Opinion: Dare to be fair

I first decided I was a Liberal at the age of eleven in 1959, when I saw Jo Grimond explaining why worker-shareholders in British business would get us out of the Union strike turmoil. He seemed to be the only bloke in Parliament suggesting this excellent idea, and although the Liberals had just eight seats at the time, my instincts were drawn to the obvious sense of it.

The main thing it did, of course, was to continue the tradition set by Grimond of creative policy in the face of a changing society. In 2008, Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats face exactly the same challenge. But there is a mainstream way to rise above ‘meltdown noise’ that is Liberal in both its common sense and moral tradition.

Scratch most British voters only slightly, and you will notice that the vast majority believe their short-term frustrations, long-term problems and dire future prospects result from one reality above all others: the dishonest, mendacious and anti-consumer ethics of big business in almost all its forms. Be they banks, multiple retailers, television and internet service providers, telecoms companies, energy suppliers or software manufacturers, they have only two modus operandi: if at first you don’t succeed, cheat; and if you can’t answer an after-sales question, hide.

Consider these few instances of insane (yet tolerated) skulduggery: to unsubscribe from Setanta Sports, you have to write them a letter. There is no telephone number or email way of doing so on the site. The same is true of Microsoft UK if you want to complain. If you complain online to Orange about service (or O2, or Vodafone) you must use their criteria. There is no open email available and no call centre number. If you complain to Orange, the replies never cover your grievance. If you write a more pointed letter, they send you a threatening ‘no reply’ email back saying you are charged with internet abuse – one more time and you’ll be banned from using ISPs.

Supermarkets routinely dissemble about price offers and lie about the forms of labour used to produce their goods. The terms ‘organic’ or ‘free range’ become more diluted with every year. They claim to support Drinkaware.com, but cynically offer two-for-ones and huge discounts to bump up alcohol sales.  Flowers from abroad are dubbed organic and then sprayed with toxic preservatives.

I have a sign in my office these days. It paraphrases Clinton’s infamously opportunist mantra with one I hope has more depth: ‘It’s the culture, stupid’. The global economy is in meltdown for a variety of reasons, but they too boil down to bad behaviour: crooks, snake-oil salesmen and materially-blinded fools. A global system run by the ethically challenged was always going to collapse.

Socialists (and Presidents, and Labour leaders) tell us that the taxpayer is ‘the new model’ for financing banking and business – Robert Peston openly said so in a BBC blog last week. How can taxpayers finance business after it’s gone bust? Bankers, we hear ‘don’t want’ regulation. But what does an honest person have to fear from sensible regulation?

New Labour is hurrying back to its comfort zone, and the Conservatives have too many vested interests in business to be anything better than confused. Everyone is frightened: it is time to change the cultural zeitgeist, but nobody dares. For Liberal Democrats going into 2009, caring is not enough: daring is required. That daring should focus on changing the mindset and goals of capitalism on a threatened planet and in crumbling communities.

Daring need not mean marginalisation for a grounded Party – nor should we ask the voter to swallow the bold paragraph above in one gulp. Policies speak louder than manifestos.

Make it illegal to be an online supplier without obvious complaint and unsubscribe options available via all communications means. Make crystal clear pricing and promises obligatory. Set up huge fines for anyone dissembling about the source and production methods of goods. Produce an FSA with real teeth to monitor the investment portfolio and selling methods of any financial institution offering consumer products at retail.

This isn’t heavy-handed regulation, it’s Page One stuff for any Government truly committed to fair practice. And it represents vote-winning promises to give ordinary people a glimmer of hope that somebody is working towards one key goal: ensuring this nonsense never happens again.

The promise should be clear: vote Liberal Democrat, and both our short term economic policies and long term social regeneration policies will ensure that Britain develops a level playing field between business and commerce on the one hand, and employees and consumers on the other.

John Ward is the owner and editor of Not Born Yesterday, a satire and advice site dedicated to promoting new ideas, better ethics and true reform of our constitution, economic model, and community policy objectives. He recently made contact with Liberal Conspiracy and was astonished to receive a stream of invective back. Despite this, he remains a Lib Dem voter.

