Joan Smith: How voting turned into shopping

The two questions I’ve heard most often are: “What have you ever done for me?” and “What are you going to do for me?”,

Share
Related Topics

Shopping and voting – they're different. Choosing a shirt isn't the same as making a judgement about which party is best equipped to run the country; a shirt can't raise your taxes or close your local hospital. Yet vox pops suggest that the two things have become hopelessly confused during the election campaign, with an alarming number of undecided voters approaching political parties in the guise of suspicious consumers.

Among this new breed of what we might call shopper-voters, the two questions I've heard most often are: "What have you ever done for me?" and "What are you going to do for me?", as though politics is nothing more than a contest to provide the electorate with the most goodies. The starkest example I can think of comes from Radio 4, where I heard a reporter asking members of the public if they were interested in politics; one woman responded unashamedly that she was interested in anything that would benefit her.

That could mean a whole range of things, although I'd hazard a guess that lower taxes, abolishing prescription charges or a cap on immigration are more likely aspirations than an elected House of Lords. But the immediate problem for political parties is that what shopper-voters want is almost certainly impossible to deliver. Whoever wins most seats next Thursday isn't going to be able to cut taxes or expand existing public services, while the UK has obligations as a member of the EU which means that eastern Europeans have a right to come here, just as British people are able to move freely to France, Spain or Poland.

Neither the immigration cap proposed by the Tories nor the regional solution offered by the Lib Dems meets the angry demands of shopper-voters, who aren't in a mood to think about anyone but themselves. In that sense, the three main parties all have huge problems with the issue, reluctant as they are to admit that their powers are limited. The chief characteristics of this election campaign have been a deep-seated fear of voters and a reluctance to challenge them; Brown tried it two days ago, publicly disagreeing over immigration with Gillian Duffy in Rochdale, and the exasperation he expressed afterwards, forgetting that he was still wearing a microphone, is entirely understandable.

The Labour spin machine made the Prime Minister's minor indiscretion much worse by wildly over-reacting, but the most spectacular misjudgement of the campaign so far is actually the Tories' notion of a "big society". David Cameron and his team quickly discovered that shopper-voters are passive and the last thing they want is to have to do things for themselves; they hold politicians in contempt but they still expect them to run schools, the police and refuse collections. There is something much more worrying than disengagement at work here, with a substantial minority of voters treating politics as if the only significant question is what they can get out of it. It's ironic that undecided voters who aren't interested in the Iraq war, the environment, gender equality, local democracy, Trident, Afghanistan, global poverty or the voting system tend to say the same thing to politicians: "You're only in it for yourselves".

Some young voters even tell reporters they don't know who the party leaders are and can't be bothered to vote, as though their ignorance – the answer is only a mouse-click away – is someone else's fault. I suspect that most voters who care about policies and ideas are just as fed up with this state of affairs as I am. Shopper-voters who confront politicians, often quite aggressively, with a shopping list, are undermining the democratic process. They certainly don't have any time for the notion of a social contract, which places responsibilities on politicians and the electorate, or the desirability of civilised disagreement. Selfishness is the new black in politics, and we should all be worried.

For further study:

Not a book, but the film 'The Joneses', which shows the central role that consumer goods have come to play in people's lives

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

 

In Sickness and in Health: 'I'm really happy to be alive and to see Rebecca'

Rebecca Armstrong
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine