Comedy clubs offered a better quality of debate than the political stage – EU Referendum Analysis 2016

Comedy clubs offered a better quality of debate than the political stage

On 21st June 2016, at 8pm, two performances began. Each contributed to the referendum discussion but they differed substantially in the levels of complexity that they employed. At Wembley Arena, the ‘Great Debate’ between prominent Leave and Remain campaigners was filmed before a live audience of thousands, and broadcast on BBC1. Meanwhile, Chris Coltrane’s comedy club, Lolitics, took place in a small room above a Camden pub; an edited podcast was released two days later, coinciding with the vote itself.

Politicians and media alike failed to prepare the population for the referendum. This is because they failed to provide good-quality information, and more fundamentally because the choices they made when it came to scripting and performing the campaign elided real discussion of the issues.

Coltrane offered a well-formed, incisive criticism of referendum campaigning. He noted both sides’ failure to provide reliable information, likening the voters’ experience to ‘asking two children to guess how many dinosaurs there are in the world, and then just taking the average’. Coltrane also placed key referendum issues in their wider political context. Many Remain supporters have been criticised for their readiness to attribute Leave votes to racism and xenophobia. Coltrane – in favour of Remain – did attribute much of Leave’s momentum to a ‘poisonous’ discussion on immigration. However, his argument was not simplistic but thoughtful; seeking not to abuse but to understand. Referring to a Guardian interview in which a member of the public dramatically overestimated the proportion of immigrants in her hometown of Leigh, Coltrane (2016) said:

“It’s easy for people to sneer at that and dismiss it as racism but we shouldn’t, because here’s what she also said: ‘I work full time, my husband works full time, I pay full rent and I can’t get anything’. And that is the thing, they’ve been let down – they’ve been let down by a government that hasn’t given them the basic things they need to live and they’ve been let down by a media who should have been holding the government to account over austerity … but have instead very happily gone along with the anti-immigrant rhetoric … The problems in towns like that are a direct result of Tory policy. Leigh was a mining town, right? It was not an immigrant that closed down the mines.”

The audience of the Wembley debate encountered no such trust in their intelligence, nor recognition of relevant contexts. As journalist John Rentoul observed, its participants ‘mainly traded soundbites.’ When the debate turned to the topic of immigration, Remain repeated the maxim that there could be ‘no silver bullets’, while Leave leant upon their platitude: ‘take back control’. Three words on either side were intended to stick in the memory: the tactic presumed that audiences would seek reductive approaches to a complicated matter. Both Gisela Stuart and Andrea Leadsom were quick to mention that they are mothers; a recurrent but meaningless statement later mocked by Ruth Davidson (‘there are actually mums and dads…on this side of the argument as well!’).

Attempts to widen the scope of debate fared badly. Remain’s Frances O’Grady endeavoured to query a significant donation to Vote Leave from a former BNP member; Leave’s Andrea Leadsom dismissed the concern as ‘unworthy of this debate’. O’Grady’s later reference to austerity, and particularly the legacy of ‘those greedy bankers crashing the economy’, was shut down by the moderator, David Dimbleby: ‘let’s try, within reason, to stick to the points that we’ve been asked to raise.’ As with Coltrane’s routine, O’Grady’s line of argument was ideologically driven and open to disagreement. Yet it was surely reasonable to acknowledge the resonance of her comments to the topic under discussion; unreasonable to ignore her points. Perhaps the politicians and journalist on that stage were too used to working in soundbites, instinctively failing to trust their audience’s desire, or capability, to navigate the complexities of the debate.

Politicians and media alike failed to prepare the population for the referendum. This is because they failed to provide good-quality information, and more fundamentally because the choices they made when it came to scripting and performing the campaign elided real discussion of the issues. The referendum highlighted the simplistic mode of address that has come to dominate political discourse, and its inadequacy. Stand-up comedy, by contrast, offers richer and more complex communication with audiences. Coltrane and his colleagues have shown that the level of debate can be raised, and the audience will cope. The political stage must improve the quality of its conversation, lest its actors fail us once again.

Pop_culture

Comedian Eddie Izzard speaks at the University of Sussex, Brighton in a final push for the Remain Campaign in the EU Referendum.

Picture by: Hannah McKay / PA Wire/Press Association Images.