Anthony Clavane: When did the Left lose its sense of humour?

Some thin-skinned Corbynistas don't like the Labour leader being satirised over certain topics.  (PA)
Some thin-skinned Corbynistas don't like the Labour leader being satirised over certain topics. (PA)
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Come the revolution, will it be okay to laugh at Jeremy Corbyn? I only ask because a recent Tracey Ullman sketch raised the hackles of some thin-skinned Corbynistas by daring to satirise the Dear Leader’s apparent indifference to Labour’s antisemitism problem.

I say apparent because I actually disagree with Ullman – or perhaps that should be her writer Laurence Howarth – on this. My view, for what it’s worth, is that Corbyn is genuinely trying to root out the problem. Disagreeing with a comedian’s stance on a topical issue is part of the cut and thrust of modern politics. But being offended by it? Come on, comrades.

“It’s now become obvious,” wrote one Tweeter, “if you want to produce comedy on the BBC then you’ll have to agree to attack Jeremy.” According to another: “The Jeremy Corbyn sketch was nothing short of BBC propaganda, and surely there’s a call for legal action!! Shocking!” An online petition angrily demanded the Beeb axe the programme.

No doubt delighted to receive some extra publicity for its “outrageous” attack on the Dear Leader, Tracey Breaks the News returns to the controversy tonight. According to my TV guide, the show will “poke fun at Jeremy Corbyn as he prepares for his gig of the century – Labour Live.” The joke here is that the party has struggled to attract a respectable number of punters to tomorrow’s event.

His Jezness will be the star turn at a concert featuring a sprinkling of right-on bands, writers and entertainers. It is the latest example of politics and popular culture not really mixing. Last September, in an unwise bid to lure some yoof – any yoof – into his party, a Conservative MP took it upon himself to organise a Tory Glastonbury. A couple of hundred boozed-up, Barbour-jacketed activists and a clutch of MPs were serenaded by musicians – none of whom, as far as I can ascertain, were noted grime artists or hip-hop stars.

Ullman-gate put me in mind of a previous doomed attempt to make a Labour leader look cool. Back in 1984, Neil Kinnock appeared in the video for My Guy, an unexceptional single released by a then-young, up-and-coming pop singer. Kinnock’s cringeworthy performance was widely ridiculed and he went on to suffer two general election defeats. The young, up-and-coming pop singer, on the other hand, went on to great things, crossing the Atlantic to become an Emmy Award-winning comedian before returning to Britain last year to star in Tracey Breaks The News.

Yes, the very same Tracey Ullman. Clearly she is part of the great anti-Jez conspiracy. I would not be surprised if the comedian, having wrecked Kinnock’s hopes of running the country, had also been behind the derailment of several other Labour leaders’ careers. It was probably Our Trace who persuaded Gordon Brown to call Mrs Duffy ‘a bigoted woman’ and urged Ed Miliband to stuff an oversized bacon sandwich into his mouth.

Ullman is, in fact, a Labour supporter. On her show she impersonates a wide variety of personalities from across the political spectrum, taking pot-shots at such right-wing leaders as Theresa May and Angela Merkel. Howarth, who penned the sketch that so upset the thin-skinned Corbynistas, also writes gags about a nanny-dependent Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Ullman came to prominence in an era when it was almost obligatory for lefties to make fun of themselves. Alternative comedians like Jeremy Hardy, Mark Steel, Alexei Sayle and Rik Mayall were all anti-Thatch – but they also satirised the foibles of over-earnest, po-faced Bennites. As one Labour Tweeter put it: “I’m genuinely wondering how the people getting worked up over that Tracey Ullman sketch would cope if Spitting Image was still on TV.”

Indeed. The notorious puppet show ripped into everyone. Its creators Peter Fluck and Roger Law might have been sympathetic to Tony Benn, 
but it didn’t stop them portraying Corbyn’s mentor as a mad Marxist with eyes that never looked in the same direction.

Those were the days. When political satire cheerfully set out to offend the great and the good. When the whole nation, it seemed, sat down to watch Spitting Image every Sunday night. And when the left still had a sense of humour.