“Rebels don’t make jokes about how excellent it is to have bishops in the House of Lords”: An interview with John O’Farrell

By - Wednesday 19th February, 2014

Not many people go from satirising politicians to standing for election. Tom Black talks comedy, UKIP and Croydon with one of the British left’s funniest figures

I meet John O’Farrell in Ruskin House, the warm, welcoming building at the top of Coombe Road. The traditional home of Croydon’s Labour Party, it’s also the national headquarters of the Communist Party of Britain. O’Farrell is amused when I explain the cohabitation arrangements. As we perch awkwardly on slightly-too-short bar stools around a pool table, he introduces himself properly and I quickly notice he’s not just funny in writing, though his credits for Spitting Image, Have I Got News For You, and several bestselling books speak for themselves. As anyone who saw the fundraising event he’d come to give that night will attest, John O’Farrell is a master of conversational humour.

We begin by discussing his candidacy in last year’s by-election in Eastleigh. Apart from that time David Cameron quoted him out of context in the House of Commons in an apparent attempt to imply he was a terrorist, John O’Farrell didn’t quite explode onto the scene – and eventually came fourth. He seems perfectly content with that. “I would have been proud to serve as an MP, but I never really expected to,” he explains, “I knew it was a long shot.”

John O’Farrell addresses a Croydon Labour fundraiser.

Readers of The Public Gallery will know that I’ve been trying to get a handle on UKIP’s chances of success in this May’s local elections. In Eastleigh, UKIP came second. O’Farrell was there on the ground – where did he find UKIP’s support in Eastleigh was coming from?

“Well, it wasn’t coming from anger about Europe,” he says immediately. “There may have been some latent concern about immigration, and the BNP didn’t stand in Eastleigh. That’s already a victory for the left, that they couldn’t get it together or were too scared to stand.”

If not Europe or immigration, then what? “Mostly it was anger against politicians. I had gone in there hoping that with the Liberals and Tories in coalition together, Labour would gain from that anger. But the memory of our last time in government was too strong, and people were too angry about the economic collapse. So UKIP benefited from a general atmosphere of ‘down with all of you, I’m fed up with politicians, we need a big shake up’.”

“I don’t mind protest groups, but if protest groups on the left actually stand against Labour, they help the Tories”

We move on to Labour, the party O’Farrell has spent half a lifetime supporting. “When we do get back into power, some people will leave the Labour party – I won’t. I’ve been through the mill, from Benn to Blair, and I’m interested in the left being in power. The Labour party is the best agency by which that can happen.”

O’Farrell had hoped to make Eastleigh voters believe the by-election was a two horse race.

I’ve heard that before – recently, O’Farrell has publicly clashed with comedian and actor Rufus Hound over the latter’s decision to stand for the National Health Action Party. What makes John so sure that the Labour Party is the best agency for the left?

“Well, we’re already the opposition!” he laughs, but goes on to assure me it’s a serious point. “If the Labour were just a fringe party, and there was another left wing party with a serious chance of being in power, I would probably be campaigning for them. That’s why if I was in America, I’d probably be campaigning for the Democrats, god help us.”

His view of the NHA will be familiar to those on the left in Croydon who criticise the local Greens. “I don’t mind protest groups, but if protest groups on the left actually stand against Labour, they help the Tories. Campaign, make a noise about the Health Service, but don’t campaign at the ballot box.” That’s FPTP for you, I say. O’Farrell nods. “Yes, exactly. But remember – Rufus campaigned for the Liberals in 2010. So he’s not naturally on the left.”

“Comedians like Jim Davidson are just slightly embarrassing. They’re not being radical by being anti-PC – they’re not cool.”

The discussion moves to the lack of right wing comedians (“satirists are rebels – rebels don’t make jokes about how excellent it is to have bishops in the House of Lords”), and why that doesn’t seem to be changing (“if I was funny and right wing, I wouldn’t go into TV and columns – I’d go into advertising”).

Celebrity antisemite Dieudonné is one example of a successful anti-establishment comedian on the right – but he’s French. “We don’t really have an equivalent. We have the odd right wing Jim Davidson type, but they don’t have mass appeal. They’re just slightly embarrassing. They’re not being radical by being anti-PC – they’re not cool.”

If right wing ‘funny guys’ reach people with advertising, does he feel he ought to hit back from inside parliament? “My last book was A History of Capitalism according to the Jubilee Line! I’m probably having more impact writing books and speaking to people in places like Croydon, than I would be if I was a backbench Labour MP tweeting ‘great canvass on the Railwayside Estate today, #votercontact’.”

“Whenever you try to improve things there will always be a backlash”

As we move on to issues that matter to #HardworkingPeople, I ask O’Farrell his opinion on gentrification. In his old stomping ground of Battersea it’s a debate that comes up as often as in Croydon. As ‘Hammerfield’ promises to transform our town whether we like it or not, I ask John what he thinks of the changing shape of London.

The glamour of a by-election campaign.

“It’s getting ridiculous. I’m worried that the concentration of wealth and jobs in London is making it impossible for basic services to be supplied. I don’t know how teachers, firemen, tube workers, postmen and nurses are supposed to afford to live in London. It’s a serious problem. Croydon used to be a place where people like that moved when they had a commute into London. Now they can’t afford to live in Croydon!”

“One of the big problems is housing,” he posits, before recalling the Eighties. “During the big sell-off of council houses in the Thatcher era, councils were not allowed to spend their receipts from that on more housing. Now we have to live with that.” For the first time in our conversation, he seems maudlin. “I fear for the generation who are coming out of college now. Where are they supposed to live? How are they supposed to make their way in the world? A contract has been broken. You’re taught if you study and keep your nose clean, then there’s work and there’s a home. But it doesn’t seem to be working.”

It’s been a leftie conversation – appropriately, given our surroundings – but O’Farrell’s final thoughts will ring true to activists in any party. “Whenever you try to improve things there will always be a backlash,” he says sagely. “People will tell lies about you, as I experienced in Eastleigh. That’s the price of trying to change the world. It’s a very long job, it’s one step at a time. It’s not going to happen in the space of one four year government. And that’s why we have to keep putting leaflets through people’s doors.”

Tom Black

Tom Black

Tom is the Citizen's General Manager, and spent his whole life in Croydon until moving to Balham in 2017. He also writes plays that are occasionally performed and books that are occasionally enjoyed. He's been a Labour Party member since 2007, and in his spare time runs an online publishing house for alternate history books, Sea Lion Press. He is fluent in Danish, but speaks no useful languages. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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