Shazia's week

Dying in public is bad - but at least it's better than being shot for being a Brazilian

I’d like to talk to you about failure. More specifically, I’d like to tell you about one high-profile failure I’ve suffered this week. I’m no stranger to failure – in fact, we’re quite good friends. It all started in the egg-and-spoon race at infant school; I was beaten by an Indian girl and my mother hasn’t spoken to me since.

I was asked to perform at a corporate event for the distinguished members of our community who are respected and admired by the public - when they aren't shooting innocent Brazilians on the Underground.

I was quite excited about going to perform for them: I had heard in advance that they had a really good sense of humour. Their behaviour in public may be incredibly PC, but behind closed doors they repeat my jokes to each other, as if they were me telling them.

I was meant to do a 15-minute set, but I only managed to reach ten minutes. The situation was so excruciatingly painful that if I hadn't left the stage, someone would have had to come along with a shovel and lift me off it.

It all seemed to be going well to begin with. Everyone was laughing. Then, after about five minutes, they looked at each other all of a sudden and stopped. It was as if they'd all agreed, "We can't allow people to see us laughing at bombs, burqas and anal sex - it's not right and it's certainly not politically correct." So the laughter stopped and I started a slow death on stage. Men on the front tables began burying their heads in their hands, there were cries of sympathy, and women took hold of their husbands' arms as if to reassure them the agony would soon be over.

I felt nothing but pain, humiliation and shame. The reason they call it "dying" is that people smile sympathetically and come to offer their commiserations after the show. It was like standing naked at the top of the Eiffel Tower and having the whole world point and laugh at you.

To top it all, I had to get on the Tube home. As I boarded the train, a man in a tuxedo got on and sat down opposite me. He stared. I realised he had been at the dinner that I'd just died at. As he got off, he looked me in the eye and said, "I wish you luck in your life."

I was happy it was just a comment, and that he didn't try to shoot me.

It’s half-term, and all the Tubes, streets and cinemas are full of kids and their fathers – single fathers who have to entertain their kids for the week. Some of them just can’t seem to cope. While the mothers, who do the real work the rest of the year, take a few days off, the fathers are struggling for things to do.

When I popped into my local cinema yesterday to pick up some tickets, I noticed a man in his fifties looking at me as I waited in the queue. I turned to look at him, and he smiled. I smiled back, thinking maybe it was someone important.

"Have we met before?" he said. "No," I replied, "I don't think so." Then his eyes slowly travelled down my face and settled on my chest. I began to feel very uncomfortable. I mean, it was 2pm and I was wearing my fleece jogging bottoms.

He asked what I was going to watch. “Nothing today,” I replied. Then he said: “Would you like to come and watch a film with me and my son?”

At which point, a scrawny-looking child with Nike trainers and too much sugar in his blood came screaming round the corner, shouting: "Dad, are you trying to have sex with women again?"

I died - not for the first time this week. "Kids, hey. Who'd have 'em?" giggled the man nervously.

I smiled sympathetically and politely declined both the father's offer and his son's. As I turned to leave, the little boy removed a toy gun from his coat pocket and pointed it at me.

"I'm not a Brazilian, dear," I said, and walked out.

Shazia Mirza

Shazia Mirza is an award-winning stand up comedian. In 2003 she was named by The Observer as one of the 50 funniest acts in British comedy. Since 2006 she has written a fortnightly column for the New Statesman, for which she won Columnist of the Year at the PPA Awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide