Mark Steel

This interview was first published at Salman Shaheen’s new blog at Third Estate here

There's a bit in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan where the eponymous character starts paraphrasing Moby Dick. “I’ll chase him round the moons of Nibia and round the Antares Maelstrom and round Perdition’s flames before I give him up!” he cries. Tracking down comedian Mark Steel can be a bit like that. Between appearances on shows like QI, Have I Got News For You and Mock the Week, and his stand-up performances, including this year’s Mark Steel’s In Town broadcast on Radio 4 from the more obscure parts of Britain, it’s hardly surprising he has a somewhat hectic schedule.

But, in the wake of the disastrous European Elections, Steel was kind enough to talk to me about that perennially gloomy topic, the state of the Left today, and the few rays of light he’s seen.

Thirty years after Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the British Left is still sitting on the steps of the amphitheatre shouting “Splitters!” It’s an unfortunate pattern that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Mark Steel, who wrote in the Independent earlier this month that the Left, despite seemingly facing ideal conditions for success, “has a self-destruct button, and can’t stand being popular.” But did he have high hopes for Respect following the greatest mass movement of our time? “Respect had difficulties, but it had potential,” he says. “Whether something succeeds or not is not just a matter of whether it has a figurehead that gets on the news and so on, although that is very helpful, but it’s about getting a group of people in every area who seem to be doing things.” It seems an obvious starting point and Steel is quick to point out that it’s nothing new. “Going back to the English Civil War, that’s how agitation groups managed to get some sort of hearing. It’s not just being on the radio and saying things that people like.”

Of course, the state of the Left would be more depressing than even I imagined if the only successes it could tout were almost four centuries ago. Steel’s more recent inspirations can be found in the Scottish Socialist Party. “The SSP managed to get to a point where it could get 7% of the vote across the whole of Scotland,” he says. “That’s because Tommy Sheridan and his colleagues were known through the 90s, not just because they campaigned over the poll tax, but also when people who refused to pay had bailiffs coming round, the SSP organised people in the area to defend that person’s property.” It was a tactic, Steel argues, that was very successful both in the short-term and in the long-term. “In the short-term it meant people’s armchairs weren’t dragged out by the bailiffs. In the long-term it meant the poll tax was defeated.” Steel notes that they won themselves an immense amount of credibility over that. People trusted them. “They won an enormous amount of respect. But then they pressed the self destruct button.

But they did manage to get to that place first. And similarly, Respect did win in Bethnal Green. You can laugh at all the cat business. But it took an immense amount of organisation. George [Galloway] had won such respect because of his constant agitating over the war. But it wasn’t just that. There’s a company in Brick Lane that a lot of Bengali people put their money into and it went bankrupt, and George has campaigned over that and won concessions. It’s a combination of local everyday life things and the big issues such as the war in Iraq that made people trust him.”

In the end, though, Respect “tore itself apart in a feud about nothing that anyone can work out.” Did Steel find himself won over by Galloway’s Respect Renewal in light of his successes? “I’m not a member of Respect and I’m not going to be. But the Socialist Workers Party caused that feud. They’ve admitted as much now. In their own words, they ‘went nuclear’. They justified it as a Left-Right split. But once you end up categorising Ken Loach as a witch hunter then you’ve gone a bit haywire haven’t you?”

Following the election of two BNP members to the European Parliament, the SWP put out an open letter to the Left urging unity for the next election. It’s unusually conciliatory tone seemed to some bloggers to be a step in the right direction. “I don’t think anyone will take the blindest bit of notice,” Steel says and it’s not hard to miss the sense of bitterness in his voice now. “It’s hilarious! You can’t go round trashing everything and everybody and then… you know, it was awful, really, really awful. It was particularly awful for longstanding SWP members, because you’d think, what the hell are we doing?” Steel is a great fan of Linda Smith, the chair of Respect Renewal. He describes her as “one of the most principled trade unionists I’ve ever known, a really, really gutsy woman.” But, “because she took the George Galloway side, the SWP called her a ballot rigger and invented this entirely fictitious story that she’d rigged her election position. You can’t then a year later write a letter to her and say ‘well let’s let all that be past and let’s see if we can set up something else.’” Steel’s friends would seem to agree with him. “I’ve got a mate who says it’s like an alcoholic going back to his wife and saying ‘I’ll be different this time I promise!’”

