Issue 228 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1999 Copyright Socialist Review

No doubting Thomas

Indonesia and the arms trade, Labour's proposals for privatisation, Geoffrey Robinson, Peter Mandelson and British Nuclear Fuels have all been targets of Mark Thomas's unrelenting satirical comedy. Beccy Reese spoke to him about his comedy and his politics
Mark Thomas

What response have you been getting to the Mark Thomas Comedy Product?
We get a really good response, and I'm very pleased with it because sometimes it's very hard to be able to judge the response. People phone up the duty logs at Channel 4 and are really supportive and really like the show. Channel 4 have been quite shocked by the number of people who have phoned saying this is really great, and then it appears on the internet site and the Channel 4 website. The people at Channel 4 don't really know how to handle us, because we fall between current affairs and light entertainment.

For example, when we did the phone lines for people to call about organising parish referendums, 5,000 people phoned up in five days to get that information. We know that people have written letters to Elizabeth Filkin from the Geoffrey Robinson programme that we did, calling for the committee on standards and procedures to re-evaluate its judgement. With British Nuclear Fuels, people were really supportive. It's quite nice telling people that you don't have to sit there and take it.

Your latest series seems more political than your previous ones. What's changed in terms of producing comedy?
In terms of satire, it's like, where do you start? There are so many targets, it's a banquet. There are loads of things to go for. Some performers maybe had hopes that Labour would deliver. The number of times you heard people say, 'No, Tony Blair's got to say this just until he gets in.' What was he going to do, suddenly get into power and say, 'Right, paint Westminster red'? It's not going to happen! The difference is the Tories basically said, 'Fuck you', and the Labour Party says, 'We are not fucking you.' So the Tories said, 'Privatisation is good for everybody,' and Labour tells us we'll have 'partial privatisation', sort of like a demi-bottle of privatisation, and try and dress it up--and the dressing up is hysterical. 'Public-private partnership'--where's the partnership? It's just a relationship of unequals.

What do you think the differences are between New Labour and the Tories?
Labour are probably more right wing. If you look at PFI, privatisation of the tube, the asset stripping of the health service, the privatisation of air traffic control, these are all things that the Tories balked at. They believed it would be too unpopular. Also, the Tories would not redesign the economy around joining the euro, which is essentially what the Labour government is doing. The whole thing is to cut down on the public sector borrowing requirement, so that the government can meet the joining criteria to get into the European single currency, which is essentially a bankers' multinational charter. Those facts alone make them far more right wing than the Tories.

Labour's attitude towards trade unions is ambiguous at best. Tony Blair is doing with the unions what John Major did with the Ulster Unionists, in the sense that he can deliver them, because they're his, so he can do what he wants with them. They seek power, so he can say, 'You can have this bit, but I want that; and he can be seen to deliver.

At the end the Tories were fairly bloated and corrupt and arrogant, and I have to say the Labour Party is warming up very nicely in that direction. It's completely in the pocket of big business--Lord Sainsbury, Lord Simon. What the fuck is he doing there? Lord Simon is the chairman of BP. The relationship that Labour has with big business is incredible. When you get Byers turning around and saying we're interested in wealth creation rather than wealth redistribution, you have to say okay, we recognise this tune, we know what it is, you're talking about the trickledown effect in the economy, which means, the richer the rich are, the bigger the crumbs. This has been proved not to work.

The Labour Party is actually more right wing but is more adept at public relations. But people are really angry with Labour. People are annoyed at the betrayal. I don't personally think there was a betrayal, the betrayal is perceived--because you could see that this was going to happen from the beginning. But what's interesting is the number of disputes which are actually happening outside the union structures. So although there will be people who are members of unions, they will be avoiding the union hierarchy and organising themselves, and this goes from Hillingdon Hospital through to University College London Hospital and through to the tube workers, the electricians--all sorts of people like that. And that is very interesting, that people are doing that. So those are the differences.

I think people are much more pissed off with Labour now than they were 18 months ago. Lots of people believed they wouldn't deliver. People knew they wouldn't deliver, but voted for them just to get the Tories out, just to prove they could. I certainly did, just because I wanted the Tories to go. I was overjoyed when they lost. I didn't celebrate the Labour victory. I was celebrating the Tory defeat.

