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

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

Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, with her boyfriend, fellow vlogger Alfie Deyes  

If children are obese then blame food manufacturers, not Zoella

Jane Merrick
Amos Yee arrives with his father at the State courts in Singapore on March 31  

Singapore's arrest of a 16-year-old YouTuber is all you need to know about Lee Kuan Yew's legacy

Noah Sin
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat