Laughing matters?

Attitudes towards trans people betray the wider failures of "alternative" comedy.

Growing up in the Nineties with plenty of "alternative" humour on television, including Chris Morris, Lee and Herring and The Friday Night Armistice, I was told that predictability is the enemy of laughter. The narrative behind their growing popularity ran that the Bad Old Comedy (stand-ups like Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson, and sitcoms such as Love Thy Neighbour) used cheap stereotypes to pick on easy targets, especially ethnic minorities, women and gay men, before rightly being sidelined by a new wave, more adventurous in form and content.

As it transpired - and as Stewart Lee has expertly depicted via a range of television and stand-up shows, and Suzanne Moore recently documented - the Nineties represented the mid-point between the old guard's overthrow and the rise of comics who similarly exploited populist prejudices to become the new orthodoxy. Unlike their predecessors, they may justify their acts by claiming irony or opposition to their straw man conception of political correctness but in practice, their apparent stretching of liberal boundaries is sometimes barely distinguishable from the retrograde bullying of the Seventies, even if the butts of their jokes are slightly different.

Britain's trans community is increasingly concerned with how media representation affects our lives, and frustrated at how regularly comedians reduce our bodies and social challenges to objects of derision. Whilst being far from the only minority group in this position, it's especially damaging as the number of "out" trans people remains relatively small, and so for many people, the clichés in Little Britain or Littlejohn cartoons (for example) go unquestioned, and continue to be used against any trans person who dares to be visible.

As an openly trans woman in a (still) frequently transphobic society, I deal with a certain amount of street harassment. The most stressful encounters nearly always start with being laughed at, sometimes with aspects of my dress or demeanour singled out. This usually comes when I am alone, from a group of people, or a passing car (an act of cowardice just one rung above calling someone a cunt via the internet). Violence, threatened or realised, is rarely their first weapon, but I know that if I object to the taunts, or incidents where my basic existence serves as a comic foil, then I can expect them to assert their power with more aggression than passivity. If I or anyone else reasons with them - it's just "banter".

Often, the insults are generic, and I cannot identify their main cultural influence. However, if some slack-jawed wazzock hollers "I'm a lady!" at me, I know exactly where it came from. At times, it felt that Little Britain (deconstructed here by Johann Hari) and its successor Come Fly With Me served as an index of those which contemporary comedy deems legitimate to ridicule, its "rubbish transvestites" appealing to as low a denominator as its attacks on the white working class or isolated gay men striving to define their identities.

The trend epitomised by Lucas and Walliams's hit series has not been discontinued. Christine Burns and Paris Lees both discussed Russell Howard's recent Good News sketch, made in response to reports of a Thai airline allowing trans women (who struggle to find safe employment elsewhere) to work as cabin crew, which relied upon depictions of trans people that could have been lifted from the Daily Mail. Clearly, some viewers find these images funny - that is their right - and not all trans people find this particularly skit offensive, but it raises questions about when and how it is fair for performers to use stereotypes, and the extent of their responsibility to interrogate their origins rather than merely reiterating them.

When we complain about such comedy, the accusation that we are humourless is often used as a counter, as it was against feminist critiques in the pre-alternative days. The truth that this allegation (which has itself become something of a cliché) ignores, or serves to mask, is that gifted comedians can and often do empower marginalised groups. During my teens, Eddie Izzard's laudable wit in discussing his transvestism, and particularly in exploding the media trope of the psychotic cross-dresser, proved immensely useful, helping me relax about my gender difference and setting favourable terms for me to disclose it to friends.

Despite Izzard's breakthrough, the dialogue remained notably one-sided - until recently. As trans issues gradually become more mainstream, a wave of distinctive, intelligent stand-ups are offering humorous perspectives on them, even if they are not (yet) darlings of the ubiquitous panel shows. This new generation includes transvestite Andrew O'Neill, transsexual women Claire Parker and Bethany Black, and trans man Jason Elvis Barker, all providing fresh takes on trans living and numerous other subjects, undermining the myth that we talk about little besides our own genders.

Ultimately, the Eighties' more inventive voices - Kevin McAleer, Ted Chippington and Simon Munnery amongst them - proved the most resistant to mainstream assimilation. In part, this was because they rose above reactionary rants about "political correctness gone mad" that characterised some of their lazier contemporaries, who have forgotten for too long that the right to free speech works best when balanced with the responsibility to use any position of privilege fairly. Now, 30 years after the alternative revolution broke into clubs and onto screens, audiences look from Love Thy Neighbour to Little Britain, Mind Your Language to Mock the Week, and cannot always tell which is which.

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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Chuka Umunna calls for "solidarity" among Labour MPs, whoever is voted leader

The full text of shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna's speech to Policy Network on election-winning ideas for Labour's future, and the weaknesses of the New Labour project.

There has never been an easy time to be a social democrat (or “democratic socialist” as we sometimes call ourselves in Britain). Whereas the right can demonise the poor and extol the virtues of the market, and the hard left can demonise the market and extol the role of the state, our position of constraining the domination of markets and reforming the state is, by definition, more complex.

It is nonetheless the case that social democracy has a historic responsibility, in every generation, to renew democracy and preserve a civic culture. This is achieved not through soundbites and slogans, but through the hard-headed development of a progressive politics that reconciles liberty and democracy, new comers and locals to our communities, business and workers, in a common life that preserves security, prosperity and peace.  This historic mission is all the more urgent now and my determination that we succeed has grown not weakened since our election defeat last May.

