Labour of laughs

Ayesha Hazarika on Gordon Brown’s struggles with diversity training, doing Ed Miliband’s make-up and why Jeremy Corbyn is like a wonky broom

Features

28 Nov 2018

Charming, glamorous and funny are not qualities usually associated with the Labour party. So when Ayesha Hazarika rushes in and instantly lights up the room, it is all rather captivating.

The comedian and former adviser to a succession of Labour leaders is fresh from her latest stand-up tour, intriguingly entitled Girl On Girl. ‘It’s not a lesbian floor show,’ she assures me, poker-faced, ‘although there is an Asian babe. Me.’

In fact, the irrepressible Hazarika explores the ways in which different feminist groups fight against each other when they ought to be pulling together. It’s a great topic, but she could just as easily craft a routine around how different branches of her party are tearing each other to shreds.

Right now, Hazarika considers herself ‘politically homeless’. In common with countless other moderates, she has so little in common with the current leadership that she doesn’t hesitate before admitting: ‘I’m a Labour person but I feel a lot of despair.’ And she can’t see that changing any time soon. ‘There are tons of Labour MPs who are unbelievably pissed off but the number who would break away is relatively small.’

It’s just as well she has more than one string to her bow. Born and brought up in Lanarkshire to Muslim Indian parents, Hazarika was educated at a private girls’ school in Glasgow. She learned to be funny as a survival technique. ‘I was the only brown child in the village, sort of thing. Nobody wanted to hold my hand. I was cripplingly shy, this really tiny child. Then I discovered that if you make people laugh it stops you getting bullied. I just wanted to please.’

She studied law at Hull University, but she was not a natural lawyer. ‘In Indian families you have to be a doctor, lawyer or accountant but I was rubbish at law.’

She entered the civil service as a press officer and it was while working at the Department of Trade and Industry that fellow members of the press team urged her to become a stand-up.

‘We’d go to the pub after work and I’d make everyone laugh and they told me I had to do stand-up. I thought: “That’s ridiculous.” It was like saying you should be an astronaut. Then my friend saw a comedy course and made me go. We went together and it was in this dingy basement in a pub, 24 of us weirdos wanting to be comedians. But there was a bit of magic on that course. There was Rhod Gilbert and Greg Davies and others who have gone on to be really successful writers and comedians.’

She started performing at open mic nights. ‘You die on your arse. You think: “What am I doing?” It was horrible. But an agent spotted me and signed me.’

She gigged for years, working by day as a suited press officer to a cabinet minister, changing into jeans in the loo and driving for miles to do a five-minute gig, then heading back to London at 3 a.m. ‘So I led this dual life. There were very few woman and very few ethnic minorities. The women stuck together and supported each other.’ After a while, gigs full of painful silences gave way to laughter. ‘You need to learn how to do it. It’s like a pilot needing flying hours.’

In 2003, she was a semi-finalist in the Channel 4 stand-up contest So You Think You’re Funny. Then the chance came to move from the civil service into working as a special adviser and comedy took a back seat. From 2007 to 2015, she served Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman, advising on Prime Minister’s Questions and heading up initiatives on women and equality. So no nipping off to do gigs in the evenings.

But after leaving her job in the aftermath of the 2015 election and being awarded an MBE in the 2016 New Year’s Honours List, she returned to stand-up, performing a show based on her experiences called Tales From The Pink Bus at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In 2017, she began a new show, State of the Nation.

‘It’s better than therapy for me,’ she says of her return to performing. Her stand-up has had favourable reviews largely for its generous helpings of insider anecdotes, such as the time she was giving Gordon Brown diversity training and he got LGBT mixed up with BLT.

She doesn’t miss a beat when I ask her to name the funniest thing that ever happened to her in politics. ‘When Ed Miliband was going up against David Cameron he got really duffed up. My job was to keep him calm on Wednesdays. This one day we had questions about the badger cull. Ed was really stressed out. I asked him what was wrong. He turned round, grabbed me by the lapels and said: “Look at me. Am I a badger?”’

As a former political correspondent, I love this joke, but an audience not made up of political nerds probably needs a picture of the former Labour leader on a backdrop behind Hazarika to remind them that he had white streaks in the front of his black hair. Her nasally bunged-up impression is superb. And I can well believe that working for Miliband and Brown was a rich source of comedy gold.

I am about to ask her whether anything amusing has ever happened to her in connection with Harriet Harman, but she beats me to it, affecting a tone of mock gravity as she says: ‘Harriet told me, “Ayesha, we don’t do jokes. No one should be the butt of the joke.” ’

She persuaded Harman to try some gags when she went up against Cameron at the Despatch Box. But while she did her best to help successive party leaders find their funny bones, she has not been asked to help Jeremy Corbyn look for his, wherever it may be.

Would she work for Corbyn if he asked her? ‘No, I’m better off doing my own thing now.’ She gives her views of the Labour leader in forthright fashion. She credits his rise to power to the fact that in the Blair and Brown years Labour ‘lost its radical heart’, and when Corbyn came along the left-wing party membership ‘just went for it’.

On stage during the Labour leadership campaign, Hazarika condemned Corbyn as ‘completely unelect-able’. Now, she is not so sure. Analysis of local election results shows that ‘anything is possible… he could potentially become prime minister in a hung parliament or in a confidence-and-supply deal with the SNP’.

How does she feel about that? She pulls a face. ‘I have mixed feelings. I will be pleased to see a Tory government go but…’

Her unspoken thoughts hang in the air. Then she says: ‘Will he and John McDonnell be able to deliver all they are promising? Can they actually do all this stuff? Will all these economic ideas stack up? Where is this money going to come from?’

