How Blair killed the co-ops

Reclaiming social enterprise from its neoliberal turn

Social enterprise and third sector activity have mushroomed into a prolific area of academic research and discourse over the past 20 years, with many claiming their origins rooted in Blair, New Labour and Giddens’ ‘Third Way’. But many academic contributions lack experience of policy implementation and do not access the wealth of grey, legacy and public policy literature from earlier periods which supports different interpretations. Since most make few references to developments during the 1970s and 1980s, their narrow focus on New Labour from 1997 onwards not only neglects real antecedents, but miscasts the role of social enterprise.

Adopting a Critical Realist approach, the author had access to previously unused hardcopy documents from archives and collections and interviewed key players and key actors between 1998 and 2002, when major social enterprise and third sector policy changes occurred.

During a key political period from 1998 to 2002, Blair’s New Labour governments forced through a major conceptual shift for social enterprise, co-operative and third sector activity. Many structures, formed as community responses to massive deindustrialisation in the 1970s and 1980s, were repositioned to bid against the private sector to obtain contracts for delivery of low-cost public services.

Other UK academic contributions draw parallels with North American individual social entrepreneurs or rely excessively on interpretations from L’Emergence de l’Entreprise Sociale en Europe (EMES) Research Network, which prioritises a marketised version of “work integration social enterprises” (WISEs).

So the restoration of political and economic democracy has been denied to many local communities.

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