A view of the City of London, from the far side of the River Thames. Photograph: Getty Images.
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A lack of trust: addressing the "trust deficit" facing UK businesses

Trust in banks and businesses has was severely hampered by the financial crisis - and has yet to recover. The mistrust cuts both ways. How can we expect a recovery without support for business from politicians and the public?

The financial crisis that seized the developed world in 2008, sending shock waves through markets and plunging the world into a prolonged recession, did more than wreak socio-economic havoc: it significantly eroded trust between politics, business and the media. By inference, the public’s trust of politics, business and the media has been negatively impacted and a series of scandals involving each of these key pillars of society has enforced this sense of mistrust and created schisms between these institutions, driving a rift between them and the public. The importance of trust cannot be underestimated: it is an essential component of a flourishing democracy and economy. Without trust, investment is severely hampered and growth is strangled before even the "green shoots" appear. The dearth of trust is one of the major issues facing society today.

A recent research report conducted by Populus, commissioned by DLA Piper, has found that multiple trust "deficits" exist in our society. Moreover, the lack of trust between the three aforementioned "estates" is not only deeper now than back in 2011, when the inaugural Trust report was published, but it is wider too, with diverging ideologies splitting political parties, the phone hacking scandal afflicting the fourth estate, and the manifold recent negative stories stemming from the business community, particular from the financial services and energy sectors, appear to have tainted the reputation of all private enterprise. It is clear that trust between business, politics and the media has now broken down completely.

"Trust in business" remains at the forefront of the political agenda. Westminster remains committed to addressing what is perceived to be widespread malpractice among businesses - from energy firms hiking prices to PPI mis-selling – all to the detriment of the consumer. There is a view that non-financial services businesses are increasingly resenting being tarnished by the same brush the media and politicians have used to smear the reputation of banks over the past few years. Businesses have not necessarily addressed this negative perception in a particularly proactive manner. While there is acknowledgement that the financial crisis has been a torrid time for businesses, there is little sign that corporate behaviour is changing in any meaningful way. In other words, it’s business as usual for most businesses, who do not see themselves as the source of the "trust deficit" problem. With one influential media commentator opining that there should be a "bankers wing" at Ford Open Prison, the lack of awareness shown by some businesses is pretty surprising.

While public outrage, manifested through politicians, media and populist movements, being directed at certain business malpractices is understandable, it has led to an unhealthy overarching anti-business mood, which is hampering a sustainable recovery in the UK. This lack of trust cuts both ways. If businesses are viewed by the majority of politicians with deep scepticism then the feeling is mutual, with a growing sense in the business community that politicians and the media simply do not understand capitalism. This is particularly the case with politicians, who can be viewed as being devoid of business experience and accused of drawing ill-informed and uphelpful conclusions, which has hampered UK growth and the international reputation of UK plc. As a corollary to this, political messages are seen by business and the media as being opaque and often contradictory.

What can businesses do to address this trust deficit? A good start would be to make more noise about the myriad ways in which British businesses should speak out more and deliver positive messages which show that they are a force for good. It is clear that businesses expect industry organisations such as the IoD and the CBI to do more in this regard, but businesses themselves should also be promoting the virtue of capitalism and the benefits it brings. Schools have a role to play in explaining the value of commercial activity and countering any cultural problem with success. Business needs to re-evaluate its social responsibility and pro bono activity accordingly. Only through a concerted effort involving all stakeholders can this critical issue be addressed and, through exploring the areas where trust has broken down, solutions for the long term formulated.

Co-CEO of DLA Piper

Getty
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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.