The idea of a trade union representing entrepreneurs, first mooted by Doug Richard exactly three years ago, is suddenly back in the ether. Former No.10 adviser, Rohan Silva has called for such a beast to counter the “immoral” hold big business has over government while City AM Editor, Allister Heath has demanded:
a slick, professional pressure group relentlessly fighting for wealth creators and promoting mass entrepreneurship as the answer to the crisis of confidence that is currently engulfing capitalism.
It’s not an idea without merit. Indeed, it reflects the themes I’ve been exploring on this blog over the last few months. There is undoubtedly a need to challenge the grip sluggish, rent-seeking business has over the UK to allow an economy built around the small and the imaginative.
But it’s also a proposal that begs two big questions.
What form would such a body take?
The traditional membership body structure strikes me as inappropriate. Your average start-up entrepreneur is unlikely to be a natural joiner or committee hack plus s/he has limited time to volunteer. To secure membership from such a group something of direct benefit beyond the promise of better government policy would have to be offered such as business support or investment opportunities. But as RSA research has shown, this is already offered by a very crowded and confusing market not desperately in need of a new entrant.
What would it actually lobby for?
Allister Heath suggests that the focus of such a group must be to break up monopolies and oligopolies to allow new, innovative players in. Amen to that. But the problem with any body that seeks to “represent” a certain social or economic group is that it usually drifts into an effort to squeeze special favours out of the state: byzantine tax breaks, ear-marked procurement deals, distortionary regulation. The reason being that it is far easier to secure these ‘quick wins’ to justify the body’s existence to its supporters than bring about profounder change.
Both of these concerns lead to a more fundamental point which is that entrepreneurs generate change (sometimes world shattering) by offering a service or a product in such an effective way that consumers can’t resist. It’s a grassroots, messy, creative approach to transformation that needs to be left free to flourish. I’m not sure it is best served by engaging over the long term with the clunky, hierarchical, hide bound world of government and politics where change is generated in very different and often less effective ways. Entrepreneurs challenge monopolies by being entrepreneurial not by asking for government help which is precisely what monopolies themselves do.
Ultimately, it seems to me that what is required is not so much an official union for entrepreneurs as a loose alliance of like-minded people and organisations who see the value in creating an economy where enterpreneurial challenge to oligopoly and monopoly can thrive. That would mean seminars, conferences, papers, conversations with the powerful generated by a variety of organisations sharing a similar goal: a once in a generation shift in favour of the entrepreneurial and creative.
The work of the RSA around young entrepreneurs, social enterprise and micro-business, the new Centre for Entrepreneurs and a wide host of business support organisations, start-up incubators and various loose networks provide a fertile soil within which to start creating such a movement.
Maybe we should just all get together some time soon.
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