🤝 The power of quid pro quo 🤝
Even enemies will do your bidding… for the right price
Speeches are usually a near-impossibility at boozy conference soirées, with even the most popular and gifted speakers needing to battle with a raised voice against irrepressible, excited chatter at the back of the room. Choruses of Canutian shushes from the front sometimes hold back the tide, but never for long.
Not this year. Typically buzzing drinks receptions had a dull, sombre quality despite the free and free-flowing wine. Speeches were politely listened to and given respectful but unenthusiastic rounds of applause, while the wider atmosphere at Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham was flat to funereal.
‘How’s your conference going?’ I ask. ‘Meh,’ staffers, activists, lobbyists, MPs and journalists all reply. Even during the chaotic 2018 conference where Theresa May’s Chequers plan for Brexit was fighting a losing battle with the political shredder under an unstable minority government, the conference vibe was never this grim – or this resigned to defeat at the next election.
Nothing seems to be working, there’s no growth, and we’ve been in power for over a decade. We have nobody to blame but ourselves. We’re swimming against the tide. It’s going out fast, and we’re not wearing any knickers.
How invigorating, then, to end on the relative high of Liz Truss’s crusade against the anti-growth coalition in her end-of-conference speech. Held in Hall 1 of the International Convention Centre, not the larger Symphony Hall – leaving activists to ponder how much of this was due to train strikes, and how much might be over fears of not filling the larger venue with depressed activists – the speech had a largely positive reception after a torrid, chaotic week.
Truss is entirely right to say her three priorities for the economy are going to be ‘growth, growth, and growth’. Let us not forget that for all Rishi Sunak’s nascent smugness, the lacklustre record of his coterie of Very Clever People is hardly something to boast about. Without Brexit and Covid-19 to distract us, we’ve suddenly sat up and noticed that national outcomes are just not good enough. And managed decline just won’t cut it.
But our outcomes exist for a reason. It’s not that we can’t be richer. Other areas with a higher GDP per capita, not caused by natural resource wealth, prove this. And it’s perfectly possible to borrow best practice and best technology from other, more productive regions. Many of you reading this will be using an iPhone, even if you don’t live in California, where the technology is developed. The problem right now is that our politics solves for winning power, not necessarily the best interests of the country. That’s not to say that this is exceptional or always problematic in political systems.
But when a huge demographic bulge in the form of the baby boomers comes through a first past the post system, a powerful voter coalition with age-stratified interests skews incentives, because the incentives all align to benefit the winning voter coalition. Incentives. There’s an interesting concept. What if you can get those in power to fear for their future, and for their country’s future, to take responsibility, using incentives, rather than force, to solve otherwise insoluble problems?
All the best conference fringe events were not talking about ramming through change, ignoring stakeholders and shouting at anyone that disagrees. It might feel good to go on a moral crusade, but it will likely achieve nothing, unless you’re already winning. If you’re not winning, it’s time to look at how offering carrots to your enemies – and converting them into allies – can end up with both of you getting what you want.
In the Tom and Jerry short Posse Cat, Tom Cat wants dinner. But, he’s told by his owner, until he catches Jerry Mouse, he’s getting nothing. He tries and tries to catch him, without success. Dinner remains elusive.
Until… two of American animation’s most iconic enemies form a quid pro quo alliance. ‘In return for Jerry mouse’s co-operation I agree to share my dinner 50-50 from now on signed… Tom Cat.’
That Tom then reneges on this contract certainly makes this metaphor harder to sustain, but in a sense — that’s politics. Your opponents won’t always stay the course and remain on your side, even if they’re incentivised to do so. An important lesson in the importance and value of contract law.
But I would simply note that by entering this agreement, Tom Cat gets his comeuppance, while Jerry Mouse ends up with his dinner. A lesson for YIMBYs everywhere.