A few years ago I was asked to introduce Lord Mandelson at a Labour Students’ Fundraiser. “Do you mind if I’m a bit mean about you, Peter?” I asked.
“Be as mean as you like,” he replied.
I remember well the response to my introduction from a small number of champagne-swigging young men in sharp suits sat in the corner, who couldn’t quite grasp that the man they wanted to grow up to be was being publicly mocked (and seemed OK with it). I can’t recall the exact words I used. It was something along the lines of: “If the Prince of Darkness can make a comeback, there’s hope for us all.”
Today, the topic splitting families is whether you think Jeremy Corbyn is the Messiah, the Antichrist, or (less likely) something in between. I’ve found the response to any satire directed at him rather baffling; so too the outrage directed at those satirising his “super-fans”.
Puns about Corbyn are condemned as “character assassination” (of the “jaw-dropping” kind), while his critics roundly condemn obviously satirical tweets suggesting that Richmond Park voted Lib Dem as a result of the “#CorbynEffect”. I guess in these post-truth times it’s difficult to know what is real anymore.
For every Twitter account spreading post-truth nonsense, there are a rising number of brilliant parodies such as @CorbynSuperFan, where an attempt at satire sometimes proves to be rather close to the bone.
These accounts would be nothing if it wasn’t for people “not getting it”. I’ve been having far too much fun of late retweeting the “Blairite Scale”, as well as poems about Richard Burgon. And then there’s this classic: “In the 1980’s, only two men stood up to bring an end to apartheid in South Africa. One was Nelson Mandela, the other was Jeremy Corbyn.” Cue the outrage.
Are some of them a bit mean? Perhaps. But they’re funny and, far more often than not, are punching up, not down.
It can take weeks, sometimes months, for people to take the bait. As Corbyn’s actual super-fans come to the realisation that @CorbynSuperFan is all an elaborate joke, they roundly call on their fellow tweeters to block the account. “Satire shouldn’t be used against great people!” they cry – which is ironically the exact wording of one of @CorbynSuperFan’s tweets.
Of course the desire for selective satire is nothing new; the left delighted in Peter Cook’s rather mean impressions of Harold Macmillan in the 1960s but when Cook did one of Harold Wilson, a woman in the audience angrily attacked him, hitting him with her handbag and crying: “That’s not what you’re for!”
It’s not just the “Corbynistas” where 2017 is concerned – Corbyn’s detractors have proven themselves equally as humorous and willing to believe the ridiculous. When I attempted a satirical account of last year’s highest profile Labour NEC meeting (and people tell me my writing is too niche), it was David Aaronovitch (a former spoof New Labour diarist himself) who, having shared it, went to my aid when it was taken seriously, rather than satirically, by an unbelievable amount of Twitter users.
This was despite the diary’s inclusion of a line, regarding the attempts from a mole in Corbyn’s office to rig a CLP branch meeting: “I chucked all the membership cards in the plastic shredder and opened the backdoor to let in comrades from the Socialist Workers’ Party and Hamas. We won the vote by 1057–33, and it was in a branch with a membership of only 500. And Tom Watson’s the fixer?”
The spoof diary entry went on to describe how Corbyn was unavailable because he was at a “Boycott Israel rally outside Islington Marks and Spencers”, while the NEC meeting itself was said to be “almost as crowded as Tiananmen Square was (allegedly) back in ’89".
In response to further remarks that parliamentary democracy was a merely transitional phase (hence Corbyn’s polling was of little consequence), one outraged party member wrote on Twitter: “A transitional stage to what? The revolution? Who are these people?!”
As the country that gave the world Jane Austen, we should be enjoying satire now more than ever. How else can we collectively grieve and move on from the events of the past few months? How will we collectively deal with the worst that is probably yet to come?
As the late great Carrie Fisher once said: “If my life wasn’t funny, it’d just be true. And that is unacceptable.” The split in the Labour Party is depressing on many accounts, but its worst deterioration can be seen in the fact that so many – on both sides – have entirely lost their senses of irony.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies