Social media tools have opened up the laughter portfolios of professional politicians to the wider public, with the result that we are now subjected to unheralded and unrelenting tidal waves of correspondence from our political leaders, all in the name of engagement. We’re all engaged now, thanks, we’re just not sure about whether we want to set a date for the big day? The problem is the general lack of a gsoh in our political classes. They are all so boring. The endless search for the middle ground has driven our politicians, press people and pundits into the realm of tedium. It’s inevitable. Interesting people have interesting views, differing opinions and provide the crucial variety that spices up life. Middle England is dull, dull, dull. Wasn’t it ever thus? Rewrite Tolkein’s The Lord Of The Rings in plain English and you’ll find a sanitised version of The Archers.
Of the few brave souls willing to chance their idiosyncratic manners amongst the Middle Englanders, the biggest crowd puller is Steve “Lord” Bassam, who is currently the Labour Party’s Chief Whip in the House of Lords. He’s graced the red benches with his properly proportioned arse ever since 1997, when Tony Blair saved him from political oblivion by giving him a peerage. Without the worry of democratic scrutiny to trip up his political career, he was freed from the ball and chain of popularity. He’s made full use of that freedom.
The advent of twitter gave Bassam the platform he needed. He’s perfect for it. He kicked off with creative name: @SteveTheQuip. Having thus established himself as a funny man of tweets, he set about the grandest exercise in irony. Cleverly, he avoids all frivolity, gaiety or fun. Twitter is famous for its jokes, its tomfoolery and its general knockabout humour. Bassam doesn’t stoop to any of those cheap and easy gags. Instead, he pretends everyone in the world will be fascinated by everything he has to say. The aura of gravitas enveloping his utterances can mislead the naive and uninformed into thinking that he’s much the same as the rest of the Labour crowd: fundamentally boring and self-obsessed. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, he’s the wittiest man in politics. He doesn’t employ irony, he owns it.
Being the master of his own joke and no-one’s butt, he makes out that he is so serious and so intent only on progress towards socialism that he cannot countenance cracking a joke or sharing a light-hearted moment. Yet, that is precisely his finely honed humour! To see the funny side of it, you need to have it explained like this. No-one has ever seen the human side of Bassam for themselves. Guidance is required. Suitably directed, suddenly the enormity of his big sense of humour can be overwhelming. Once you get it, you gasp. The word is that Bassam kept New Labour laughing. Blair knew that he would need some light relief, so he gave Bassam a much needed second career.
Aside from the clue of his twitter name, there is nothing to suggest that he has a sense of humour at all. His ordinary temper is vanquished, his tone is drenched in self-importance and his subject matter restricted to the gravest issues. No-one can maintain that level of dryness, day in, day out, unless it is deliberate. Even then, most slip up occasionally. Not Bassam. Not since John Major has a British politician so successfully smothered his personality under the pillow of appropriate conduct.
I must confess that for many years, I did not get the joke myself. Not at all. I too believed the myth that Bassam was a modern carbuncle on the face of Old Labour, a crotchety old fool and a shameless self-serving careerist politician. Once, he got so angry with my youthful desire to see badly depleted financial reserves spent on council housing rather than lavished on the Royal Pavilion that he went red in the face and started shouting, calling me and other like-minded radicals “philistines” (I was in the Brighton Labour Party in the 1980s). I was only fifteen. He didn’t seem like a funny guy back then. Then, half-way through last year, Ben Duncan (one of our local Green Party councillors here in Brighton & Hove) explained it to me and I haven’t stopped laughing since.
Studying Bassam’s twitter technique reveals one or two points of interest. Firstly, he usually refuses to continue conversational threads with his political opponents. Instead, he starts a new thread with almost every tweet. That ensures that he leads every piece of chatter he can become involved in, just as a stand-up is in charge his own routine. Twitter can be like a heckler’s convention, at least in the way the rest of us use it. However much we might heckle each other, we do actually use the ‘reply’ button, so that other people can make sense of the exchange. Bassam, ever professional, doesn’t let go of the stage. Us tweeps can crowd around him, admiringly, but we can’t hope to actually talk to him. He talks to us, not with us.
Secondly, he’s got a proper grip on who his audience is. It’s the people who are most likely to invite him the sort of bourgeois dinner party his wry wit is best suited for. Academics, senior public sector workers, people who believe that their social status commands armies of respect. There’s an old phrase for that particular demographic: champagne socialists. They love to talk about social justice and drink fine wine but they don’t know a damn thing about the working conditions in the French vineyards.
Brighton is Bassam’s political cul-de-sac. He was Leader of its council, before it merged with Hove to form a unitary authority. Since the demise of an independent Brighton, Bassam’s democratic mandate has also disappeared. Nevertheless he is very fond of the place and likes to pretend that he lives in one of its poorer areas. Have you seen the size of his house? It’s very in keeping with Blair’s New Labour values. The values that say that you can’t take a politician seriously unless he can fit six cars in his drive and obtain political office without an election.
Here on the Sussex Coast we are well used to having some of the greatest comics on the circuit loving life in amongst us. With so much competition, niche areas are mined for everything they’ve got. Bassam has found his own little hole to dig away in. He digs deeper and deeper. With each shovel of crap thrown unseen over his shoulder, he unearths more comedy gems, to dazzle us with. The trouble is that only the most culturally sophisticated can see them. Brown must be turning in his (political) grave.
Hardly a day goes by without one of my Green Party comrades remarking something along the lines of, “I wish we had Bassam on our side. Politics would be so much more fun. He’s such a wag!” Most things in life get easier if you get financially secure, well connected friends untroubled by their consciences to help you out. Personally, I don’t think that’s the sort of help our lot need. All the same, the joke just keeps getting bigger. Bigger is better! There doesn’t seem to be an end to it. Here’s a few recent tweets from Bassam.
Bassam, I salute you! Please keep ploughing that obscure furrow of yours and don’t listen to the critics. They’re just annoyed because you’re funny and they’re having a bad life. I do hope it’s not too hard on you, being under constant pressure to perform. Obviously, in the Blair years, when you were asked to jump, you just replied, “Through which hoops, sir?” Those days are gone, sorry. Perhaps, now might be the time to calm down a bit? Whilst your friends may doubt the word of the Green Party member who reported you to the police in 2011 for shouting at her close up and in her face in the street, others may wonder whether it isn’t time for you to pick up The Little Book Of Calm occasionally. There are no more hoops for you sir!