Indonesia: 'What politics boils down to is people's lives and their control'

The first two shows of the current series dealt quite a lot with the situation in Indonesia What do you think about the revolution and of the two socialists you met on their speaking tour in Britain last month?
Whenever a regime like that exists it tends to sow the seeds of its own destruction, by the fact that it exists. And by the fact that it does what it does, people will rebel against it and will fight it. Once you've had some kind of change and get away from a military dictatorship, what tends to happen is you end up with a democracy that stumbles around a bit and doesn't actually initiate major change--but you do have the vote. It was intolerable that apartheid existed in South Africa and it was very important for apartheid to be destroyed. The real question is, why has Nelson Mandela then got striking miners? Why are the shanty towns still there?

In Indonesia you have to establish democracy. Once you have democracy you then have to challenge the ruling interests. You have to challenge the ruling elite and find ways to actually transform that society. Whether that is through revolutionary socialism or anarchist cooperatives, you have to find a way of getting through to make that change. But the essential point is that you have to make that jump.

What politics boils down to is people's lives and their control. You can't take the line that some on the left do that the poorer people get the more likely they are to have a revolution, and therefore we should be encouraging people to be poor. These are people's lives, and that's a really callous, cynical, stupid attitude to take. In the case of Indonesia, the right to live is a major battle. The right to organise, the right to food, the right to healthcare, the right to not live in fear--these are all basic human rights to be established. Mai and Sandi, the Indonesian socialists, are really interesting people. It's very heartening to meet people like that who are prepared to be that brave. I'm really pleased to have met them. You can know something because you've read a book or because you've seen it on television--but when you meet people, it's with you.

Your comedy is often based around class issues. Do you think there's any currency in the Blairite idea that 'we're all middle class'?
No, there's no currency in the Blairite line. it's completely bankrupt. It's stupid. We live in a capitalist society--we can't all be middle class. It's like the idea of a balance of trade--somebody gets ripped off. If you have a balance of trade you'd have to redress the balance so much in favour of developing countries that you can't have a balance of trade.

Class is incredibly important. Class is a defining thing. It comes down to the fact that there are two groups of people--essentially the ruling elite and everyone else. If you're middle class you've got better style pasta, nicer wallpaper, but there's not a huge amount of difference. The important thing is to fight against the people who are worth fighting against. People might argue a lot of teachers are middle class but what you mean is they have had an education, which is a trait of being middle class, because education is more open to the middle class than it is to the working class. It doesn't mean they are middle class--the amount of money they're getting paid is not middle class, the work they have to do is not middle class. Part of that comes down to the idea that you distrust people with any intelligence. If you object to anything, that's seen as middle class--it's the standard Daily Mail line. It's about assuming working people can't have aspirations.

Every day pressure is put on people not to aspire to be thinking, rational, intelligent people. Education is usually the official line given as what defines working class and what defines middle class. But what's important is who the people in control are, what can you do to stop them and to change things.

Do you think there's potential for organising, through television, groups of people who want to fight back against all the issues you've covered?
I don't know--that's the honest answer. What probably had the most effect in terms of actual change was when we did some programmes and a documentary about the conditionally exempt works of art list. The Labour government then did a U-turn and changed the law. It's very nice to get your name down in Hansard for changing the law. It's even nicer when the people who work at the Historic Houses Association, the trade body of the stately homes, describe my actions as irresponsible and say their members will suffer, and I am personally to blame. I wear that badge with pride.

This attitude that you cannot change things is just a excuse, and an insult, frankly. People do it all the time--people fight all the time. People change all the time. That's what happens. That's what being human and alive is. That's what we do. East Timor is on the verge of an, albeit fairly showcase, election, and it does stand a chance of the Indonesians actually withdrawing, which is a major move. To win this after being ignored for 26 years, after one third of the population were murdered, to do that in the face of nearly blanket exclusion in the press is incredible, and to say, 'Oh, we can't change anything,' is just an insult.

So you can change things. Whether television has got a role in it, I don't actually know--I genuinely don't. Robert Wyatt, who's one of my heroes, was once asked, 'Can your music change anything?' and he said, 'No, but I can be a cheerleader for it,' which is probably where I'd put what I do. I just hope that people get excited and angry and do things.

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