Voice 10

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Voice 10

This conference review is reprinted from the Guardian's Society Daily blog of 2 Feb 10, by Patrick Butler.

Swashbuckling social entrepreneurs

Cardiff: Social Enterprise Coalition annual conference

Yesterday marked Peter Holbrook's first public speaking engagement as chief executive of the Social Enterprise Coalition. It was a clearing of the throat rather than a full-blown call to arms. He was nervy, smily, self-deprecating. A slick, third-sector corporate suit he is not. And his audience appeared to love him for it. A manifesto is imminent, he told us: an expansion of the social economy, tax breaks to encourage investment in social enterprise, an extension of the "right to request" scheme pioneered by the Department of Health – which allows health workers to set up their own social businesses – across all government departments. No surprises there – we know Holbrook is rooted in community activism, that his conception of social enterprise is heavily guided by social justice and environmental justice. He has street credibility, through his leadership of the Sunlight Development Trust in Kent. The true test will be after the election, when we shall see how far the next government really cares for social enterprise, and how Holbrook will operate in the stifling corridors of Whitehall. But for now, it's safe to say, the honeymoon period is still in full swing.

Interesting to hear about a monster social business. Mondragón Corporación Cooperativa of Spain has over 100,000 employees in 120 federated co-operatives, turning over tens of millions of euros in sectors as varied as white goods, elevators, car components, agriculture, finance, supermarkets and bicycles. In fact, it is Spain's seventh-largest business, exporting to 120 different countries. Sort of like Hitachi, or Bosch, but with the workers in charge. Mondragon's director of co-operative dissemination, Mikel Lezamiz, spoke at Voice 10 yesterday. Mondragon, he told us by way of outlining its Christian humanist underpinnings, is "humanity at work". He then listed its core principles:

1 Open admission (no one refused a job on, say, religious grounds)

2 Democratic organisation (a sort of one-member one-vote approach to company strategy)

3 Sovereignty of labour

4 The instrumental and subordinate nature of capital (make money work for you, not the City)

5 Wage solidarity (Lezamiz claims that, typically, the highest-paid employees, presumably the managers, earn no more than 3.5 times the salary of the lowest-paid, although my research suggests that ratio may be 1:5 or even 1:9 in some cases)

6 Inter co-operation (the constituent co-ops don't compete with each other, and if times are hard in some businesses, employees are redeployed into stronger parts of the enterprise. Around 550 staff are currently looked after in this way).

7 Social transformation ("we have to change society in a fair way and an equitable way," said Lezamiz).

8 Universality

9 Education (the businesses are obliged to invest a proportion of profits into the co-op's own schools and training facilities)

This is what we do, and why we do it, he said, as he trundled gamely and one-paced, like a dutiful company man, through his lists and governance charts. No flashy radical posturing, flights of earnest rhetoric, or exhortations to go and change the world. "Money is necessary, but not important," he said. There wasn't a hint of smugness or naive superiority when he said that. Social business, Mondragon-style, is about community, self-help, solidarity, obligation, the expression of some deeply held cultural beliefs, social norms, and collective expectations of what commerce, work, and profit are for.

In Britain we tend to like our social entrepreneurs charismatic and individualistic: we revere mavericks, rebels, swashbucklers and impresarios – think John Bird (Big Issue), Liam Black (Fifteen), Tim Smit (Eden Project). I fear Mondragon could never happen here: we are too individualistic, our own co-operative traditions relatively weak (however much the Labour party may belatedly try to resurrect them). We are, I suspect, too immersed in our own Anglo-saxon social capitalism.

Voice 10 saw the unveiling of the social enterprise mark. Essentially this is a marketing badge rather than a quality assurance accreditation, designed to enable the public to recognise that the holder is not just any old money-grabbing, profit-soaking business. Holbrook suggested it would demonstrate "the integrity of an organisation". Which, thinking about it, is a tall order. I'm not sure what the criteria are yet for ownership of a mark, and I'm sure there will be some interesting disputes at the margins, where companies with, say, highly developed corporate social responsibility programmes, or slick, bohemian, "innocent smoothie"-style marketing approaches are refused entry of this particular club.

Interestingly, at least three people have approached me asking whether the Guardian would apply for a social enterprise mark. Well, I've joked in the past when speaking at conferences and seminars how the Guardian is Britain's least-known famous social business, so you never know. And last night Ed Mayo, the new chief executive of Co-ops UK, wondered whether the company I work for might convert itself into a co-op. Ed, please table a proposal!