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25 Comments

  • David Morton 12th Dec '08 - 1:09pm

    I rather think this might be the most important artcile on this site for a long while and I hope it generates the interest it deserves instead of the usual crowd pleases like abolishing faith schools and “Conservative Councillor gets parking Ticket.”

    My anecdotal experience is that liberals small and big L are very good at addresing abuse of power by Governments but haven’t quite cottoned on to the sheer scale of the “consumerisation” of culture and experience.

    While it might be depressing to tink how much of our lives are spent buying things it happens to be true and for practical purposes large companies have more day to day power over us than most state interactions we have.

    Britain doesn’t have a “consumer” party. the last vestages of the producer and worker classes still dominate Conservative and Labour. it remains a mystery to me wy the party of graffiti, broken pavemets and dog poo hasn’t made the shift to call centres, bank charges and sales rip offs.

    there were hints of it in Nicks first conference speech when he critiqued “the computer says No” apprach to anonyous britain.

    It would be counter intuitive to start it as we head into recession but we would at least be ready for the up turn.

    I’d suggest a national community canvas week on consumer issues followed by a commision to set absolute basic standards on web access, email contact, call centres and labeling.

    take “greenwash” for instance. Is there any consistancy on labelling around organic, Free Range etc. What does “natural” mean or “hand made”.

    Why do we have a fractured system on fat, salt and sugar? there are still many different schemes around recyclables.

    Why have celebrity Chefs filed the political vacuum around food and sourcing ?

  • Totally agree, the Liberal Democrats should be seem as the party standing up for the ordinary consumer. Labour and Tories have failed because they have too many vested interests.

  • Alix Mortimer 12th Dec '08 - 2:05pm

    I’m nosy about your Liberal Conspiracy experience too. Usually, the problem with LC is that it isn’t liberal enough, so I’d be surprised if Geoffrey’s assumption was right (those damn libertarians, eh? 😉 ) but am prepared to be corrected.

    As David Morton says, there were early hints of a policy direction on this in Clegg’s “faceless Britain”-themed speech in Liverpool. His emphasis was more on faceless state bureaucracy than faceless business bureaucracy, but I think the arguments are fairly translatable. At about the same time, a policy consultation on Faceless Britain was opened which hasn’t yet led to any policy motion.

    I get the feeling it’s one of Clegg’s personal hobbyhorses and I think it’s ripe for revival. As you say, it was lack of individual accountability and responsibility (both functions of “facelessness”) that allowed the banking crisis to evolve. A joined-up answer which addressed the helplessness of the individual in the face of both state inhumanity and commercial bullying in a liberal way would be a great platform.

    I just don’t know how easy it would be to sell – people’s ideas about this subject tend to be fairly crude and reactive. This or that “shouldn’t be allowed”, or “something should be done”. But never in a way which interferes in their choices as a consumer. I have a feeling the detail would get sticky pretty quickly.

    Links to Clegg’s speech and the consultation paper are in this post:

    http://fabulousblueporcupine.wordpress.com/2008/11/04/is-faceless-britain-being-held-in-a-queue/

  • David Morton 12th Dec '08 - 2:27pm

    My post has got so bad that at least two thirds of it isn’t arriving with god alone knows how much personal data in it and masive inconvenience.

    The Royal Mail website is awful with an invented person called “sarah” there to msk the fact that they clearly don’t care about you. If lara croft like you get to level five and find out how to complain you discover that you have to Write to the royal mail to complain that post isn’t missing untill after 15 working days, they then have 30 working days to respond ( presumably I won’t get the reply either) and the level of detail and evidene of posting you have to supply is absurd.

    The phone number is the same. I swear blind its designd to make you hang up. You eventually after about 90 seconds are told which number to press for a human being. However its engaged and IT [email protected] LET YOU QUEUE.

    you are just told you have been nsucceful and then it cuts you off.

    Post Watch it seems has been abolished and merged into Consumer Focus although they answer the phone as Consumer Direct. They do answer the phone bt won’t let you say anyting until you have answered there questions of a highly personal nature which they are tapping into a computer.

    they can’t do anthing until you have exhausted the RM complaints proceedure. i pointed out i was ring to complain about the RM complaints procedure but was told “You have a point” and that that ” hadn’t been covered on my traing course”.

