Obama amuses us again, but why can't British politicians do humour?

The US president's star turn at the White House Correspondents' Dinner is a reminder of how far removed such comedy is from our political world.

Standing in front of a hall full of the nation’s most notable journalists - and CNN’s Piers Morgan - President Barack Obama had a confession. "I look in the mirror and I have to admit,” he said glumly, "I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist I used to be."

No one, of course, ran to write up a front page story, or tweet their amazement. This was the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner at Washington, D.C.’s Hilton Hotel, an annual event where the sitting president and a chosen comedian (this year it was Conan O’Brien’s second stint after performing in 1995) get to whip out a few jokes in front of tables filled with journalists and celebrities alike. The aforementioned Piers Morgan was seated, somewhat bafflingly, with Gerard Butler and former Speaker Newt Gingrich. 
 
Obama is known to be particularly good at telling a few jokes. In 2011, he demolished Donald Trump, who was then thinking about running for president. Obama sarcastically said Trump once had the difficult decision of who to fire on The Apprentice: Lil John, Meatloaf or Gary Busey? "These are the kind the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night," he revealed, to raucous approval and an embarrassed Trump.
 
What is striking for Britons, especially when we see Obama playing Daniel Day-Lewis playing himself in a mock-film trailer, is how far removed such a comedic stunt is from our political world. While Obama’s lines may be well researched by witty speech writers, he delivers them with ease and he is not the first US President to do so. The US has a political system that is far more fluid and diverse than ours and the anti-intellectual bent in American politics and culture embraces elected officials who don’t need a good degree but must, crucially, be down to earth. 
 
Can anyone imagine David Cameron reeling off jokes with such aplomb? Even when Ed Miliband delivered his best line – "In the light of his U-turn on alcohol pricing, can the Prime Minister tell us, is there anything he could organise in a brewery?" – it was said rather staidly. Worse still, Cameron could have had a quick, witty response but instead said he would have a party to celebrate Ed Balls staying in his job. It was car crash stuff, but it was typical. Prime Ministers are just not fun or funny: Gordon Brown was grumpy, Tony Blair was smug and John Major was dull. Many of Margaret Thatcher's colleagues claimed she had a brilliant wit but if you listened to the long list of Thatcher anecdotes told over the ten days of national mourning, she came across as cutting and self-inflated. Even Charles Moore, her biographer, admitted she didn’t understand one-liners or double entendres. 
 
What this boils down to is how we see our leaders. Richard Hofstadter 1963 book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, spoke of the country’s distrust of the aloof intellectual, preferring the more practical and patriotic intelligence of those not in tune with elite culture. He referred particularly to the 1952 and 1956 Presidential Elections, where General Dwight D. Eisenhower overcame the academic Adlai Stevenson: a practical, patriotic man overcoming the narrowness of the armchair intellect. In one particularly relevant line, Hofstadter notes how the US education system breeds an out of touch and unfunny type of American: "There is an element of moral overstrain and a curious lack of humour among American educationalists which will perhaps always remain a mystery to those more worldly minds that are locked out of their mental universe."
 
Indeed, while Obama may be an intellect and aloof, he still has a great connection with voters that created a grass-roots campaign in 2007 that propelled him to the presidency. Just like most Americans wanted a beer with Bush, most want to hang out with Obama – and Michelle, of course – because they’re relatable and 'cool'. And talking of aloof, Obama even mocks that side of him – as he did in Washington on Saturday night. Thatcher may have been able to deliver some decent lines, but she was never self-deprecating. 
 
What Hofstadter said about US education breeding individuals with a curious lack of humour rings true for Britain, a nation where we prefer to have aloof intellects running the country. The Americans like their leaders practical and pithy: remember Clinton cracking up with Yeltsin and Reagan delivering his "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience," line to Walter Mondale in 1984. 
 
Can we Britons ever break this vicious cycle of unfunny and characterless prime ministers? I think I know what the Mayor of London’s answer would be.
 
Barack Obama during the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner on April 27, 2013 in Washington, DC. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kiran Moodley is a freelance journalist at CNBC who has written for GQ, the Atlantic, PBS NewsHour and The Daily Beast.

Getty
Show Hide image

There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.