Time for consumers to take some responsibility

The shoppers and the shopped.

For Adam Smith, the one characteristic that set humanity apart from the beasts was our ability to strike a bargain. “One dog”, he wrote, “does not change a bone with another”. The exchange of bones, grain, motor cars, iPhones and the rest has built up over the last 250 years into a system more complex than even Smith could have imagined. At its heart, however, capitalism remains a grand bargain; we as consumers make clear the force of our demand, and producers respond to that with the scale of their supply. The nuances of that extend to pricing, to service, to quality and to the behaviour of companies in society.

It may seem of late that one side of the capitalist bargain is no longer being upheld. Beyond the economic car-smash of the banking crisis –with causes so obscure as to be beyond the understanding of most consumers– in the last few months no newspaper has seemed complete without at least one headline of the "Big Company Does Bad Thing" variety. PPI mis-selling, large-scale tax avoidance and rumours of price fixing are only some of the most prominent. Indeed, the malaise goes deeper. In the UK, we suffer some of the highest costs of living in the developed world, combined with some genuinely poor standards of service.

Research shows that, in the UK, more of us care about service than we do about price – by a factor of something like 2:1. That’s good news for companies, as it means that competitive advantage needn’t mean a squeeze on the profit margin. On the other hand, it’s bad news for consumers, the majority of whom say that they are unhappy with, or indifferent to, the standard of service they receive. The UK media would appear to be on the consumer’s side, and are all too ready to hurl opprobrium, whether for illegal rate-fixing or long call-centre queues. The phrase “responsible capitalism” is used often, but not always in a responsible manner; it’s noticeable that the media punishment does not always fit the corporate crime. However, when even the President of the CBI calls for more responsible attitudes from business, as he did recently in the Guardian newspaper and also at this week’s CBI conference, then that can be taken as a sure sign that it’s time for change.

As consumers we have as much power as companies do to effect that change. After all, two parties to a transaction have equal rights, to progress or to withdraw as they see fit. While it may be harder for us, as consumers, to fully exercise our power I would suggest that not only do we have the right to do so, but that we have a responsibility. If our capitalism has become irresponsible, then we cannot lay the blame for that solely at the feet of producers; as consumers, we too must consider what we might do better.

The same research that shows a disparity between what consumers want from companies and what we actually get, also shows a disparity between our desire for change and our willingness to act to achieve it. In a nation where customer boycotts are rarer than hen’s teeth, it’s perhaps unsurprising that unethical business practice can go unpunished by the consumer; it may be that we simply don’t care about tax evasion as much as our media does. It’s much more surprising that, for a nation that values good service over almost everything else, we are unusually reluctant to speak out about bad service, or even to seek better. Compared to consumers in the US, for example, or Poland or Russia, we are less likely to complain, to ask for the manager, to get angry with staff, or even to shop around for a better deal. The higher standards of service enjoyed in these countries is a testament to the success of such tactics.

In the UK, we consumers need to decide on our priorities (though it seems that many of us have), and to act to make them a reality (which we do not, as a rule). We should not expect to have the best service or the best price handed to us on a plate; that simply isn’t how capitalism works. Whether at the market stall or in the call centre queue, if we suffer in silence it benefits no-one and changes nothing. Only by making our views known can we hope to build the positive customer experiences that we all expect.

Returning to Smith, it may be time for us in the UK to refocus ourselves on “the constant and uninterrupted effort of every man to better his condition… the principle from which opulence is originally derived”. As consumers in the UK, there’s an opportunity for us all to gain a little more “opulence”. If we could take our obligations as consumers as seriously as we take our rights, then we would all feel the benefit, and our companies would too.

Claire Richardson is a VP at customer relations consultants Verint.

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What Labour MPs who want to elect the shadow cabinet are forgetting

The idea is to push Jeremy Corbyn to build an ideologically broad team, but it distracts from the real hurdle – management.

Labour MPs who have been critical of Jeremy Corbyn are pushing to vote for shadow cabinet members – rather than having all the posts appointed by the leader.

Most of the parliamentary Labour party who are not Corbyn loyalists believe this should be the “olive branch” he offers them, in order to put his recent words about “unity” and “wiping the slate clean” into action.

Corbyn and his allies have refused to consider such an idea outside of a “wider” democratisation of the party – saying that Labour members should also get a say in who’s on the frontbench. It’s also thought Corbyn is reluctant due to the shadow cabinet having three representatives on the National Executive Committee. He wouldn’t want his opponents voting for those, tipping the balance of the Committee back towards centrists.

Shadow cabinet elections were a longstanding convention for Labour in opposition until Ed Miliband urged the party to vote against them in 2011. Labour MPs on different wings of the party believe a return to the system would avoid Labour’s frontbench being populated solely by Corbyn’s ideological wing.

But there is a complication here (aside from the idea of a party leader having to run an effective opposition with their opponents in key shadow cabinet positions).

Proponents of shadow cabinet elections say they would help to make Labour a broad church. But really they could put those in the “make-it-work” camp who initially helped form Corbyn’s team in a difficult position. Initially conciliatory MPs like Thangam Debonnaire and Heidi Alexander have since left their posts, revealing frustration more at Corbyn’s management style than policy direction. Chi Onwurah MP, who remains a shadow minister, has also expressed such concerns.

One senior Labour MP points out that the problem with shadow cabinet elections lies in those who left Corbyn’s shadow cabinet but had wanted to cooperate – not in bringing ideological opponents into the fold.

“There were lots of people on his team who actually liked Jeremy, and wanted to make policy with him,” they tell me. “And many of them eventually felt they had to leave because of how difficult it was to work with him. They wanted to stay but couldn’t. If people like that couldn’t stay, will they go back? It will be much harder for him to show them he can work differently.”

One of the “make-it-work” faction voices their concern about returning to the shadow cabinet via elections for this reason. “A lot of us [who left] are still really interested in our policy areas and would be happy to help if they asked,” they say. “But it was too difficult to be taken seriously when you were actually in those shadow cabinet meetings.”

My source describes a non-collegiate approach in meetings around the shadow cabinet table, where Corbyn would read out pre-written opening statements and responses when they delivered their ideas. “It was like he wasn’t really listening.”

The plan to reintroduce shadow cabinet elections barely left the ground in a meeting of Labour’s National Executive Committee on Saturday night, on the eve of Labour conference.

This is in spite of Labour MPs urging the NEC to make a decision on the matter soon. Jon Ashworth, an NEC member and shadow minister, told me shortly after Corbyn’s victory speech that this would be “a good way of bringing people back” in to the team, and was determined to “get some resolution on the issue” soon.

It doesn’t look like we’ll get that yet. But for some who have already tried serving on the frontbench, it’s a distraction from what is for them a management – rather than an ideological – problem.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.