Friday, 4 December 2009

"Whose Price is Right in the Politics of Shopping?"

Published in the Scotsman, 24/11/09

"Forget the result of the Glasgow North-East by-election. As a predictor of UK general election voting intentions, it tells us precisely nothing. This result was meaningless, with only a third of those registered actually bothering to vote – about as much an indicator of what will happen next year as Jordan's performance in the I'm a Celebrity bush-tucker challenge tells us about progress towards gender equality in the UK workforce.

Similarly, by-elections flatter to deceive. Remember Dunfermline West? Did Willie Rennie's "famous" win allow the Liberal Democrats to go back to their constituencies and prepare for power? Did John Mason's "sensational" result in Glasgow East put the
SNP on a motorway to independence? And what about Glenrothes? Did Lindsay Roy's "show-stopping" victory kill Nationalism stone dead? No, no and no again.

To forecast the outcome of next year's UK general election, we should look to the town centres rather than the civic centres. The last four Scottish by-elections for Westminster seats have not presaged any general political trend whatsoever. As psephological experts such as Professor John Curtice keep telling us, by-elections are, at best, a barometer of public angst, a snap-shot rather than a long-term indicator of any electoral trend.

Activity in our town centres tells us much more about the Great British public. As a nation of shoppers, we demonstrate our level of economic confidence through retail, with early signs of a downturn or of an uplift in general economic activity appearing first on the high street. Isn't retail activity an accurate indicator of the state of the nation's mood, demonstrating how we feel about ourselves, our families and our communities?

And what is it that most influences how people vote in the self-interested privacy of the polling booth? The likely impact on their pocket. So, as we approach the final Christmas shopping spree before the general election, will Santa be good to Gordon or will that boy Dave get the toys that he's asked for? Will our collective economic behaviour in our town centres, shopping malls and online reveal our political thinking before the general election has even been called?

Will a Christmas sales boom indicate that the nation agrees with Labour's fiscal strategy of spending our way out of recession or will a tightening of the personal purse strings show that people are already taking their lead from an incoming Tory government expected to set about public spending cuts with real rigour?

Let's examine the evidence. As the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) reported last week, the Scottish high street witnessed a 1.5 per cent increase in like-for-like sales in October, matching the year-on-year rise the previous month, just ahead of the UK figures. The SRC said "Scottish customers are regaining the spending habit".

Set against the wider economic context of the PricewaterhouseCoopers report forecasting 0.2 per cent growth in the fourth quarter of this year, these retail sales figures will be toasted at the Downing Street Christmas party. But can the political temperature really be taken from our eagerness to shop till we drop?

It is instructional to look at the impact our obsession for retail therapy has had on the very fabric of our lives: whether it's the impact on the physical nature of our communities, with town centres and their ubiquitous shopping-mall satellites fashioned from our trends and tastes, with a liberal sprinkling of Americanism, or how the way our week is often organised around shop opening hours.

So much of our society is shaped by our consumerist mind-set that it is a source of great wonder why politicians haven't yet made more of an effort to get a share of that market, other than switching their constituency surgeries from draughty (and often embarrassing) community halls to the cosy comfort of a the local superstore's café. Whilst they're at it, how about politicians going the whole hog and using the National Lottery's superb IT network for voting?

So, if all the action is in the supermarket aisles, what can our politicians do to shape our political shopping choices? Well, to give credit where it's due, our MSPs are ahead of the game. The creation of the Town Centre Regeneration Fund (TCRF) this year was the first real recognition of the political importance of our town centres and the genuine sense of attachment that all communities have to theirs.

In a widely welcomed move, the Tories and Labour united with the SNP minority government in a budget-day exercise to support our town centres: new politics in action at last; a well-packaged tenth anniversary gift from the Scottish Parliament. The creation of the TCRF has also been described as Scotland's first real example of another Americanism; pork barrel spending, for our high streets. But, the cash committed to the mammoth task of dragging Scotland's town centres into the 21st century was a measly £60 million from a budget of more than £33 billion, which, on my shopping calculator, is about 0.002 per cent. This is more pork scratching than pork barrel, and it will be fascinating to see whether this initiative, designed and marketed as a one-off for capital spending projects, will see the kind of capital and revenue growth that our politicians would love to see in their economic forecasts.

This will be one of the topics at the second "Vital and Vibrant Town Centres" conference in Perth this week, along side other economic growth initiatives such as the Business Improvement District model. Appropriately enough, the event will hear from the other side of the pond, with Chuck Dalldorf, from the League of California Cities, talking about town-centre improvement mechanisms that have made a real difference across the US.

As for predicting the result of next year's election, what can our town centres tell us? Will a confidence-induced rush through the doors of Harvey Nicks save Gordon Brown or will an economic "dumbing down" to the bargain basement of Poundstretcher indicate a new austere alignment with David Cameron? Well, what's the common factor in consumer and political choices? As they say in America, it's the economy, stupid"

Ross Martin, Policy Director


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