Iain Murray: New Conservatives are off their supermarket trolleys

To vet parliamentary candidates, the Conservatives are inviting checkout girls to selection meetings, but this may be dumbing down too much, says Iain Murray

If all goes according to plan, supermarket checkout girls will be able to earn extra money moonlighting at local Conservative Party selection meetings. Their task will be to hold a five-minute conversation with each prospective candidate. It’s the brainchild of the party’s deputy chairman Gillian Shephard, who believes the test of New Conservatism is the ability of its leading figures to converse on equal terms with those whom fate has cast lower down the social order.

To be fair to Mrs Shephard she did not suggest that the conversations should take place as part of the selection meetings, but it is difficult to see how the new conditions might otherwise be met. In theory, it is possible that the selection committee could follow the candidates into a supermarket and stand back, clipboards in hand, as the Tory hopefuls went through their paces with the checkout girls, but, thoroughly sociable as the new Tories are, it is unlikely that they would want to conduct their private business so publicly. Nor is it clear what rules would be applied to these exchanges. Would the committee, for instance, use the criteria adopted in the popular radio quiz programme “Just a Minute” and require the participants to speak without hesitation, deviation or repetition? If so, that might prove jolly, jolly hard for the prospective candidates and really, really difficult for the checkout girls.

Whatever way you look at it, it is a pretty tough test. There cannot be many people alive – or, more precisely, still alive – who have held a five-minute chat with a checkout girl. Of the many disagreeable features of supermarket shopping, the worst without doubt is queueing at the checkout. Anyone who delayed the process still further by engaging the retail sales operative in a conversation lasting five minutes would surely be lynched. Or suffer the modern equivalent of stoning, which is to be pelted to death with cans of cut-price peeled tomatoes.

My own conversations with checkout girls, though probably not representative, do not augur well for the Tory hopefuls. I recall one Saturday morning at Tesco in Palmers Green, North London, when a young female assistant standing by a vacant till explained that the checkout was closed owing to an unfortunate incident concerning a temporary member of staff. Apparently the young man had turned up for work feeling the worse after a heavy night out and had evacuated his stomach into the till tray. A conversation stopper, even by the standards of the most ambitious of modern Conservatives.

Then there was the checkout girl at Sainsbury’s in Winchmore Hill, North London, who took a long look at my purchases – four cans of Guinness, a box of chocolates and grapefruit – and pronounced scornfully that only one could be described as ‘elthy. She didn’t mean the Guinness. Call me stuffy, but I wasn’t pleased to receive censorious comments at the checkout. I can see however that a would-be Member of Parliament would have seen a kindred spirit in this girl’s bossy condemnation of the dietary habits of others. She had sown the seed of fruitful conversation concerning the lamentable shortcomings of others and the need to make the world a better place.

Whether by accident or design, Tesco has done more than its rivals to spark off conversational topics between staff and customers. Its Hastings store, for instance, gave serious consideration to an application by naturists to shop naked after normal trading hours. Staff working in the store would remain fully clothed and be paid at time-and-a-half rates.

And lest fruit and vegetable displays should come into contact with parts that in the non-naturist world are considered privy, the store was, as a spokesman put it, “considering plastic pinnies – transparent of course – for the naked customers to wear as they pass through these vulnerable areas”.

I don’t know if the experiment was put into practice, but one could imagine all manner of conversational possibilities springing up between clothed checkout staff and customers naked save for see-through, strawberry-splashed pinnies. Thus attired, no aspiring Conservative could fail to set the wheels of happy discourse rolling.

Tesco it was too, which, on the advice of retail psychologists, reduced the size of melons “to keep pace with the current fashion for smaller breasts”.

And who but Tesco was the first to appoint a poet in residence? Miss Lisa D’Onofrio, an Australian, performed her art at Tesco’s in the Ipswich Road. She stood near the checkout and recited verse about the perils and pleasures of shopping. She also hid samples of her work among the goods and invited shoppers to come up with their own verse.

In the light of these initiatives one can perhaps see better where Gillian Shephard is coming from. She and Iain Duncan Smith want Conservatives to come down from their pedestals and swap glottal stops with the natives.

What could be more free and easy, or in better accord with the times, than a socially aware Tory and a checkout girl enjoying a breezy, five-minute chinwag about the trend towards smaller breasts in a melon-type scenario? The selection committee could award points for originality, timing, and artistic expression. This could be exactly what’s needed to wipe the grin off tony Blair’s face.

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