Co-op MP Alun relishes new social enterprise role

THE Government re-shuffle which followed the general election has provided a fresh challenge for Labour/Co-op MP Alun Michael. Mr Michael, the MP for Cardiff South and Penarth, is...

THE Government re-shuffle which followed the general election has provided a fresh challenge for Labour/Co-op MP Alun Michael.
Mr Michael, the MP for Cardiff South and Penarth, is the new Minister of State for Industry and the Regions, with a portfolio that includes both enterprise and social enterprise.
For Mr Michael it is a challenge he is happy to accept but not necessarily one he expected: "I am absolutely delighted, if slightly surprised, by my new appointment," he told me. "My previous work at the Home Office and at Defra required me to take a lead on social issues. I hadn&#039t really expected a return to economic development."
Not that economic development is anything new for Mr Michael: "What drew me into politics in the first place was seeing the lack of hope and opportunity that unemployed young people in Cardiff were experiencing in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I wanted to help to change that situation and helped to establish both the economic development and co-operative development agencies in Cardiff.
"When I became an MP I was determined to try and tackle the problems we&#039d experienced in Cardiff on a national basis. I&#039m very pleased and proud of what we&#039ve achieved – the New Deal and the strength of the economy are two major factors that have helped to transform Britain. It&#039s very important that we continue to develop the economy and I&#039m delighted to have the chance to contribute to that development in my new role."
And Mr Michael believes that co-operatives and other social enterprises can play a major role in that development: "The environment we&#039re now in is a very exciting one for social enterprise. In the past there&#039s been a lack of understanding – people haven&#039t understood that it is possible to have social objectives and to be business-like and profitable.
"It&#039s possible to be effective but different. Increasingly people are now realising that social enterprises are not just good in their own right, but that they bring benefits to both the public and private sectors as well."
Mr Michael believes that in developing social enterprise, and enterprise in general, the regional development agencies have an increasingly important role to play: "Their role will be crucial," he says. "The RDAs clearly need to look strategically at a region and that may involve bringing in outside investment but it will also involve looking at, and developing, existing strengths and talents of that region.
"At Defra we looked at the contribution that social enterprises could make to the rural economy and the findings were very exciting. When a rural village opens its own community shop it not only provides a valuable service to the community but also helps people to see that they can make a difference, gain experience, develop their own talents and improve their confidence."
In the new Parliament Mr Michael is one of 29 Labour/Co-op MPs – a grouping which he says is respected and welcomed by the wider Labour Party: "I think it&#039s recognised as a strength of the Labour Party that Co-op MPs make a creative and lateral contribution to the party, rather than just focus on a narrow area of interest.
"There is now a degree of confidence between Co-op MPs and the wider Movement, for which both Mutuo and Co-operatives UK must take a lot of credit. The three acts introduced in the last Parliament, together with the development of co-operative-influenced models such as foundation hospitals, shows the influence of the Party."
One of the three strands of the Co-op Party&#039s manifesto was tackling global poverty and, as with social enterprise, Mr Michael believes that the time is right for real progress top be made: "It may not have been picked up by the media as a major election issue but I certainly found it was a big priority for many people.
"I think there is now a shared vision that&#039s about getting reform that allows free trade to be linked with fair trade and protection of regional economies where they need to be helped.
"The economies of many small countries depend on one product. The way that help is given to those countries to help them to diversify is very important."
Another issue which perhaps didn&#039t dominate the election campaign as much as had been threatened was hunting. Mr Michael said: "I certainly don&#039t regret the effort I put in to putting forward a more consensual and co-operative approach to an issue that couldn&#039t be allowed to go on year after year. It was inevitable, given the passions of those on either side of the argument, that some people would disagree with the outcome, but I&#039m pleased with what we achieved."

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