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 Images.
Show Hide image

After a year of division, a new centre is emerging in Labour

Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds show how factionalism is being transcended. 

On 26 September, Clive Lewis sat onstage at Labour’s conference in Liverpool and puffed out his cheeks in exasperation. He had just been informed that a line in his speech as shadow defence secretary committing the party to Trident renewal had been removed by Jeremy Corbyn’s office. Such was his annoyance that he was said to have later punched a wall in anger ("I punched no walls," he told me when we recently met). 

For Lewis, however, the feud proved to be a blessing. Hitherto hostile MPs hailed his pragmatism and deference to party unity (he is a long-standing opponent of Trident renewal). The former soldier also affirmed Labour’s support for Nato and for collective self-defence. “The values that underpin Nato are social-democratic values: liberty, democracy, freedom of expression,” Lewis, an early Corbyn ally, told me. “Let’s not forget, it was Clement Attlee and the New Deal Democrats who initiated and set up Nato. It’s about being in it to win it. It’s about winning the arguments inside Nato and making sure that it’s a force for good. Some people would say that’s impossible. I say you’ve got to be in it to be able to make those changes.”

In October, Lewis was replaced as shadow defence secretary by Nia Griffith and became shadow business secretary. Many regarded the appointment as a punishment. “Do I think there was an ulterior motive? I’ll never know,” Lewis said. “I’m confident that the reason I was moved – what I was told – is that they wanted me to be able to take on a big portfolio.”

Whatever the truth, Griffith has since said that Labour’s next general election manifesto will include a commitment to Trident renewal and will support multilateral, rather than unilateral, disarmament.

Many MPs had long feared that the divide between them and their leader would prove unbridgeable. Some contemplated standing on bespoke manifestos. Yet with little drama, Corbyn has retreated from a conflict that he could not win. Labour’s conference, at which the largely pro-Trident trade unions hold 50 per cent of the vote on policy and which the leader has vowed to respect, would never have endorsed unilateralism.

“Jeremy Corbyn deserves credit for that,” Lewis said. “Everyone understands that his position hasn’t changed. He still believes in unilateral disarmament . . . But he’s also a democrat, and he’s a pragmatist, despite what people say.”

In policy terms, at least, Labour will contest the next general election as a less divided party than many anticipated. As Corbyn’s team has long emphasised, there is unity around issues such as opposition to spending cuts and support for rail renationalisation. A new centre for Labour, embodied by Lewis, is emerging.

“When I became an MP,” the 45-year-old told me (he was elected in Norwich South in 2015), “to be anti-austerity, to say that cuts don’t work and they’re bad economics, meant you weren’t in touch with reality, and that you had no interest in winning elections. Within the space of 18 months, there’s now a growing consensus that cuts aren’t the way forward and that we need an industrial strategy.”

Theresa May’s support for new grammar schools and “hard Brexit” has given Labour MPs other issues to unite around. After Corbyn’s second landslide leadership victory, many of his opponents have reached the final stage of grief: acceptance. Others, as Lewis noted, are imbued with “an eager enthusiasm to make this work”. Contrary to some predictions, more than half of the 63 frontbenchers who resigned last summer have returned.

An emblematic figure is Jonathan Reynolds. The Liz Kendall supporter, who resigned as shadow transport minister in January 2016, has rejoined the front bench as shadow City minister. Earlier this year, Reynolds backed the introduction of a universal basic income, an idea that is now being explored by John McDonnell’s team (and that Barack Obama has called for “debate” on). In July, Reynolds and Lewis wrote a joint piece in support of proportional representation (PR), warning that without it “a more equal, democratic and sustainable society is less likely”.

Another advocate of PR is Lisa Nandy, the former shadow energy secretary and a friend of Lewis (on 26 October, along with Reynolds, they called for Labour to stand aside in the Richmond by-election to aid the Liberal Democrats). In the view of some, the defining divide in Labour is no longer between left and right but between open and closed. On one side are pluralists such as Lewis, Reynolds and Nandy, while on the other are tribalists such as Ian Lavery (pro-Corbyn) and John Spellar (anti-Corbyn).

The division stretches to the top, with McDonnell in favour and Corbyn opposed. “It’s a work in progress,” Lewis said of his efforts to convert the Labour leader. “There’s a growing movement of MPs who now either support PR or understand the growing necessity for it. They may not be quite there themselves, but they’re moving in that direction.”

At times since Corbyn became leader, the parliamentary party’s divisions have appeared to many to be insurmountable, even as the party in the country has grown and been inspired by Corbyn. Yet a new consensus is being forged in the PLP: anti-austerity, pro-Trident, pro-Nato and, increasingly, committed to political and constitutional reform. If there is any consolation for a becalmed Labour Party, it is that its European counterparts are faring little better. In Spain, France and Germany, an already divided left is further fragmenting.

But Labour is likely to both fight and survive the next general election as a united force. If Lewis can retain his seat in Norwich (he has a potentially vulnerable majority of 7,654), he could one day act as the bridge between the party’s “soft” and “hard” left. After a year of factional skirmishes, the common ground in which Labour’s future will be shaped is emerging.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage