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Nigel Farage pyjamas, the Olivia Colman backlash and dogging with Melvyn Bragg

"I feel like such a fool. I see now that, far from being a chaotic rabble of whingeing narcissists whose only love of Britain is for its imaginary past, it’s actually a team of visionaries with a dynamic plan to serve the common good."

Monday found me still pondering how I could have got it so very wrong about Ukip.

You see, before the county council elections, I had been entirely bamboozled by a lazy misconception. I don’t know what it was – the Westminster orthodoxy, the leftwing media or just the experience of talking to the kinds of people who vote Ukip – but somehow I had allowed myself to fall under the impression that Ukip was just a tiresome bunch of reactionary old bastards.

I feel like such a fool. I see now that, far from being a chaotic rabble of whingeing narcissists whose only love of Britain is for its imaginary past, it’s actually a team of visionaries with a dynamic plan to serve the common good. There’s no excuse for my misjudgement: I grew up in Lincolnshire, the county where Ukip holds its annual conference and where it has made spectacular gains.

So I really ought to have known that the stereotype of the average Ukip member – an indignant ex-Tory who pines for the days when he could drive home after four pints’ worth of swapping jokes about women and foreigners to complain about the meal indifferently prepared by the wife who hadn’t yet divorced him and then shout at the TV news about how much more agreeable for pissartist baby boomers with no formal qualifications Britain used to be when you could watch the price of your house double every few years and say “poof” with impunity – well, I should have seen just how wide of the mark that was. No, according to serious politicians, they now deserve our respect. The concerns of their voters are real, as real as any Daily Mail headline about immigration.

So I apologise. And I’m not the only one. Bart Simpson has also expressed regret about his Nigel Farage pyjamas. His publicist said: “Of course Bart loves Mr Farage for the funny things he says. But wearing pyjamas with Mr Farage’s face on has been taken as a sign of disrespect in a way Bart never intended for such a major statesperson. He’s gone back to his Justin Bieber ones now. Bieber Fever!” So buck up, everyone. Insulting Ukip doesn’t achieve anything. Unlike voting for it.

Chancellor at the next checkout

The family trip to the supermarket has been revolutionised by the forehead-slapping insight that if you get two trolleys and put a toddler in each, then you avoid: a) high opera about who gets to sit in the trolley and b) Ian McEwansian dread about either of them just disappearing (parenting tip: do not read the first 30 pages of The Child in Time and expect cloudless dreams).             

At one point, I take our three-year-old through the concept of putting things back on the shelves if you find you don’t have enough money to buy them. This hasn’t happened to me since about 1997 but the memory of colossal inconvenience/ear-burning shame is still vivid. I won’t say that George Osborne would be a better chancellor if he’d had a similar experience. Still, the trouble with trying to imagine him not being able to afford things in a supermarket is that first you have to imagine him in a supermarket. It takes some doing.

Theory test

The recent arrests of Jim Davidson and Jimmy Tarbuck for alleged sexual abuse reminded me of Alexei Sayle’s theory of the difference between mainstream and alternative comedians of the 1980s: “An alternative comedian is a nice man pretending to be nasty; a mainstream comedian is a nasty man pretending to be nice.” Yep, I’m sold. The theory also rings true if you substitute the word “nice” with the word “funny”. The exception was Les Dawson, who was both funny and nice. And Victoria Wood. And, on the other hand, you hear a lot about Keith Allen being rude to people and Ben Elton hurting flies. So maybe it’s not such a good theory. I hate this theory! We need a new theory. Erm, “An alternative comedian is an anachronism pretending to be Frankie Boyle and Frankie Boyle is a nice man recruiting his inner demons for the service of comedy with frequent and often enjoyable lapses in taste – I mean, someone’s got to do it.” Too long? OK, “Jimmy Carr is peculiar.” Cracked it! Good theory. 

Think of the children

If it’s Thursday, I must be accepting Melvyn Bragg’s kind invitation to his famous annual Cottage Pie and Dogging Garden Charity Tombola! Sadly untrue but I’ve seen other Diary paragraphs start like that and I was trying to keep up. I do get invited to the odd glamorous shindig but I never go. I’m knackered. I’m knackered all the time. My stupid, tiny children wake me up at 5.48am every single morning. Blame them. Blame them that I can’t tell you the showbiz secrets: what Russell Brand smells like these days or what Martin Amis guardedly says about caravans. So I blame my children and I don’t care if they know. Children! Are you teenagers now? Are you reading this in the NS archive on what is currently called “the internet” but which you call “the telly”? Do your homework.

Tough justice

I was watching the Baftas on Sunday night and I thought it was about time someone started the Olivia Colman backlash. I mean, she’s in everything. And she’s brilliant in everything she’s in. And I’ve worked with her for years and she’s amazingly nice. And her husband is even nicer. And I’ve seen her being patronised by idiots and lied to by unscrupulous people and now they can all suck it up and that’s terrific. She wins. I can’t believe the justice of it. God, I’m depressed.

Robert Webb will star in Ambassadors on BBC2 this Autumn. Olivia Colman isn’t in it, though, so it probably won’t win a Bafta

Robert Webb is a comedian, actor and writer. Alongside David Mitchell, he is one half of the double act Mitchell and Webb, best known for award-winning sitcom Peep Show.

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.
For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.
IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.
Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.
Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.
Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.
The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.
His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.
He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.
I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.