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Elliot and Chris – #agoodquestion

being the first conversation I have towards #agoodquestion, about which you can read more here.

Elliot and Chris describe themselves as liberal conservatives, work in finance, aged 18 and 23 respectively, living in SW London.

Their good question: when it comes to building 200,000 homes a year, would you trust government, whose direction might change every 5 years, or would you trust a dedicated private enterprise?

My response, after acknowledging I’d never thought of it in these terms before, became my own good question: can we trust a private enterprise with social utility when their core value is profit and prime responsibility lies to their shareholders?

Chris’ response: government should be run like a compassionate business.

I was at Torycore at BAC last Friday. I’d missed the very beginning but was told by a friend that a group of young conservatives had handed out flyers for the local Tory MP to the crowd, following complaints by local Tory councillors – who have been very good to BAC – about ‘balance in the programming’. But as Lucy, the front for the band, said, ‘balance is like Father Christmas – everyone wants to believe it exists’.

Some of the young conservatives had stuck around for the gig. Their presence didn’t read to me like a protest (perhaps because I’d missed them at the beginning). They hung around at the back, danced a bit, made some unironic cheers to name-checks for Cameron, Osbourne and Thatcher, went back and forth to get drinks: basically acted as if they were at a gig they weren’t particularly into. I can confirm that some of the men were wearing appalling trousers.

Running through my head – shit, this is an opportunity, I have to approach one of them for #agoodquestion. I tried to work out the dynamics of the group, one guy – in shirt and tie, but cool like a Dazed and Confused version of Young Conservative – seemed to have higher status and confidence so I thought I’d try him.

Later in the bar, I try to psych myself up for an approach to D&C guy but then suddenly the group make to leave. I follow, but only have chance to grab the group’s straggler – would you have a couple of minutes for a chat? He’s a bit tipsy but stops. I explain what I’m doing. He nods, says ok.

He’s Elliot, 18 years old, works in finance, mostly around property, lives in south west London. He talks a lot about the lack of affordable housing in London, it’s a massive problem. How would you solve it? How would you build 200,000 homes a year, he asks? How would you finance them? I don’t know.

The rest of the group have left Elliot behind. But then D&C guy returns, comes up and asks if everything is ok. I explain to him what I’m doing. He nods, gets it straight away, agrees to talk. These guys are both young party activists and so are ready and confident to make political conversations but still, I’m surprised and heartened at the ease they seem to have in this conversational format, talking to a bearded lefty in an arts centre.

D&C guy is Chris, aged 23, works in finance. He starts talking about pensions, the difference between defined contributions and defined benefits, and how he believes that while personal private pension schemes are important for people to take responsibility for themselves, it’s also important there’s a safety net for those who need it. He describes how the current system means that as people approach retirement age then the gap between rich and poor grows, as the rich have paid off their mortgage and don’t need a pension while the poor may be moved out into cheaper housing. He’s forthright that this growing inequality is a big problem, we need to solve it.

I’m struck that they both articulate a pretty smart understanding of the system they are working inside, Chris especially, yet both are expressing a pretty strong social conscience, which confounds my expectations. I’m struck that they are managerial in the way that they talk about the world.

I remind them we’re after a good question we can ask each other. Chris picks up the 200,000 homes. Which would you trust more with this task – government, who might change direction every 5 years, or a private sector company that will be committed to the job? It’s a good question, I admit, at least I haven’t thought about government in that way before. It’s also throwing into relief the biggest difference in belief so far expressed between us: our attitude to the public sector. Their key metaphor for government is that of a private company.

I lob back my own question. Surely it depends on the values and vision that each organisation expresses – how can a private company square its fiduciary responsibility to shareholders against other conflicting values? That’s a good question, says Chris. He reckons that government should be run like a compassionate business.

Time for them to go. I wish I’d asked them about how they’d tackle vested interest in the system, and what they had really thought of Torycore. But I thank them for what has genuinely been a good conversation, and we swap twitter handles.

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