Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Jokes on us

On Monday I was contacted by an old friend who emailed me to tell me that they had ‘finally done it after years of talking about it, I’ve joined the Labour party.’ Then, with her tongue firmly in cheek she added ‘So I now have access to videos of “Real change in Worcester”.’

And I cringed. That part of me that bemoans a lack of engagement had a flutter of panic when I realised that somewhere along the line I had probably convinced someone to join the Labour party and they were going to get those emails or go to a branch meeting or take part in a Voter ID session and it was All. My. Fault.

We’ve approached that twitchy point halfway through the parliamentary term where the party has to demonstrate its substance, its vision and start ‘engaging with voters’. Engaging with voters. What does that even mean? I’m almost certain it means spending time and money trying to make our MPs and candidates seem normal. In which case how do we make our political culture reflect our, actual, you know … culture?

A few months ago BBC3 scheduled a sketch show of leftwing political satire The Revolution Will Be Televised. Although, at times, it was heavy with a drama-student earnestness it was still sharp, refreshing and actually funny. The Political Scrapbook blog has produced similar short satirical films and ahead of Congress this year the TUC highlighted corporate tax avoidance by reducing a mock-up magazine and website in the style of ‘Hello’ or ‘OK’ entitled ‘Gotcha’. It looked good, it highlighted the injustice of tax dodging , it was witty, and I remembered it.

At this year’s Labour conference it was Pragmatic Radicalism’s ‘Top of the Policies’ fringe that created the most buzz. It was standing room only in the Manchester pub as presenters made up of members, supporters, local councillors, stood up and delivered new policy ideas in less than two minutes. It was relaxed, it was noisy, it was political, irreverent, and crucially, it was fun.

So what happens to all this funny, all this sass? Why aren’t we using it more? A funny comment or well-timed joke is powerful. That’s why politicians have advisers and speechwriters to make them appear wittier. But it’s also why the jokes are saved for PMQs, because they know people are watching.

During a recent conversation with a friend who is considering putting herself forward as a candidate, she confessed that she couldn’t understand why people she had considered friends would became ‘so dull as soon as they are selected, they don’t want to have an opinion let alone express that opinion, just in case it’s the wrong one’.

I’m pretty confident that she’s not alone. Sharp, clever funny women who are good with a one-liner – the party is full of them. I have sat next to them at conference and at fundraising dinners and yet when it comes to the funny it’s women who suffer the discrimination. We are not well represented in political comedy, in satire, in panel shows – when it comes to political banter it’s still the boys’ club.

The journalist Grace Dent has repeatedly asserted how women are ‘instinctively better tweeters. They’re usually better at chatting and networking in more subtle ways.’ We are. Creating a new way of campaigning is an onerous task akin to trying to think of a new colour. Don’t try and think of a new colour, it will drive you mad. But we just need to use who and what we have more imaginatively, more humorously, more normally. We shouldn’t allow funny, passionate, barbed women to contract candidate-itis with symptoms of red scarves and a Pollyanna outlook towards the #labourdoorstep. We don’t need to ‘engage with voters’ if we allow our members, our candidates and our campaigns the freedom to be more instinctively engaging.


Jenny Simms writes the Union Matters column for Progress

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Jenny Simms


  • “Engaging with voters. What does that even mean?”

    Oh dear Jenny.

    Engaging with voters means talking to them, listening to their concerns and dealing with them.

    It’s not rocket science, even if the majority of the political elite seem to think that it is!

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