Tweet my shorts

At the time of writing, I have 28,777 followers on Twitter. This means that, provided I can condense them to 140 characters, I can share my thoughts instantly with a potential audience of approaching 30,000 people: more people, probably, than I have met face-to-face in my life. If they were all to descend on a town the size of, say, Cheltenham, my Twitter followers would have a reasonable chance of taking it over. Rest assured, if you live there, I am not planning to do this. At least, not yet.

It's a strange world in which a comedian can publicise his breakfast to an audience of this size, but my follower base is a mere drop in
the virtual ocean. A friend of mine once announced to more than 100,000 people that he hadn't been able to find a clean pair of pants that morning. Just over one and a half million people were privy to Snoop Dogg's recent revelation that he was "cookn up sumthin funky" in Manchester.

Virtual Jesus

And not only is Twitter now widely used, it's a place where corporations and objects bafflingly take on human form. When I publicly criticised John Lewis for failing to deliver a sofa between the already generous hours of 9am and midnight set for the task, John Lewis itself (or himself) sent me a tweet back to get to the root of the problem. When I rather rashly threatened to kill somebody because of my frustration with a train ticket website, a nice lady from the site replied, offering help and expressing the hope I had not yet committed murder. When I glibly referred to having overheard people talking about "the failed universal language, Esperanto", I received a tweet from something purporting to be Esperanto itself, pointing out that it hadn't done too badly. Tony Blair, the BBC and Jesus (yet to be verified) are all on Twitter.

What looked like a silly, pointless, short-lived craze has turned out to be a silly, pointless, enormously entertaining and enduring craze. But should we be pleased? Or is it further proof that the human race will never amount to much, because at any given time, when it could be writing novels or coming up with healthy but tasty variations on the common chocolate bar, around a third of the global population is logging on to find out what Stephen Fry thinks of tapeworm, or when Hannah Montana is planning to have a bath?

I've already declared an interest here, but in my opinion, Twitter is something to be celebrated, rather than lamented. Yes, of course it's absurd, but is it really any more absurd than all the other small talk that congests our lives? How many times have you asked someone how things are going or what they're up to without really having the slightest interest in the outcome - yet without finding yourself slightly put out when they launch into an explanation of what they are up to? How many times have you wished "having lunch" with someone really meant "having lunch", rather than struggling to get a forkful of risotto down your throat before you're called upon to agree once more that, yes, their boss is an idiot? Small talk,
let's face it, is rubbish. Don't blame Twitter for that. By condensing human interaction down to its briefest and barest form, it's not wasting our time - it's actually saving us a lot of nonsense.

Fame game

And indeed, its pithy, instant exchanges allow Twitter to get things done that would have been beyond more conventional modes of dialogue. Although Twitter can't claim to have saved BBC 6 Music single-handedly, it's hard to imagine that the gentle folk who listen to it could have been organised into such persistent protesters by any other means.

As for the people who sneer at those who enjoy finding out what famous people are up to: why wouldn't we? It may be an unpopular view among intellectuals, but the fact is that famous people are often more interesting than the rest of the public: that's what helped them to become famous in the first place. Would you rather chat with Phillip Schofield or your hairdresser? If you went for the second option, either you are a liar or you have an unusually entertaining barber.

Twitter may still prove to be a fad, but even if it disappears, it'll be succeeded by something similar, because it's shown us what we are and always have been: a world of gossips, wisecrackers, exhibitionists and nosey parkers. Don't shoot the virtual messenger.

Right, I'm off to buy underwear. And there are now - let me just check - 28,782 people who really need to know that.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 19 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Godless Britain

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