Struggling for an explanation of who I was dragging my girlfriend to see at the Southbank Centre on Sunday, I alighted on the two words most descriptive of Matt Forde: Blairite comedian.
Forde has mostly made his political name as the host of the Political Party podcast, largely a live interview series for ‘big beast’ politicians introduced with his stand-up routine, and lately bolstered by one-on-one studio sessions with academics, journalists and other lesser monsters.
Despite being an avowed Blairite, formerly employed by New Labour, Forde is admirably omnivorous in his guest selection, taking in everyone from Jacob Rees-Mogg to Jess Phillips, and even Tony Blair himself. His interview style is extremely convivial, bordering and then entering the sycophantic, particularly when chatting to those who share his politics. When the variously-named Change UK emerged from the Labour and Conservative ranks earlier this year it seemed most had spoken to Forde, who still sympathises with the failed party.
Forde gets good copy from his guests, but there is an element of Judith Malcolm’s criticisms of two-faced conduct – as seen in ‘The Journalist and the Murderer’ – in Forde’s mocking impressions of the likes of Rees-Mogg, Rory Stewart and Nigel Farage. The extent of his admittedly good-humoured contempt for some politicians in ‘Brexit, Pursued by a Bear’, his latest stand-up routine, does not always come across in the interviews.
Despite this gripe Forde is unique and unchallenged in being the politico’s comedian, much of his material drawn from the same source material that political hacks draw our commentary from. Targets include Boris Johnson’s absurd speech to the UN, the prospect of him being blackmailed over his endless shagging, and his infamous column about veiled Muslim women and letter boxes.
Much of this is funny, especially the nailed impressions of Johnson and Donald Trump. But in comparing the two as interchangeable Forde steps into the political analysis that peppers his sets, most of it cheaply classifiable as the default SW1 view of things.
Salaried politicos don’t always think alike, but much of the screeching of recent years comes from old Blairites unhappy at losing for a change. Forde is one of many spokesmen for this view, both through his gags and in the more analytical asides that (too) many comedians trade in.
Towards the end of his set he suggested a party that was pro-welfare, tough on crime and in favour of defence spending would do well right now. That the Social Democrats remain an obscure fringe and Johnson’s Tories are polling well belies this outlook. My impression is people care about politics, but aren’t interested in the details, much like a negligent parent skimming their kids’ school reports.
Though Forde is happy to wish the plague on many houses, with both Johnson and his Labour counterpart Jeremy Corbyn deemed “racists” and “populists”, he dwells little on the slick career politicians of the New Labour and David Cameron eras that brought us to this point.
Political history is at least somewhat the story of rising and falling factions, buffeted by forces bigger than any politician, but also by the mis-steps of those playing the game. Forde might bemoan the capture of Britain’s two major parties by what he sees as extremists, and land some fair, funny points about their follies, but I suspect he’s mostly just upset that his team has been relegated.