    Yesterday I collared my Postie who couldn’t have ben more pleset and gave me the mbile number of a local manager. His perspective was we were heading for a postal strike because the whole system is “up S*** creek”. The manager was very pleasent but in effctive and just laughed when i said about the phone problems I had had and told me not to bother.

    Its amazing ow this story just prompts friends to tell similar stories about utility companies, banks and particularly internet providers yet this experience isn’t seen as “political”.

    Why not ? if its the governments business whether and where we smoke and the “liberal” party is saying tesco shouldn’t be selling cheap beer why is tis uge area of urban experience off limits.

  • Alix Mortimer 12th Dec '08 - 2:59pm

    @DM, I think people (and politicians) do see these experiences and problems as “political”. I just think it’s hard to respond to in a coherent political way. Sometimes there are real innovations which will solve these problems, but sometimes the only answer offered is “more and better of something that already exists!” – i.e. regulation.

    I’m not opposed on principle, but I do think there’s a danger we slip into a belief in managerialism as the problem-solver here, that if only we could somehow run the current system “better”, and “tighten it up” and “mend the roof” and so on that all manner of ills could be cured.

    E.g. “Make it illegal to be an online supplier without obvious complaint and unsubscribe options available via all communications means.”

    Yup, fantastic. And I’d go further and impose much shorter legislative time limits on how long businesses AND local government have to respond to complaints.

    But:

    “Make crystal clear pricing and promises obligatory. Set up huge fines for anyone dissembling about the source and production methods of goods.”

    I don’t know a great deal about consumer legislation, but surely some form of this is already in place (though I don’t know how big the fines are – or how big they’d have to be to bother the likes of Tescos)?

  • Alix Mortimer 12th Dec '08 - 3:08pm

    Hm, and on financial products in particular, though, how do you legislate against the entire culture? Regulation alone is not enough. If banks are obliged to tell people about the punitive interest rate that will kick in on a card after 6 months, then they’ll follow the letter of the law and do it.

    But that doesn’t mean that anyone’s decision will be particularly well informed. The text will say “typically 33.2% APR” – it won’t say “typically 33.2% APR, so you’d better make damn sure you’ve paid it off by then or to be honest this deal probably isn’t for you, and you’re better off looking at a card with a higher initial rate but less of a leap after the honeymoon period”. And the legislation could not be written which would have the effect of making such a thing compulsory.

    There is a school of thought that more consumer legislation just makes consumers dependent, and assume that it’s regulated so “it must be ok”. Isn’t that basically exactly what happened with the Northern Rock 125% mortgages?

  • David Morton & the always excellent Alix speak the truth.

    Greenwashing should outright be banned. As someone who not only takes environmental concerns very seriously, but admires those entrepeneurs who have greened themselves & are providing products & services for a green society, I see red when I see some unregenerate corporation tarting itself up in green language.

    The standards for organic & free range should be high & rigorously enforced with severe punishment for makers of false claims. This will help us along the direction we are already going in, which is for people to source products from reliable local suppliers & a large amount of shopping to be done online.

    If people trade with each other more, this may well blur the lines between employment, self-employment & unemployment. There is the potential for some excellent work to be done & good old fashioned human ingenuity is getting us part of the way there, with New Labour holding us back as normal.

    It is profoundly true that there are private-sector jobsworths every bit as officious as the worst DWP/HMRC employee. A strong consumer movement of the kind Ralph Nader has operated will help resistance to this.

    Short-termism & pathetic management have been the millstones around this country’s neck for more than 100 years. Are their days numbered?

  • David Allen 12th Dec '08 - 5:05pm

    Very good post and a very good follow-up by David Morton.

    As Alix says, we should be equally opposed to the over-powerful bossy state and over-powerful bossy business. Labour and Tories are the parties of the powerful vested interests, we are the party to keep those interests in check.

    Do we want to “shrink the state” just so that we can spend less on schools, hospitals and defence, more on tax breaks, electronic gizmos, and holiday flights to the Seychelles? No we don’t! Do we want to “shrink the state” to get away from ID cards, a one-size-fits-all national curriculum, and centralised land use planning directed by business vested interests? Yes we do!

