and company purpose rules to ensure that all large companies have a formal statement of corporate purpose… and that they report formally on the wider impact of the business on society and the environment.” This is similar to regulations implemented recently by the European Union, such as the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive. 

One challenge for politicians to put the potential positive role of business at the forefront of the conversation is that it is a complex concept, despite the public being generally in favour of it, Turner argues. “From an electoral perspective, from a public perception perspective, the role of business, I suppose, is fairly opaque… It’s a communication challenge.”

Shabana Mahmood miss macaroon photo

Still a campaign staple: Labour shadow justice secretary Shabana Mahmood (centre) visited Miss Macaroon CIC, a social enterprise that invests 100% of its profits in programmes that support unemployed young people gain the skills and confidence to be work-ready. Mahmood expressed her commitment to support diverse business models, saying the social enterprise “makes a real difference to young people”.

3. But it’s not just about the manifestos

Some warn against drawing too many conclusions based on documents and debates that don’t go into much detail (even the Labour Manifesto, despite its 136 pages, has been criticised for being too vague). 

Notably, the Labour Party’s former leader, Gordon Brown, has recently energetically supported the notion of social investment, firstly by flagging the “worldwide success of social impact bonds” in May, then by backing the idea that social outcomes contracts should be used more to develop UK public services

portrait picture of SEUK's Head of policy and research Dean HochlafHochlaf (pictured) says he isn’t taking things wholly negatively. “Yes, we would have liked to see more explicit reference to social enterprise and social investment. But when you read between the lines, there is actually quite a lot across many of the manifestos which suggests that there is appetite and eagerness to create conditions in which social enterprises, community business and alternative business models can thrive.”

He adds: “Even if it isn’t as explicit as we would like, there is a recognition of the need to cultivate a broader base of social community and businesses. We welcome that.”

This wait and see approach is echoed in Scotland by Chris Martin, CEO at Social Enterprise Scotland. He says: “Social enterprises already make a vital contribution to the Scottish and UK economies and are transforming lives in every urban and rural community. We welcome the election as an opportunity to further engage politicians and political parties regarding the significant future potential of social enterprise.”

Social Investment Business’s Temple agrees that the idea of social investment and social entrepreneurship are “in there, but maybe not using our language”. 

Issues highlighted as priorities in the manifestos – such as health, homelessness, social inequality – are typically where social investment and social enterprises operate, so there is an obvious opportunity for the sector to play a role, even if it isn’t spelled out explicitly, he explains. 

To make the most of these opportunities, he advises organisations in the social investment and social enterprise sectors to “lean into the thrust of where things are heading. If it is a Labour government, they’ve set out very clearly how they’re going to structure things, in terms of mission and what their first steps will be. If you’re not flowing with the thrust of that, I'm not sure you can get traction.”

We have to play a medium-term game, not over-expecting what we can do in the short term

Better Society Capital, the UK’s social investment wholesaler, is already on the front foot as it has put together its manifesto response setting out how the sector can help meet various goals from the different parties. 

Tessa Godley, Better Society Capital’s policy and advocacy director, tells Pioneers Post there is a real opportunity for civil society and social impact investors to help achieve parties’ ambitions. “I was encouraged to see references to many different social issue areas where social impact investing is already delivering and could be scaled up and could do so much more.” 

Social investment and social entrepreneurship could help deliver broad objectives such as economic growth and business investment, but also act in specific areas where the sector already has a strong track record, such as health and tackling homelessness.

Temple says: “We have to play a medium-term game, I think not over-expecting what we can do in the short term – in the first six months.”


The manifestos we’ve looked at:


Top image: Labour's Keir Starmer campaigns during the 2024 general election. The Labour party is expected to win a landslide majority in parliament, according to polls. (Credit: Keir Starmer on Flickr)

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