Going by the book

Internet - Andrew Brown on what the world is reading

Voyeurism is one of the great pleasures of the net. I don't mean by this the Jennicam style of pornography, where you can watch a young woman live her normal life with and without clothes on, but the genuinely strange insights into other people's behaviour that are available nowhere else. Most of this stuff is gathered for marketing purposes, but that need not mean it is entirely false.

The latest example is Amazon.com's "Affinity circles", which allow you to see what has been bought from particular areas of the web. Sometimes these are geographical and sometimes organisational. It seems to be running only on the American site, which gives some slightly strange results: the most popular book ordered from England, for example, was The Committee, a book on political assassinations in Northern Ireland which David Trimble is suing for libel and which has not been published in this country at all. I doubt, though, that this represents huge sales of a banned book, and here's why: the second most popular book in the list was a work called Lebanon: from Israel to Damascus, which seems from the readers' reviews to have been a continuation of the civil war by other means. The author calls himself COBRA and was a bodyguard to one of the Christian warlords. Even sympathetic reviewers comment on the ghastliness of the translated prose, but for most of them it's the thought that counts: one of them concludes, "More grease to your elbows".

Most of the remaining books are nerdy, though there are two Harry Potter books in ninth and tenth place. Doorstop computer books sell everywhere, even in Serbia, where the top-five list is all computers except for third place, which is taken by The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in a single- volume edition.

Since all these purchases are sorted by where on the net you come from, it is also possible to slice them up by company. So in Microsoft, for instance, the best-selling book is not a hagiographical biography of Bill Gates but the latest book by the man himself, Business at the Speed of Light. Most of the remaining books are guides to the company's own products - it's nice to know they need the manuals, too - but in eighth place is a deeply hostile biography of Gates by a woman whose mother runs Microsoft's PR firm.

At Oracle, another giant software company, the most popular book is a biography of the boss, Larry Ellison, which makes him out to be an obnoxious zillionaire in the style of Steve Jobs, whose overwhelming talent lay in selling, rather than delivering. This spirit seems to permeate his company: most of the other books on the list are manuals on selling.

At Tucows, a company that runs some very useful sites collecting shareware and freeware for all sorts of problems, the concerns of the staff are homelier. The top three slots on their best-seller list are all taken by diet books. Otherwise everyone seems to be buying Patricia Cornwell, even in Sweden and Estonia.

It is rather misleading to study the Amazon.com sales figures for this country when it is generally quicker and no more expensive to order from Amazon.co.uk. But looking at these figures reinforces my general scepticism about Amazon's best-seller lists. Are there really more students of Lebanese politics in England than there are Harry Potter fans? When my own book, The Darwin Wars, came out in March, I wrote a little script that automatically checked the sales figures at Amazon.co.uk every few hours and stored the results for later analysis. I rose to 38 in the list, which was pleasant, but when I checked a couple of months' figures, what was astonishing was the violence of the hour-to-hour fluctuations. On 4 March, for example, I started the day at 242 on the list, sank, in a matter of hours, to 843, but by 2pm was number 75. This trampolining preceded every spike in the graph: a sharp fall came before every moment of pride.

There are two possible explanations for these statistics. Either the volume of books being sold through Amazon is immense and highly turbulent, or else it is so small that even the sale of five or ten copies will affect the statistics violently. This seems far more likely. Oh - since you ask, today's ranking is 3,826. There's little ambiguity about that, I'm afraid.

This article first appeared in the 06 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Whatever happened to liberty?

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