Can comedy stop UKIP? And should it?

Nigel Farage to speak in Bath as anti-UKIP comedy show arrives in city | Bath Chronicle Bath residents are to be treated to an unusual pair of options: Nigel Farage will be speaking at the Forum on 29 April, while Jonny and the Baptists will be playing The Stop UKIP Tour at the Rondo Theatre on 24 April.

Some UKIP supporters — it appears — have argued that it’s a misuse of public money, as the Rondo is Arts Council funded, which shows a touching lack of comprehension about what art is, and what a theatre is, and, to some extent, what money is.

One online commenter went as far as to say: “I see meddling by the hidden hand of Brussels and the quisling British political establishment here. We should not be wasting taxpayers’ money on such overt and biased political propaganda. I’m still voting UKIP.” I’m still not entirely sure whether this is a ‘straight’ comment, or is meant to be satirical. However, the commenter, going by the handle ‘eurosceptic’, seems to stay very much in character over their hundreds of comments.

But what about the main issue? Is comedy the thing which will stop UKIP? Or does it just turn Nigel Farage into a popular meme?

Satire, of course, has been a political tool for thousands of years. But, in these days of evidence-based research, have we discovered what it’s effect actually is?

Unless you are a regularly scourer of the International Journal of Public Opinion Research, this article may have escaped you: http://ijpor.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2013/06/19/ijpor.edt014.full.pdf?keytype=ref&ijkey=u4XM1loLBGp58Ru

Amy Becker, of Towson University, looks at the impact of politicians appearing on comedy shows, and what it does for the views of students after them. Clearly this is slightly different from having an entire arts-theatre production directed against you, but it does indicate something perhaps a little at odds with what we might think. Booking interview slots on comedy shows — despite the gentle ribbing that is certain to take place — means that politicians are better understood, better known, and that the viewers feel more engaged with the political process.

Politics, of course, is full of clever people, and devastating sarcasm is just one of the tools that clever people like to deploy when they see or hear something which they think is too stupid for words. Strangely, though, in all of the polls I’ve ever seen (bit of ironic voice here) I have never seen one that says voters don’t like politicians because they aren’t clever enough.

Nigel Farage comes across very well. Even standing on a TV stage with a lectern opposite Nick Clegg, he comes across as though he has a flat cap in his pocket and there’s a pint of beer just out of shot. Likely as not he’ll buy you one after the show, or let you buy him one, which will be almost as good.

Good blokishness is part of the UKIP appeal. After my first General Election — 2001 — Mike Nattrass, subsequently Chair of UKIP and subsequently out of the party — told me he didn’t agree with my politics, but I seemed like a good bloke, and so we should keep in touch. It’s very hard to dislike someone after they’ve said something like that — no matter what you think of their policies.

In a world where voters feel an enormous disconnect between where they put their X (or 1,2,3) and what government actually does, coming across as a good bloke is far more effective than coming across as a clever policy maker. In the recent Clegg-Farage debate, 70% though Farage won, 30% thought Clegg won. If you actually check the facts they used, Clegg should have been able to deliver knock-out blows. There was not a word of truth in many of the ‘facts’ that Farage came up with. And yet, viewers thought it went Farage’s way 2:1.

Nick Clegg is without any shadow of a doubt very clever indeed. He speaks a string of European languages fluently — and I really do mean fluently — and brings a huge measure of intellectual rigour to any discussion. I suspect — though I can’t prove it — that Nigel Farage is also very clever. However, like George W. Bush, whose apparent intellectual level seemed to go down the higher he went in office, he has learned to conceal it. If clever is the new sexy — as Irene Adler told us in the first episode of the second Sherlock series — then we don’t especially want it paraded in front of us. Clever should be confined to Mastermind, University Challenge, and Radio 4 after 18:30.

What voters really want is authenticity. Dare I say it, but it rather reminds me of the George Burns aphorism: “Sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Nobody can tell if Farage really believes what he says — but he certainly appears to.

It’s easy to put someone down with satire when they take themselves very seriously. That’s why it can be such a potent political tool: politics is full of people who take themselves seriously. Even if they didn’t to begin with, the fawning from people they have never previously met which comes with success is enough to give anyone delusions of grandeur.

As a tool against Farage, I’m not so sure. My sense is that someone who appears to be able to laugh at themselves only grows stronger from being mocked.

I do believe that we need to stand up to UKIP, and I do believe we must expose the implications and effects of their policies, as well as the flimsiness of the factual basis they stand on. But, to do this, we need to be as boisterous, un-self-important and, above all, as entertaining as they are. Engaging with Farage on the human level is the way forward.

I wish Jonny and the Baptists well with their tour, but I feel much more needs to be done, and done seriously, before we see the back of UKIP.

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