Under the influence?

Chris Hallam asks if comedians have any sway in politics

During the recent local elections, the Green Party broadcast one of the oddest political broadcasts I’ve ever seen. The party’s one MP Caroline Lucas took to the stage in a comedy club, silencing the audience (apparently the politest comedy club crowd in the history of the world) with a two-minute monologue on environmental issues.

The broadcast concluded with Lucas arguing that if the other parties get their way, some ‘seriously unfunny stuff is going to happy’ which really would be ‘no joke’.

I’m not unsympathetic to the Greens and like Caroline Lucas, but I don’t think the broadcast worked. By having Lucas speak from a comedy stage, the film unwittingly gave her the status of a comic and made me wonder if we were supposed to treat everything she said as a joke.  

Which begs the question: do the words of a comic carry any political weight at all?

To look at the world of comedy, after all, in the final days before the recent referendum, you would have been forgiven for thinking things were going well for the Yes campaign. Eddie Izzard, perhaps Britain’s most acclaimed stand-up was on board as a long-standing enthusiast for electoral reform arguing: ‘This could be our only chance to make the system fairer.’  Stephen Fry had delivered an articulate and intelligent argument for Alternative Voting too. Things were looking good.

The Yes campaign had in fact built up an impressive cache of near universal support from within the comedy world including Mark Thomas, Sue Perkins, Chris Addison, Stephen Mangan, John Cleese, Joanna Lumley and Mark Watson among many others. The No camp in contrast had managed to gather only Rik Mayall and, judging by his recent statements on Have I Got News For You, Ian Hislop.

Twitter was alive with the sound of positive comedic tweeting on the subject. Outside the comedy world, Oscar winner Colin Firth was even keen. With the authority of the man who had been King behind it, how could the campaign fail?

But fail it did. As we now know, the Yes campaign ended in a rout, winning less than a third of all votes cast. Which begs the question: does this sort of celebrity endorsement really give political causes any advantage at all?

I am increasingly doubtful. Having witnessed the open contempt of Tory MP Hugo Swire at the Yes lobby’s recruitment of Firth and Bonham-Carter at a public debate in Exeter, I assumed this was merely sour grapes at his camp’s lack of celebrity support. Indeed, it probably was.

Last week, however, when I posted a link on my social networking profile demonstrating Stephen Fry’s support for AV, I was surprised to receive a negative reaction. Nobody responding expressed dislike for Fry himself or even what he was saying. Most people just didn’t seem to like the implication that I thought the Alternative Voting argument carried more weight simply because Stephen Fry was in favour of it.

I hadn’t consciously thought this at all: Fry merely summarised the argument better than I could have done myself.

Another broadcast recently saw Rik Mayall reprising his Alan B’Stard persona from 1980s sitcom The New Statesman to aid the No campaign. As cynical and opportunistic as ever, B’Stard is portrayed as seeing the Alternative Voting as the best way of achieving his malevolent ends. Again though, the broadcast didn’t entirely work. For one thing, as a Tory MP, B’Stard would surely have been backing the No campaign anyway.

In the end, the No campaign triumphed, winning so decisively no individual could have swayed the result. Comics should be free to back any cause they wish. But let’s not fool ourselves that they are likely to have any impact on the result.

Published: 15 May 2011

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