Overcoming my slight fear of heights, I took the lift to the top of The Gherkin today to take part in the launch of Portland’s new document on trust and reputation, Bringing Business Home.
Whether me from a left-leaning perspective, City AM editor Allister Heath from the right, FT journalist Elizabeth Rigby or COMRES pollster Katherine Peacock probably from somewhere in between, all of us felt there was a real problem and that business was not doing a great job at dealing with it. Partly this is because business, and perhaps especially the banks which have become something of a symbol, have not adapted well either to the consequences of the crash, or the changed expectations that the public have of both private and public sector. As a result, business is currently giving off a sense of both being arrogant and beleaguered at the same time, which is not a healthy place to be. However, it may be they have taken the lead from government.
On a similar theme, I spoke at another event last night attended mainly by business people and bankers, sharing the platform with an economist and someone who was introduced as a ‘futurologist,’ Paul Stevenson.
The idea was that I gave a political perspective, the economist gave an economic worldview and Paul set out a few trends. He made the point that whilst political and business communities inevitably focused a lot on politics and economics – both widely seen as bust – they barely focused on what he called geo-technology.
He said that under 35s understood this shift and it was one of the reasons they were disengaging from politics.
I couldn’t guess at his own politics, though he had a couple of cracks at Tony Blair over Iraq, and in our exchanges on twitter this morning made clear that he is not a Labour supporter. But he left nobody in any doubt that he felt Michael Gove was – I quote – a compete idiot.
He had a rather neat line to encapsulate something I have been feeling especially since that bizarre speech Gove made last week, namely that he was ‘preparing the country for the last generation rather than next one.’
If I had to guess the political make up of the dinner, I would reckon to a Tory dominance, though one or two whispered to me they were Labour, and a bank fund manager told me he was backing UKIP. Normally at such events really aggressive attacks on Tory ministers will get a little head-shaking and tut-tutting but the attack on Gove led to more nods than tuts. Equally when the economist said that the modest UK recovery had next to nothing to do with George Osborne’s austerity strategy – he said 83 per cent of the cuts were yet to work their way through the system – I sensed little resistance.
Inevitably a lot of people were talking about the floods, and it has become a given that the government has handled this badly, and that the playing of the blame game by ministers has been unedifying. As I told the Portland event this morning, Cameron was right to call for an end to the blame game, though that hasn’t stopped the sniping at Environment Agency chair Chris Smith.
Sometimes it takes an unexpected event to cement in the public mind a thought or impression that has been brewing for some time. I wonder if the arrogance and incompetence shown in their handling of the floods might have played into a broader feeling that they are, well, arrogant and not very competent.
Anyway, I came away thinking the government is entering a very vulnerable phase and that if Labour can match hard attack with a setting out of its own agenda, the public is ready to hear and heed very hard attack indeed.
Given the importance of education to any country’s future economic strength, Michael Gove is uniquely vulnerable. Paul Stevenson’s line is absolutely right. We are going through a new industrial revolution. And we have an education secretary calling for children to be given lines and run round football fields as a punishment. Mindblowing.
Both business and politics have a trust problem. Business has to show that it understands the importance of customer service, and that includes having values and understanding that they have a broader social purpose beyond the pursuit of profits alone. And politics has to show that it understands the extent to which the world has changed and with it people’s expectations of what business and politics can and should do.
The answer is always rooted in strategy. But anyone who watched David Cameron’s press conference yesterday could see that he remains bereft of strategy. It is about casting around trying to look busy and concerned, albeit too late with regard to the floods. So mishandled have the floods been that now he has to cancel a trip to the Middle East. It is all a but day to day, hand to mouth, and not what leadership is really about. A country without strong political and economic leadership is going to struggle more than most.