Andrew Vine: More reasons to mistrust season of bogus bonhomie

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THE aisles of the supermarket were virtually deserted. A midweek morning, and the staff outnumbered customers by about three to one.

At the checkout, the young woman smiled as I commented on how quiet it was and replied: “It’s always the same at this time of the month. Everybody’s waiting for pay day.”

It never used to be like that, she explained. Fridays and Saturdays would always be busiest, but the store still buzzed during the week. Over the past year or two, though, it had grown steadily and noticeably quieter as each month wore on and the days were ticked off by shoppers waiting for their salary to be paid in.

Today being the last day of the month, and wages having dropped into bank accounts, there are bound to be countless sighs of relief in households across Yorkshire that the funds have arrived to allow life to continue as normal.

Midweek trade will pick up at the supermarket, at least until the middle of next month, when money starts to run low and families manage as best they can until the next payday.

Except some won’t manage. An unexpected bill will drop through the letterbox, or the car will break down and need to be repaired and the finely-balanced monthly budget will be wrecked. There will be those who get themselves into real trouble by turning to payday lenders.

I doubt very much if the matter-of-fact analysis of her customers by a checkout operator at a branch of Morrisons in an outwardly comfortably-off part of Leeds will be pondered in the carefully stage-managed and pastel-hued conference halls where the political parties hold their annual love-ins.

With the party conference season in full swing, and leaders, Ministers, and those thirsting for power taking off their jackets and addressing the faithful in shirt sleeves to emphasise how down to earth they are, political players on every part of the spectrum will be at pains to tell us that they understand.

They understand what it’s like to manage on a tight household budget, and to think carefully about making the money paid in at the end of the month last for the next four weeks.

They’ve been up and down the country talking to ordinary people, so they know what it’s like. They’ve accosted people in shopping centres and listened to gatherings of workers on shopfloors. They’ve met nurses and those scraping by on a pension.

And that’s why we should vote for them. Because they understand. Cue standing ovation from the adoring and a kiss for Mrs Party Leader beaming at her man of principle.

Do they really understand? I haven’t heard as frank and believable an assessment of real life for many from any of the three main parties – or the Ukip terrier snapping at their heels – as from our shrewd observer in Morrisons, who sees the story of people struggling to make ends meet in empty aisles and the items coming towards her on the conveyor to be scanned.

Indeed, the cost of real life is one of the most predictably entertaining traps into which the affluent political class regularly falls, as some hitherto smooth and well-drilled Minister or wannabe is suddenly asked how much a loaf of bread or pint of milk costs, only to be left floundering because somebody else takes care of such tiresome chores as shopping and they haven’t a clue.

The posturing, bogus bonhomie and set-pieces of conference season have become an annual ritual for parties torn between rallying the troops and reaching out to the electorate.

That in itself is always a difficult balance to strike, but this year it is altogether harder because of a combination of events buffeting politics and leaving a faint whiff of panic in the air as polls are pored over and focus groups grilled.

The months tick away to a general election, with opinion polls swinging this way and that. There are the uncertainties of an upsurge in nationalism in England as well as Scotland, and a mood of scepticism verging on cynicism amongst voters about the way politics is done.

Against such a backdrop, speeches from those whose lives have never been touched by financial hardship insisting how much they understand the worries of families making the salary stretch from payday to payday ring especially hollow.

Choreographed visits to workplaces, or meetings with ordinary people who have been screened to weed out anybody who might ask a question that is a little too awkward, don’t do anything to help politicians cocooned from real life increase their understanding.

It does the opposite, by distancing them even further from voters for whom the charades, soundbites and scripted ad-libs of party conference season exist in a different and alien world to their own.

Maybe it’s time more of those who preach from the stage slipped away from the conference hall into an empty supermarket for a chat with somebody on the checkout. Then they’d start to understand.