    So let’s not get ourselves hung up on whether state regulation is intrinsically good or bad. It’s neither. It’s good if the motives are to constrain the powerful and give the people a fair chance, it’s (often!) bad if the motives are to stifle personal freedom.

    Let’s not get hung up on whether capitalist business is intrinsically good or bad. It’s neither. It’s vital for our economy and prosperity, but it can do terrible things if allowed too much power. Thatcher’s destruction of union power may have been justifiable, but it has left business with too much untrammelled power. 20 years later it is still valid for us to present ourselves as the real alternative – offering a counterweight to excessive business power through democratic oversight.

    And let’s not get hung up on what our opponents will say, that we are going to cripple enterprise in a recession. The answer is that we are going to do the opposite. We will keep business on its toes, so that it must win on price and quality in fair competition, not by bullying the customer. German industry has far more workers’ power than ours, and it doesn’t seem to have harmed their product quality!

  • There is a school of thought that more consumer legislation just makes consumers dependent, and assume that it’s regulated so “it must be ok”. Isn’t that basically exactly what happened with the Northern Rock 125% mortgages?

    This provides a perfect excuse to mention the Tullock Principle 🙂

  • It’s important to say that consumer choice isn’t the same thing as democratic choice – too often consumers are forced with Hobson’s choice of whether we’d prefer a punch in the belly or a kick in the teeth, which is no choice at all – especially because one will usually follow the other and we end up in the same place anyway.

    Socialism or conservatism? Labourism or Toryism? Both lead us to the checkout in a carrycart, ruing the day we ever stepped in their store (and wondering what price we’ll have to pay to get out)!

    While the established two major parties maintain their duopoly on government the public will remain consumers of their prescriptive policies, so until we wrest power from them the active participation in the creation of a better future for all will be held back and periodic crisis will remain a certainty.

  • Some observations on the suggestions. Being pro-consumer rights and the rights of individuals as consumers is something that many parts of the party have been saying for some time.

    On the specific suggestions in this article and comments I was unclear on a few points.

    Poor practice in complaints and allowing the cancellation of subscriptions is not unique to the on-line space, I’d suggest it’s more of a problem with premium text services and some small shops. But it should also be clear that when companies behave like this they are already breaking consumer protection laws and can face enforcement action by Trading Standards. What extra legislation is being demanded?

    Further how is creating a new crime of “running an online shop without an opt-out tick box next to the subscribe button” going to be drafted, enforced, or fit in with our general campaign against the several thousand silly new crimes created by Labour.

    Lying about the sourcing and production of goods is also already illegal and whilst I share the sentiment about the importance of transparent pricing, how would you apply that to an area where there is a clear but difficult problem such as interconnect charges on data transfers abroad on smart-phones.

    It is also already against the rules of the Advertising Standards Authority to engage in ‘greenwashing’, and companies frequently have to withdraw products making bogus claims about their environmental credentials. I suspect we do not need a specialist eco-truth-regulator to replicate this role or a new crime of eco-heresey.

    As to bumping up the powers of the FSA, I’m fairly sure all parties will be arguing for something similar as the Banking Bill passes through this session of Parliament.

    The best consumer campaign I’ve seen recently was the grass-roots information campaign against unfair bank charges. I’d personally like to see another one against unfair management and service charges by housing management companies and local authorities, that could save people of all income levels some real money.

  • David Allen 14th Dec '08 - 1:28pm

    One great thing about being the consumer’s friend is that you can keep on making news by doing so.

    Take the latest Irish pork scare. If you’ve got pork in your freezer which (like ours) is simply labelled “British”, how do you know it’s safe? Well, we’ve just looked at a chicken from M&S, and that’s labelled with the farmer’s name and the specific county it came from. Why don’t we demand that every supermarket does that?

    On this question of over-regulation and barriers to market entry, again, let’s not get hung up about the details. Regulation isn’t good in itself, it’s only good if it helps the consumer. When there is real evidence that it would do the opposite, we shouldn’t support it.

    But let’s not take industry’s word on that. Industry will almost always oppose any constraint on industry power, almost as a matter of principle. Sometimes their objections are valid, sometimes not. The Civil Service should be told to stop playing “Yes Minister” and provide balanced advice on how strictly to regulate industries and suppliers.

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