Go to a sale? Are you mad?

No, you don't want that purple swing coat. Annalisa Barbieri puts her foot down

Don't be tempted by the sales. I have never understood people who are drawn to clothes sales. Anything any good would have sold ages ago. Now, those steely retailers are just hoping that adding an orange swing ticket to that shapeless jumper the wrong shade of grey - which is why it never sold - will cause the blood to rush to your fingers and propel you to flip your credit card on the counter and say: "I'll have this, please."

Sales shopping is really simple. Get up early, dress in comfortable layers (not your best clothes) and easy-on, easy-off shoes. Then go to the local nice place to eat, order a huge almond croissant and fluffy cappuccino, sit down and read the papers. Stay away from the shops. Those buyers will soon learn that if only they'd bought the jumper in the proper shade of grey in the first place; or if the "designer" had bothered to design that dress properly so that it looked good, instead of making you look as if you have a distended belly and the arms of a truck driver; or if they had simply priced things right, and not been so damned greedy to begin with, you'd have bought it six months ago. And by now, you'd have had six months' wear out of it (something else you have to factor in to a sale price: how much wear does it have ahead of it? Very important, this).

I have never bought anything of any value or consequence in a sale. You may have, but look, I've got my fingers in my ears and I'm not listening. For every person who found the buy of her life in a sale, there are 12,316 others who decided, on a whim, that a purple swing coat was a good idea, or that their calves would slim down by half to allow them to do up those must-have boots.

Sales also attract lots of desperate people who think that a bargain is anything which has "bargain" written at the point of sale. The queues for the changing rooms are so long that you start to think the chance to see your own body in some ill-fitting, wrong-shaded garment is something actually worth waiting for. Stop it! Then there is the little-recognised (but deeply debilitating) phenomenon that is Someone Else Wanting The Same Thing As You. If you weren't sure whether you really wanted those ruched lilac ankle boots, there's nothing like someone else wanting them, too, to cause you to narrow your eyes to sniper aperture as all around you loses focus and meaning. Never mind what happens when you half think you want something, only to find that the shop doesn't have it in your size. Before you know it, you've rung every store this side of Berwick-upon-Tweed. It doesn't matter that the postage renders it more expensive now than it was at full price: you simply have to have those shoes, that skirt/jumper/coat. It is, you suddenly realise, where your entire life force emanates from.

Sales are not a good place to spend a January day. What you need is good hot chocolate and brushed cotton next to your skin (more on this next week), and to be relaxing and reading magazines. No one ever died from not buying anything at a sale.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.
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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