Election '97: There's a shock in store for the canvassers

Supermarkets prove an unlikely haven from election. Glenda Cooper reports
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The Independent Online
If you feel that it is impossible to get away from political hectoring, there is at least one area that promises to be an election-free zone. All but one of the major supermarket chains are barring politicians from handing out stickers, leafleting customers or kissing babies in their stores.

Already the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, has twice been turned away from a Safeway shop in his Pentlands constituency in Edinburgh because he had not informed them he was coming. And the Asda store in Govan, Glasgow, told Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party, not to campaign inside the shop or on the car park; Mr Salmond claimed he had only gone there for lunch.

But while many might see election-free zones as a relief, Dr Richard North, the Referendum Party candidate for South Derbyshire, is accusing supermarkets of "direct interference in the democratic process" after he was refused permission to hand out leaflets in his local Sainsbury's car park.

"In past days when most people shopped in high-street centres, there was free access to voters. Now with giant megastores like Sainsbury and Asda creaming off the trade from the high streets they are also closing down access to people by blocking off their premises to election workers. This is a disgrace." he said yesterday.

But Asda, Sainsbury and Safeway, who have all forbidden canvassing, say that rather than conflicting with the democratic process they are non- political organisations who do not want to subject their customers to canvassers. Only Tesco has taken the opposing view, saying that their mixed base of customers is an ideal place for politicians to find out what real people are thinking.

Bernard Hughes, the company's government affairs manager, said that they had made amendments to their usual policy in the light of the election. "On Friday night and Saturday people are in supermarkets. That's where the constituents are ... and this is where the local politicians can deal with them.

"At places like Tesco and Sainsbury's you find someone earning pounds 4,000 next to someone earning pounds 40,000 in a queue buying our products from a 13p tin to a pounds 25 bottle of champagne. " He said all stores had been sent strict guidelines and they would be scrupulously fair to all parties.

The other three chains said that they will allow politicians to visit if prior notice was given. "Candidates are free to walk around. But we would object most strongly to them kissing babies or accosting customers in the store." Phil Reed, Asda's public relations manager, said.

He said that the policy was being applied across all stores and it was not an infringement of democracy: "In our view it's the last thing customers want."

Bill Hamilton, the director of public affairs for Safeway, said that the company similarly did not allow canvassing although it did not object to candidates kissing babies. "We didn't want to say they couldn't do anything. What we did was inform the main parties that they could have visits by candidates and bring national figures if they wanted a photo opportunity but no formal canvassing such as giving out stickers."

He reckoned that around 200 candidates would have made visits to the stores by the time the election took place.

And he said Malcolm Rifkind had not been allowed in because he had not made prior arrangements: "We have to be equal to all parties..We can't allow political activists just to turn up.

"There would be so much confusion it would be impossible. If Labour and the Tories and the Liberals turned up at the same time there could be a lot of aggravation."

So far Safeway's in Reigate, Surrey, is the only shop due to see all three main candidates but Mr Hamilton said that people should not be put off going there as a result: "Say a visit lasts half an hour, one and a half hours over six weeks is not too much."

Diane Lamb at Sainsbury said that they had also issued guidelines to the store allowing visits but banning campaigning and canvassing.