Surely it’s time to return to our wholesome fascination with putrefied flesh. Photo: Marco Secchi/Getty
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What is it about fancy dress that makes us think we can behave appallingly?

Halloween is particularly bad for this – from Jimmy Savile costumes to “sexy ebola” outfits, we seem to see it as an excuse to be offensive. Much better stick to the traditional zombies and gore.

How did a sombre Christian holiday, dedicated to remembering the dead, turn into an offensiveness contest? It’s a total non sequitur, if you think about it – a bit like a celebration of the birth of Christ evolving into a competition to see who can shove the most turkey into the most orifices, while worshiping a corpulent flying pensioner.

For the most part, I love Halloween. What could be more wonderful than pausing, once a year, to revel in darkness, and fear, and slime, and gunk, and spines, and bats, and blood, and pus? It’s like Halloween was specifically designed for outsiders, which is why it’s so popular with The Gays, and, what’s more, why the horror genre in general has so many queer interpretations.  

But, this year, people have already shunned vampire costumes in favour of ones that trivialise everything from the thousands of recent ebola deaths to domestic violence. Over the past week, pictures have been emerging online of men, and even children, dressing up as US NFL star and wife-beater Ray Rice. The Ray Rice Halloween costume, usually complete with blackface and an accompanying woman (sometimes represented by a blow up doll) with a black eye, has pretty much achieved meme status. This loathsome concoction of misogyny and racism is, sadly, Halloween 2014’s hot as hell get-up.

A Halloween dress code has developed, and here are the rules: wear the Worst Possible Thing. Offensive is the new scary. We take the saddest and most horrifying current events and turn them into outfits. In 2012, Jimmy Savile costumes had a moment. And, if in doubt, you can’t go wrong with a good old-fashioned celebrity death. Steve Irwin, impaled by a stingray, has been a Halloween stalwart for nearly a decade.  

So what is it about Halloween, and fancy dress in general, that we think gives us carte blanche to be arseholes? In 2009, a young Tory activist went to a fancy dress party in a Madeleine McCann costume.  I can’t imagine a more ghoulish costume than “young Tory activist”, so I’m not sure why this guy thought he needed to dress up in the first place. But he did and, in doing so, answered the age-old question of “how gross do you have to be to get kicked out of the Conservative Party”.

Fancy dress parties trigger a kind of cultural Tourette’s Syndrome, where we’re compelled to behave in the least appropriate way, given the context. In a sense, Halloween has always been about saying the unsayable – but I have a feeling that taking the piss out of domestic violence victims might be taking things one step too far. Admittedly, there’s a fine line between breaking a taboo and being a dickhead. This has created lingering confusion in the art world, where we’re constantly wondering whether, say, projecting a grainy video of yourself taking a shit onto a gallery wall, is post-post-post-modern or just blindingly grim.

Nuance aside, I liked Halloween better when it was about dressing up as a zombie and playing drinking games to the Evil Dead films. Having to explain to someone why their abused woman costume is a cauldron of wrong surely isn’t conducive to a Fun Time. So please, for the love of gore, can we declare those Ray Rice guys the overall winners of the offensiveness contest and return to our wholesome fascination with putrefied flesh?

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.