The phrase has been attributed to Ben Page at MORI and refers to the way parties distinguish themselves by the ‘goodies’ they offer the public. This election is rapidly turning into the retail sale of the century. The Tories promise to meet the £8bn NHS funding gap; Labour announces personalised midwifery services. Labour will freeze energy bills, the Tories promise to limit any rise in rail fares to inflation. In some ways politics has always been like that, parties mobilising supporters by addressing their material interests where those ‘interests’ reflect the parties’ social and ideological commitments: the deserving poor and the family for the Tories, the attack on inequality in the name of the working majority for Labour. Too often it is a blatant attempt to buy votes.
‘Retail politics’ really means politics for sale. A few MPs have been punished for offering themselvesfor sale to lobbyists. But the more insidious, more damaging, industrial-scale corruption of modern politics, of the modern state, goes largely unremarked. The press subjects every budget to the most detailed examination, not to determine its meaning for the economy and society, but for the way it distributes penalties and rewards and its likely outcome in gaining or losing support for the governing party and its competitors as if this was the most natural thing in the world.
Where is the line between legitimate politics and corruption? In 1996 a district auditor found Dame Shirley Porter’s actions in allocating council housing in Westminster (‘homes for votes’) illegal and she was surcharged. Thatcher sold off council housing at a huge discount, and a loss to the public, buying support in the name of a property owning democracy. You can, of course, distinguish between the two … but only just. The public interest test for the allocation of resources has to be a great deal more rigorous. Do we want to limit an increase in transport costs, provide better child care facilities, tax relief for pension contributions or tax incentives for saving or investment? Every proposal to socialise costs should mean making the case for the benefit to societyof doing so.