There’ll be plenty of time to laugh after the revolution…
I may have mentioned it once or twice (!) but I attended a couple of Billy Bragg gigs last week (and finally got to meet my hero)
but during one of his famous between songs sermons, as an aside he stated that Trots lack a sense of humour, not the first time I heard that accusation made (Mark Thomas made similar comments when I first saw him a few years back). Now as anyone who knows me will testify, I hate lazy stereotyping but I also have to agree that, often, stereotypes do often contain a kernel of truth.
Recent performances by those who would fall into the broad category of being a “Trot” in the public eye did not help this perception. Bob Crow appeared on BBC’s “Have I Got News For You” and C4 “Ten O’Clock Live” and came across as a humourless individual, who only wanted to engage with people to shout at them. I have a lot of time for Crow, having heard him deliver an exciting and heartfelt speech on a wet and windy May Day in Belfast last year, a lesson in oratory that inspired a soggy and cold bunch of demoralised TU members and public sector workers to march with a spring in our step and ready to tackle cuts head on, rather than lie down and take it as the Tories and mainstream media would like. But we are trying to build a movement, to make it attractive to everyone. I don’t mean that Bob should don a red nose and pair of over-sized shoes, but the more he comes across as full of bluster (even though it is justified) he also fulfils the stereotypical role of the union leader that many in the public have as a troublemaker full of self-interest not as a stuanch defender of ordinary people, their opinions and perceptions having been moulded by years of anti-TU propaganda spewed forth by Tories and most newspapers.
Now I am one of the first to detest the Public Relations led approach to politics that has resulted in style ruling over substance, but the left really needs to think about how we are perceived- as humourless and out of touch, more interested in academic discussions about dead Russians than engaging in real struggle. Now I know there is more to the left than that- we do great grassroots work and most of the smartest, funniest comedians are from our side of the fence- Mark Thomas, Mark Steel (up until a few years ago as an SWP member a proper “Trot” ), Jeremy Hardy… we can do funny while not selling out our core beliefs and principles. A few examples from my own experiences can illustrate my point further- a few years ago, before the start of a May Day demo, I was helping other fellow party members put up some posters. We arrived at the meeting point for the rally and saw an ideal place to hang them- the fella I was with said “C’mon we’ll take over these poles”. I replied (quite quickly for me!) “Be careful- the last person to say that was Hitler and look what happened to him”. Now I expected perhaps a polite groan or a smile if not a brief laugh (it is hardly Dara O’Briain or Bill Hicks-esque material!)- instead I got a serious “Actually that’s quite good” followed by a mini-treatise that analysed why lefties are perceived as having no sense of humour. My answer, muttered under my breath, that it is exactly because we spend so long bloody doing a content analysis on jokes rather than simply enjoy them, was lost to the traffic noise behind us.
A second experience happened as I showed up for an anti-rascism gig in 2004. I had been inter-railing in Eastern Europe so hadn’t been about for a while. One of the group asked where I had been so I began explaining my route, saying I had flown into Trieste- he then interrupted me to say “Oh, so Italy is in Eastern Europe now, is it?” before I could discuss my route into Croatia to start my trip properly. He then moved on, leaving me feeling like shit on his shoe- not a good way to try and build up a revolutionary popular movement!
So while we are at crisis point, with dark economic news everywhere and a Tory government going even further than even Thatcher ever dared, it may seem that we should be taking things more, rather than less seriously- having just received news this week that my own job may not exist after June, that could be expected. But this is a vital time for the left- the New Labour project that was the epitome of style over substance is dead in the UK, the United Left Alliance made great gains in the south , people are being politicised again, broad links are being made as popular resistance spreads- this presents us with a great opportunity to bring about the changes that are required. But to do this we need to build the movement and attract as many people as possible. By acting as if we have broom handles up our arses and refusing to engage on a human level, recognising that not all basic human interaction has to be based on debating the Grundrisse, and realising its okay to crack a joke every now and then, listen to the odd love song, watch the occassional epsiode of Family Guy… we will scare fewer off and be a more attractive propostion, making it easier to establish that broad support needed to move thing on to the next level.