With each passing day of the election campaign the Bishops warning becomes more and more relevant:
The time has surely come to move beyond mere “retail politics”,
where parties tailor their policies to the groups whose votes they
need, regardless of the good of the majority, whilst lobbyists,
pressure groups and sectional interests come armed with their
policy shopping lists and judge politicians by how many items
they promise to deliver. Instead of treating politics as an extension
of consumerism, we should focus on the common good, the
participation of more people in developing a political vision and
constructive ways to talk about communities and how they relate to
We have not merely 'retail politics', but marketing politics. Marketing is, in Douglas Couplands acidic definition 'The art of feeding people's own c**p back to them in such a way that they don't realise it's not real food.' To put it another way: creating a need where none existed and then offering to satisfy it. It's the engine room of consumer capitalism, and increasingly its the engine room of consumer capitalist politics.
A couple of examples:
Scotland: on the back of the referendum, David Cameron declares that the real injustice is English Votes for English Laws. Think of it as inserting a political wedge into a split log and hitting it with a mallet. Result: SNP gets more popular. Result: Cameron tours the TV studios claiming that SNP involvement in government will result in 'chaos', and that its something to be frightened of. So DC creates the need, markets the fear, and then presents himself as the solution.
NHS: Labour are going to tell us this week that the NHS is on life support and the Conservatives will pull the plug. Its a potent image, but it's utterly false. The NHS is struggling badly, and the truth is that it might get slightly worse under the Tories and it might get slightly better under Labour. The parties may all do a slightly better job than each other of managing the system (another point made by the Bishops), but the rhetoric is inflated to ridiculous levels. The Conservatives are not going to willingly destroy the NHS. They may have some poor ideas, just as Labour did/does, but overblown language doesn't help.
The result? Like the friend who's always posting self-pitying messages on social media in order to fish for sympathy, we take less and less notice. We simply assume that politicians are overstating their own strengths and their opponents weaknesses. We know we are being marketed to, rather than engaged with as adults. And what do we do with marketeers, on the phone or the doorstep? Yup, that.
Andrew Marr wrote that the story of the 20th century was the triumph of shopping over politics. Shopping has triumphed within politics too, except I wouldn't call it a triumph, more a tragedy. I'd happily vote for a party which treated me like an adult, if I could find one.