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Stephan Shakespeare

Stephan Shakespeare: Dull, pedestrian, uninspiring - but perhaps a winner for politicians: "Competence Guaranteed"

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Imagine you are going into battle and alongside you in your struggle to survive you can have either mercenaries or regular soldiers - which do you choose? Easy: the ones you can unthinkingly trust. Well, suppose the mercenaries are clearly superior in the craft of fighting; but the regulars are unquestionably, fundamentally, loyal? With mercenaries you are constantly looking over your shoulder to see if they're still on your side or if the enemy has offered them more money; but then again, they may wield the knife so much better. A tough decision.

Last week, YouGov-Cambridge held a conference on restoring trust in banking, and this contrast in the cultures of the mercenary versus the committed regular was used by Dr Tom Simpson to illuminate public attitudes to bankers. Simpson, a philosopher at Sidney Sussex College and, appropriately given his theme, a former Royal Marine who earned the Sword of Honour, suggested that people distrust bankers because they seem like mercenaries, their motivation appears to be primarily financial; there is no natural loyalty to the customer. This applies to the Big Bonus Banker, but not to the person who helps you at the desk (in the YouGov study only 13% trusted investment bankers to tell the truth, bottom of the pile, while 67% trusted ‘staff at my local bank’).

The idea is compelling: if banks feel that the only way to ensure the continued loyalty and effort of their employees is to constantly shower them with huge sums of money, how can customers and citizens trust them? We must constantly be looking over our shoulders, we feel, to be sure such people are really using their special talents on our behalf, and not just serving their own pecuniary interests. That's why the public craves tighter regulation.

This is the essential problem of the banking industry in the court of public opinion, and we can hardly be surprised if politicians are tempted to use - or mis-use - this opportunity to advertise their allegiance to the people: anti-banking legislation is a very tempting reaction.

Politicians themselves are constantly subject to the same litmus test of self-interest versus social solidarity. Are they fighting for us, or for their personal ambition? Are they saying what they believe, or are they more concerned with winning our votes? Do they side with ordinary strugglers in their constituencies, or with those who will advance them in Westminster? Are they authentic, or just pretending? Are they, in other words, mercenaries seeking the highest bid, or regulars, fighting for what they believe? We search for the extrinsic and intrinsic motivations for their behaviour.

In the political tussle for trust, Conservatives find themselves at a clear disadvantage to Labour. The ideas of the left sound so much more people-friendly than the ideas of the right. Labour are on the side of the underdog, Conservatives celebrate success. Even if we are not ourselves underdogs, we grant Labour more trustworthiness for it. They look less like mercenaries.

Conservatives appear to be the natural allies of the bonus-rich banker. But the way to change that image is not to bash the banking industry. The truth is that bankers and Conservatives must follow the same path out of the valley of mistrust.

As the banking industry is now realising, redemption lies on the same path for all good companies: by serving the customer well. There isn't much to be gained by mere message, by the boasted policy; they can best rebuild their reputation for dependability by truly focusing on their clients, who currently feel abused when they try either to save or borrow or just to manage their accounts, but who could creditably be won back with attention to their real needs. That is how to dispel the image of the mercenary.

Conservatives can also win back a good reputation by the same route: by service. They are in power - they can use it to fix things for the citizen-customer. When older people recall how life was different before and after Thatcher, it's not the 'freedom of choice' policies they most readily recall, but their effects: for example, how the months waiting to get a new phone line installed was replaced by same-day service.

If companies succeed by making their offers better or cheaper - and often both together - why shouldn't it work for politicians? Why can't we expect them to perform better at the basic craft of governing? I once saw an election poster abroad with the unexciting slogan, 'Competence guaranteed'. I dismissed it as far too pedestrian, but these days it could sound rather comforting.

Conservatives love to say that we should roll back the frontiers of the state, that we would do better with smaller government. No doubt. But what about making sure whatever size government we do have actually functions well? Politicians love the big ideas, but what about small improvements in how things are run?  Conservatives have often achieved management skills at the local level, but sometimes struggle at the national level. Perhaps if you don't really believe in the value of government then you'll never be great at the craft of it. I suspect for voters, competence in running things is taken as a mark of respect. It's something a 'regular' would care about, though a mercenary might not. Social solidarity is best built by noticeable improvements in service.


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