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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?”,

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