Steel himself did not have the easiest of divorces from the SWP. It would be hard to imagine Alex Callinicos’s review of his memoir What’s Going On? being so negative if he were still a member of the party, whilst a certain capitalised colloquialism for the female anatomy has been amongst the more hateful comments he has received. “One bloke called me a TWAT and he was a twat. He wrote about a hundred comments on my website, each one managing to beat the previous ones in their incoherence and madness.” But Steel does not regret his experiences over the past decades. “If you leave something you’ve been in for a long time, most people say they don’t regret it except that they wish they’d left a couple of years earlier. It’s a bit like when your marriage breaks up. I probably should have left a bit earlier.” But, he says, “When I joined the SWP, it was young and a natural home for people who wanted to campaign over every issue. Not only that, it had the ideas.” The party’s analysis of the collapsing Soviet Union as a state capitalist society is a case in point. “It doesn’t mean that socialism is redundant, it proves that those states were not socialist in the first place, which is what we always said. If you believe that those countries were socialist, either you defend them on the ridiculous ground that these barbaric bloody places were the sort of regimes that we should aspire to recreate, or you conclude that socialism is bound to end up with people in gulags for looking at the regional politburo officer the wrong way.”

I ask Steel if there’s anywhere in the world that he does consider socialist and if there’s any country he draws encouragement from. “I think Cuba you can draw encouragement from, but I don’t think it’s socialist,” he says. “Venezuela I don’t believe is in the control of the working class, but Chavez has clearly gone out of his way to protect his working class base by using the oil money to fund projects that the ruling class hate. Henceforth three times they’ve risen up in rage, with the backing of George Bush, to try to overthrow the democratically elected government and every time he was forced back by a genuine uprising. I think anyone vaguely interested in human decency must be encouraged by that.”

Mark Steel believes that Chavez in Venezuela has done exactly the sort of thing the Left should be doing here. “I would imagine in Venezuela, lots of people would think ‘oh yeah he goes on about socialism and anti- imperialism and this, that and the other, and I sort of half follow what he’s going on about, but I tell you what, the schools are better since he was in.’ And that’s what socialists have to do. You win a hearing on the bigger issues by proving that you can handle the day to day issues.”

For Steel, this can’t be achieved by tiny parties shuffling themselves into different transient alliances. It has to be built from the bottom up with campaigners taking principled stances on the issues that matter to people. “I saw the Green Party doing that in lots of areas. There was a point when the socialist groups would do that, but the Greens have occupied that territory now.”

It’s easy for me to understand where Steel’s coming from. Although I spent a fraction of the time he did in the SWP, I am a former member of Respect who has found a new political home in the Green Party. But, I put it to Steel; can the Greens ever whip disaffected socialists like us into the kind of flag-waving fist-raising zeal of the past? “I don’t know,” he says after some thought. “There is going to be some tension between a Green Party outlook and a socialist outlook. The Greens are not based on trade unions. But there is socialist contingent in the Greens that is growing.” Steel spoke at their conference last year. “I was very impressed with them,” he says. “Caroline Lucas is a very impressive character. There are people in the Greens, Jonathon Porritt type characters, who are very much establishment people, free market, friends with Prince Charles, which doesn’t sit easy with someone on the Left. But they’ve definitely moved towards a more agitational stance and I think that socialists could certainly feel comfortable within the Greens.”

Of course the Greens, despite substantially increasing their share of the vote in the European Elections, significantly failed to increase their number of seats. Steel often jokes that he jinxes every cause he supports. But what’s really holding the Left back? “It’s not because the SWP and George Galloway and Tommy Sheridan are all bonkers. The reason that these people are to different degrees bonkers is because it has been very, very difficult to promote socialist ideas in Britain in recent times. The working class movement in this country was smashed much more seriously than anywhere else in Western Europe, by Thatcher’s laws initially, and then ideologically by Blair.”

Steel cut his political teeth in Thatcher’s Britain. But it is for Tony Blair that it seems he reserves most of his angry incredulity. “The extraordinary thing about Blair is not just that he said and did what he did, but that the bulk of the labour movement went along with it, however grudgingly. Even at the end, after Iraq, after all that had gone on, all the privatisation, all the scandals, he spoke at the TUC and apart from Bob Crow and a few people from the RMT, they just let him.” There’s a bit in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, when another character, one James T. Kirk, tells a young officer: “How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.”

On his website, Mark Steel jokes, “I’ve spoken at lots of demonstrations and union meetings and protests, and appeared at quite a few benefits, and yet capitalism still seems to rule the world.” And perhaps it’s in this that we can find our greatest inspiration in these troubling times. Throughout his career Steel has successfully used comedy as a vehicle for politics and politics as a subject for comedy. The leftists who’ve been prepared to satirise their own viewpoints have always had more resonance for me than those who are dour and right-on to the point of humourlessness. Perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from people like Mark Steel, is that laughing at our beliefs can stop us crying because of them.

This interview was first published at Salman Shaheen’s new blog at Third Estate here

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