Why do we mourn the high street? It was never a nice place to be

Let's be honest - online or out-of-town shopping is just less hassle, isn't it?

Let’s not mourn the death of the high street. Unpleasant, overpriced and unfriendly, it’s been ripping us off for years. The only surprise is that it’s lasted this long.

HMV’s decline is a tragedy for all the good people who work there, as is the slow descent into doom of the retail sector. But this is just the latest in a long line of high street collapses that tell us one thing: we’re not prepared to shop there any longer. You can wheel out your Mary Portas retail gurus to spruce up the Hindenburg’s buffet car all you like, but we’re not coming back.

The most obvious reason why the high street is awful is the presence of other human beings. They smoke, they smell, they fart and they get in your way. They carry germs and wheel pushchairs into your ankles. They talk on phones and barge into you. They exist. They live and breathe. The rascals. Why bother fighting your way through a rolling maul of angry nine-to-fivers every weekend when you can sit at home and do your shopping there instead?

It’s not just that, though. The world of stuff, as opposed to the world of pictures on screens, is an expensive place. It tries to pretend that it isn’t expensive, by wafting the weaselly musk of a half-price offer here, a buy-one-get-one-free there, but we know the truth: you’ve been clobbered for the thick end of three quid before you’ve even got out of your car or stepped off a bus. You’re out of pocket before you’ve even begun to put things in plastic bags. Why bother?

Yes, I know I should bother. I know I shouldn’t line the pockets of tax-avoiding rotters by doing my shopping online, and that I should support my local greengrocer instead, but it’s the hassle. I know there was a time when it might have been a pleasurable experience to flit from shop to shop with a basket under one’s arm, popping into the tobacconist for an ounce of sherbet and heading to the butcher for a pound of tripe, but those days are gone. The shops are gone. We killed them because supermarkets are more efficient and we like them more.

Maybe not "like" so much as "use". I’m probably not alone in appreciating the horrors of supermarket chains but still shopping there. I’ve tut-tutted at the splatter of their nasty little logos over our countryside and their carpet-bombing approach to our towns and cities... and then popped in for a pint of milk. Yes, my conscience tells me I should be ordering organic carbon-neutral local quince from the fair-trade yoghurt-weaving cooperative, but I’ve only got so many hours in the day, and so many pounds in my pocket (when I’ve got pounds at all). Give me cheapness, give me generic tat, give it to me all in one place, and I’ll bite the bullet. It’s wrong, and I know it’s wrong, but I still do it.

There’s something else, too: when we were a captive market, unable to take our custom elsewhere, the high street shops raked it in. Those of us with longer memories will be able to remember when you had to fork out £14-15 if you wanted a chart CD. Now, you don’t need the CD, and you certainly don’t owe anything to the shop who cheerily made a massive mark-up at the punters’ expense.

The only sadness, then, is for the people who made a living out of selling us stuff, and who cheerily put up with miserable shoppers like me for all those years while earning only a slim fraction of the vast sums their employers were making – they didn’t see any of those fortunes during the good old days, of course.

The only shops who will survive as places where you sell things are the ones who manage to offer something that’s a cut above the online experience, some kind of knowledge, some kind of reason to go in there and queue up and pay more. There aren’t many of those left, and they won’t be around forever. We can mourn the death of the high street that milked us for money all those years, or we can be happy we never have to go back there.

 

Other people were always what made high street shopping so unbearable. Photograph: Getty Images
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.