But, in order to be heard, it is necessary to make balanced and reasonable argument that both animates and inspires our movement, and which is popular and plausible with the people.  The first is pre-requisite to the second; and there is no choice to be made between your party’s fundamental principles and electability. They are mutually dependent - you cannot do one without the other.

We are in the midst of choosing a new leader and it is clear to anyone who has watched the UK Labour Party leadership election this summer that amongst a significant number there is a profound rage against Third Way politics – as pursued by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and others - as a rejection of our fundamental values.

In the UK there is a view that New Labour accepted an uncritical accommodation with global capital that widened inequality, weakened organised labour and we were too close to the US Republicans and too far from the European left.

I do not believe this is fair, not least because we rescued many of our public services from the scrap heap when we came to office in 1997 and there were very significant achievements  we should celebrate.  New Labour renewed our National Health Service in a fundamental way; we built new schools and improved existing ones; we set up new children’s centres all over the country; we brought in a National Minimum Wage; we worked with others to bring peace to Northern Ireland; we introduced civil partnerships.  Just some of our achievements.

However, though we may take issue with the critique, I do not think we can simply dismiss out of hand those who hold critical views of New Labour. Like any government, the New Labour administration made mistakes - it could and should have achieved more, and done more to challenge the Right’s assumptions about the world. In the end, it is not unreasonable to be ambitious for what your party in government can achieve in building greater equality, liberty, democracy and sustainability. It is far better we acknowledge, not reject, this ambition for a better world, as we seek to forge a new politics of the common good fit for the future.

Realising our values in office has been disrupted by globalisation and the surge of technological forces that are displacing and reshaping industry after industry.

Some argue that globalisation as an ideological construct of the right. But we must recognise that we live in an increasingly integrated world in which markets have led to an unprecedented participation of excluded people in prosperity, a rise in living standards for hundreds of millions  of people and a literacy unprecedented in human history – this is particularly so in emerging economies like my father’s native Nigeria. And the internet has led to a level of accountability that has disturbed elites.

Yet, this has been combined with a concentration of ownership that needs to be challenged, of a subordination of politics that requires creative rather than reactive thinking, and these global forces have exacerbated inequalities as well as helped reduce poverty.

So it is important that we understand the sheer scale and impact of new technologies. At the moment we are engaged in a debate about Uber and its threat to one of the last vestiges of vocational labour markets left in London, those of the black taxi cabs and their attainment of 'The Knowledge'. But the reality is that within the next decade there will be the emergence of driverless cars so we have to intensify our exploration of how to support people in a knowledge economy and the realities of lifelong learning, as well as lifelong teaching. As people live longer we will have to think about how to engage them constructively in work and teaching in new ways.

Once again, I'm addressing all of this, Social Democracy requires a balanced view that domesticates the destructive energy of capital while recognising its creative energy, that recognises the need for new skills rather than simply the protection of old ones. A Social Democracy that recognises that internationalism requires co-operation between states and not a zero sum game that protectionism would encourage.

Above all, Social Democratic politics must recognise the importance of place, of the resources to be found in the local through which the pressures of globalisation can be mediated and shaped. Our job is to shape the future and neither to accept it as a passive fate nor to indulge the fantasy that we can dominate it but to work with the grain of change in order to renew our tradition, recognising the creativity of the workforce, the benefits of democracy and the importance of building a common life.  Sources of value are to be found in local traditions and institutions.

This also requires a recognition that though demonstration and protest are important,; but relationships and conversations are a far more effective way of building a movement for political change.

One of the huge weaknesses of New Labour was in its reliance on mobilisation from the centre rather than organising. It therefore allowed itself to be characterised as an elite project with wide popular support but it did not build a base for its support within the party across the country, and it did not develop leaders from the communities it represented. It was strong on policy but weak on strengthening democratic politics, particularly Labour politics.

Over half a million people are now members, supporters or affiliated supporters of our party, with hundreds of thousands joining in the last few weeks. Some have joined in order to thwart the pursuit of Labour values but many more have joined to further the pursuit of those values, including lots of young people. At a time when so many are walking away from centre left parties across the Western world and many young people do not vote let alone join a party, this is surely something to celebrate.

So it is vital that we now embrace our new joiners and harness the energy they can bring to renewing Labour’s connection with the people. First, we must help as many them as possible to become doorstep activists for our politics. Second, I have long argued UK Labour should campaign and organise not only to win elections but to affect tangible change through local community campaigns. We brought Arnie Graf, the Chicago community organiser who mentored President Obama in his early years, over from the U.S. to help teach us how to community organise more effectively. We should bring Arnie back over to finish the job and help empower our new joiners to be the change they want to see in every community – we need to build on the links they have with local groups and organisations.

I mentioned at the beginning that in every generation Social Democracy is besieged from left and right but the achievements of each generation are defined by the strength of a complex political tradition that strengthens solidarity through protecting democracy and liberty, a role for the state and the market and seeks to shape the future through an inclusive politics. Solidarity is key which is why we must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office.

Yes, these are troubled times for social democrats. All over Europe there is a sense among our traditional voters that we are remote and do not share their concerns or represent their interests or values.  There is surge of support for populist right wing parties from Denmark to France, of more left wing parties in Greece and Spain and in Britain too. There is renewal of imperial politics in Russia, the murderous and abhorrent regime of ISIL in the Middle East, volatility in the Chinese economy and in Europe a flow of immigration that causes fear and anxiety.

But, the task of Social Democracy in our time is to fashion a politics of hope that can bring together divided populations around justice, peace and prosperity so that we can govern ourselves democratically. We have seen worse than this and weathered the storm. I am looking forward, with great optimism to be being part of a generation that renews our relevance and popularity in the years to come.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.