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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Here’s everything I learned this weekend at LibDem conference

Fear and loathing in the Bournemouth International Centre.

I spent my weekend in Bournemouth. It’s a lovely place for a weekend away, with gorgeous sandy beaches, beautiful parks and unusually good weather for an English seaside resort – but I didn’t get to enjoy any of that because I spent the weekend shut in a conference centre with a bunch of Lib Dems. Here’s what I learned from the experience.

There are people who think that EU flag berets make a stylish addition to any head

Almost the first thing to catch my eye on entering the Bournemouth International Centre was a cluster of women with EU flags on their head.

I’m not entirely clear whether there were a lot of these guys, or a small group I just happened to notice a lot because an EU flag beret is the sort of thing you’ll almost certainly be able to spot across a crowded conference hall, but either way I kept seeing them all weekend.

Vexingly, they were always women of a certain age. Do young women not love the EU? Do they not make the hats in men’s sizes? What?

Anyway.  If you want to show your support for Britain’s membership of the European Union while looking a bit like one of the mushrooms from Super Mario Bros 3, now you know how. 

You can buy laminated pictures of Tim Farron for £4.25 a throw

Something I would like to know is who exactly the market is for this particular product.

Something I would not like to know is why this product is laminated.

Vince Cable wants to bring house prices down...

The reason I was at LibDem conference at all was because the Young Liberals had wanted someone who wasn’t a politician to join their panel about intergenerational inequality and, basically, shout at everyone about housing. This is how I spend most Saturday nights anyway, so I agreed.

The thing that stays with me about that discussion was something the new(ish) party leader Vince Cable said. I’m paraphrasing, but it was along the lines of: We need to explain to homeowners that house prices have to fall.

At the time, I thought perhaps this was a comment tailored for a young and angry audience – but he said something similar when taking questions from the party at large the next day. He also said that the party needed to take on the NIMBYs that oppose house-building. 

All of which I’m quite in favour of, on the whole. Except...

... but his party night not let him

...at least some of those NIMBYs are members of his own party. One of them is the MP for Oxford West & Abingdon, Layla Moran, who was elected in June on a platform of protecting Oxford’s green belt from the housing development she says neighbouring Tory and Labour councils are threatening to build. 

During our panel debate, Moran explained that she favoured meeting Oxford’s housing need by building in neighbouring Bicester (not, as it happens, a part of her own constituency). She also argued that building on the green belt should be the “last resort”, although since the city already has the most expensive housing in Britain relative to wages it’s not clear to me what the last resort might look like if not this.

At any rate: LibDem policy is set by the members, not the leadership. And Moran will be far from the only LibDem politician who wants to protect their patch from development. For those who favour housebuilding, Cable’s support is A Good Thing – but that doesn’t mean his party will follow him on the issue. 

Political tribalism is personal

Why, I asked people in a panic whenever conversation palled, are you a LibDem? Sometimes, when people seemed particularly annoyed with the party around them, I’d instead ask: why are you still a LibDem?

One of the answers I was given stays with me, because I’d not considered it before. You might hate the leadership, the policies, the coalition. You might not know many LibDems back home. But twice a year you go off to a conference somewhere, and you spend four days with friends from all over the country who otherwise you would hardly ever see. 

Leaving the party doesn’t just mean cutting up a membership card: it means abandoning those friends. 

This, I suspect, goes some way to explain why, even when the party is very obviously in a hole, everyone in the Bournemouth International Centre this weekend was so bloody cheerful.

Shutting a couple of thousand strangers in a badly ventilated conference hall for several days is a great way to incubate all sorts of exciting diseases

I’m a man on the cusp of middle age and I’m sitting here with freshers’ flu and no free drinks parties, how the hell is this fair.

Just because you agree on Europe that doesn’t mean there’s no excuse for a fight

The Brexit debate on Sunday morning was, I was assured, going to be the fight of the conference. I’m a big fan of both pointless political rows and the European Union so I went along.

The funny thing, though, was it was a remarkably difficult fight to understand. Both sides wanted Britain to remain in the European Union, of course (they’re LibDems; they have hats). But one faction wanted to commit the party to an “exit from Brext” referendum on the final terms of Brexit, while the other just wanted to stuff the whole thing. Okay.

It further transpired that actually both sides would probably accept another referendum (either the first or the third, argued former MP Julian Huppert, depending on how you count, but definitely not the second). The argument was really about the meaning of that referendum: if that was lost, too, would the LibDems accept it and back Brexit? Well, obviously not, but in which case what was the point of supporting a referendum? Why not just be clear that you oppose the whole thing as a mess?

Moreover, LibDem policy is meant to represent what a LibDem government would do. In the event of a LibDem majority – pause here for hollow laughter – it’s probably safe to assume that the mood of the British public towards Europe will have changed so radically that we could cancel Brexit without bothering with another referendum. So is LibDem policy a guide to the policy of a majority LibDem government? Or is it a guide to what it would fight for without said government? And since nobody outside the party is likely to read the thing does it actually matter?

Just as I was getting my head around this, someone requested that conference suspend standing orders, the chair said that would be a vote on whether to have a debate about this request, someone else said that standing orders had already been suspended, everyone began muttering, and my nose began to bleed.

In the event, after a long and exhausting debate that left everyone in a terrible mood, the LibDems voted overwhelmingly to keep policy pretty much the same as it had been before. Which, ironically, is a good description of the party’s position on Brexit.

The LibDems love a good singsong

“Oh you have to go to Glee Club,” people kept telling me. “You’ve not seen LibDem conference until you’ve been to Glee Club.”

I promise that whatever you’re imagining right now, the reality is worse. 

It works like this. People rewrite the lyrics to popular songs to make them about British politics, and then a roomful of LibDems sing them like they’re hymns. Here’s a topical one about David Cameron and a pig, sung to the tune of English Country Garden:

Sadly I didn’t make it to glee club – I was back in London before the glittering night – but just so I didn’t feel left out a crowd of LibDems demonstrated the concept to me by singing several verses to the tune of American Pie outside a pub. And just for me. Lucky old me, eh!

Despite the lyric “Tony Blair should fuck off and die”, this, I’m told, actually dated to before Iraq, all the way back to talk of a Labour-LibDem pact in the mid-1990s, long before many of those singing were even involved in the party. The lyrics are printed in a book that expands every year, and you can buy your own copy. So it is that people can confidently sing along with satirical songs dating back to the 90s or beyond. Amazing scenes.

If you ever tweet anything nice about LibDem conference, they will start sending you membership forms

No.

Apart from anything else you people give me the flu.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.