Hazarika has written a book called Punch and Judy Politics: An Insiders’ Guide to Prime Minister’s Questions with fellow Labour speechwriter Tom Hamilton.

How does she rate Corbyn at PMQs? ‘I think he and Theresa May are lucky to have each other because they are both really bad at it. They are ideally weighted in terms of their appallingness at PMQs.’

She says that while all leaders say they are going to end Punch and Judy politics, Corbyn is the only leader to have succeeded ‘by being relentlessly boring and dull and windy’. She points out that by asking questions apparently sent to him by members of the public, he is using ordinary people as human shields. ‘You can’t jeer at Brenda from Pontefract.’

According to Hazarika, Theresa May is as exciting as a damp dishcloth, so I ask her to select a cleaning utensil to describe Corbyn. When she hesitates, I offer her a choice of epithets: a broken mop, a wonky broom or a Dyson with clogged filters? ‘Oh, a Dyson is too high tech,’ she says. ‘A wonky broom is quite Corbyn. Puritanical. A bit wretched. Very worthy.’

She is brave to say such things, given the ire that rains down from the leader’s office whenever Corbyn is criticised. She is also courageous to reveal the sort of sexism she encountered in the Labour party.

‘Yes, it was pretty sexist and chauvinistic. I think the Labour party has a weird blind spot. We went out there with all-women shortlists. Then Blair’s babes in ’97. But because we did that, people went “box ticked”.

‘People in our party love women, don’t get me wrong. Women can do tea, organise events, book train tickets, pick out Ed Miliband’s ties. I did his make-up…’

I suspect this was because none of the men knew how to put on make-up but I take the point.

‘…but the big-boy stuff, political logistics, strategy, high-level comms, that’s for the boys. Boys do logistics and legislation. Girls do organising.

‘I clawed my way up to get into the room where decisions were being made, the cockpit of politics. I fought my way there and I was often the only woman in that room. Nobody was being deliberately sexist but there was a group-think that power and intelligence was always in a bloke. Women were rolled out for the photo-call, for the doughnut around the leader. They were not respected as much. Their political instincts were not taken as seriously.’

She cites the treatment of Harman as evidence of Labour groupthink. ‘I think she was completely underestimated. Gordon was pretty sexist to Harriet. He never made her deputy prime minister. She became acting leader not once but twice and I still heard male MPs questioning her ability.’

Despite being a solid performer while standing in, Harman was not considered a front-runner for the leader-ship and did not put herself forward. ‘She and I have talked about that and it is one of her big regrets. I wish she had gone for it in 2010. I think she is on the record as saying she does too.’ For Hazarika, it all shows how deep the structural sexism goes. ‘She was doing the job, she was well connected, she was really strong, one of the most senior women, so for her to get treated like that… we still have a long way to go.’

In spite of this, Hazarika does not give a completely free pass to the #MeToo movement. She is sympathetic to women who feel they have been wronged, but believes the constant noise on social media is counterproductive.

‘My concern is that it has become a style statement, a fashion movement, all swishy dinners, a #MeToo industry. My worry is, not that much is changing because we are talking about it. It’s giving people a sort of comfort blanket.’

Box ticked, again? ‘Exactly. What concerns me is that there are real bread-and-butter issues that affect all women. Low pay, access to good job training, childcare, caring for older relatives, women’s safety. I don’t really get bothered by man-size tissues,’ she says, referring to the Kleenex’ branding row when the company dropped the age-old title amid claims it was sexist.

Sisterhood aside, Hazarika has a hit-list of the women she thinks are damaging feminism by misappropriating it, which is to say using it for their own marketing means. Gwyneth Paltrow is top of her list, swiftly followed by the Kardashians. ‘I don’t want to see any more of Kim Kardashian’s bum.’

When she says this in her stand-up, women write in to complain that she should not criticise female stars, an irony that is not lost on her.

‘That’s what I mean when I say there are different strands of feminism. What I would love is for women to stop fighting each other and concentrate on those really universal things that would help women.’

Part of the reason she persists in calling out cheesy celebs, perhaps, is that she is passionate about comedy, and the right to tell jokes in the face of outrage. ‘I don’t like the idea of censoring. If a joke is really funny, go for it.

‘I do get a ton of abuse on social media. I compared Jeremy Corbyn to Hula-Hoops and some people said, “Oh no, I like Hula-Hoops.” OK, what was the right crisp to compare him to?’

She cites Frankie Boyle as an example of an outspoken comedian she enjoys. But it is fair to point out that it was mostly complaints from the left that scuppered Boyle after he compared the Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington to a dolphin.

I ask her why she thinks we are seeing such a sense of humour failure, with more and more people citing hurt feelings to silence comedy. Hazarika admits the culture of offence-taking is probably generated or at least nurtured by the left, which, she says, ‘has never been great with piss-taking’. ‘When you take the piss out of the left they really don’t like it. The left has been in power for a much smaller amount of time so they feel downtrodden.

‘I think they feel they are always fighting against the system. They have got this sense of righteousness. The left are defensive. They haven’t been in charge of things.

‘The right are more relaxed about the piss being taken out of them. In fact, the right like being satirised.’

I suggest that both left and right feel most comfortable when the right is in power and the left is making fun of them. This makes her laugh. But I get the feeling Hazarika’s ideal position is to be in power and telling the jokes.

Punch & Judy Politics by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton is out now


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