Britain’s funniest politico Steve Coogan talks Corbyn, Grenfell and how Alan Partridge is a rabid Hard Brexiteer.
Steve Coogan is enjoying a revolutionary moment inspired by ‘the metaphor of Jeremy Corbyn’s jacket’.
Corbyn’s clothing choices – which ‘show authenticity’ – occurred to Coogan during the election, when he joined the Labour leader on the campaign trail.
The crumpled, cream, cotton jacket helps explain why Corbyn proved the polls wrong, and also the doubters within his own party.
Coogan puts Corbyn’s unexpected success down to something within the public psyche that the right-wing press failed to anticipate.
‘Peoples’ tastes’ change, you see. That whole thing of wanting people to look packaged – they don’t believe that anymore,’ the comic tells me. ‘Twenty years ago, New Labour got in because they looked like a government. They all wore smart suits and combed their hair.
‘But now, the general public have become conversant with the language of spin and the narrative of packaging. And they realise that the politicians, in the smart blue suits, in their eyes have failed.
‘They sound right, but they are not making their lives better. So there’s now a mistrust. The very thing that they probably lauded about 20 years ago, is the thing that they have rejected.
‘And the very thing that the right-wing press said about Jeremy Corbyn: ‘Look at him in his crumpled cotton jacket.’ That’s the very thing that people liked.
‘People looked at him and said, ‘he just looks like an ordinary person’. That is how there was a huge misjudgment by the tabloids – they just didn’t understand.
‘Like him or loathe him, you don’t feel he’s lying – you feel like he probably says what he means, what he believes.
‘He’s not a brilliant speech maker. But the thing is, that’s probably a good thing. People like him because he doesn’t sound like he’s doing a pre-scripted speech. He’s just bashing it out – it’s a bit uneven but that’s the way most people talk.
‘Tony Blair’s speeches were those speeches that were written and crafted, like Obama’s were but people saw through that.’
The vindication Coogan gets from Corbyn’s success is rooted in a number of things, more deeply personal than natural justice.
That the right-wing papers were proved wrong, clearly plays its part.
‘They live in a different universe and have a different world view, but actually their status is diminished.’ he says.
Coogan has campaigned against corrupt practices in newspapers since finding his phone was systematically hacked by journalists. Although, he’s at pains to point out that what motivates him is injustice.
He knows all too well he can pay lawyers to protect his privacy but that a lot of others who are less well off cannot.
Later he tells me he felt able to speak out against newspaper bullies because he was free from the fear of retribution – because ‘all the skeletons in my closet have been wrenched out by the papers already and there wasn’t anything left’.
‘I remember someone asking me: ‘Do you really want to make enemies of these people?’ But I’d cleaned up my act, and it wasn’t like I could be fired or anything.
‘So, I thought, even if I lose money it’s a fight worth having.’ Lose money he did. The damages from the News of the World did not bridge the gap between recovered costs and his lawyers’ bills.
‘I never did Hello! or anything like that. I didn’t sell my private life to the press. Of course when my privacy was invaded I always recognised my personal culpability for most of the stuff that came out – the infidelity and the drugs.
‘But they were personal things, that if you weren’t doing them in the public eye, you would have been able to resolve them.
‘There’s no doubt about it. I cheated on my wife – had that not have been public, she could have forgiven me it, but because it was public, it was too embarrassing for her and her family.
‘When you first start in this business, you are quite thin-skinned. But as you get older, you develop a thick skin. Like when the Daily Mail has a go at me now, I just don’t give a shit.
‘I sort of wear that as a badge of pride. ‘Daily Mail, yeah. That’s what they do.’ The whole Hacked Off-reform-of-press-regulation-Leveson thing for me was because journalists behaving badly had become just what almost everyone does, in newspapers. And it was like you’re not allowed to say so in public – why does it have to be like that?!’
Growing-up in a ‘leftie’ Catholic household in Middleton, North Manchester (‘Jesus was a socialist and all that’) must be another reason why Corbyn’s victory resonates.
And the fact that Coogan has never felt part of the establishment. Being successful, without obeying the prescribed rules, gives him natural affinity with outsiders.
But probably more than any of these things, is the pride he has in his daughter Clare Coogan-Cole, just turned 21, whose campaign for Corbyn was a personal journey and victory.
Clare works one day a week in Deputy Labour Leader Tom Watson’s office, as well as studying politics at Goldsmiths University.
‘Clare was campaigning for Tom Watson in the Midlands, and she kept ringing me to complain,’ he said. ‘She was upset because of the way people in the campaign were behaving.
‘There were only two people who were pro-Corbyn in the whole campaign team. Others seemed to hate Jeremy Corbyn, and they were saying scornful things like: ‘Oh! He’s on TV tonight – I hope he falls flat on his face.’
‘She said she was getting really fed up with it and having arguments with them. And she rang me up, and said, ‘I’m really upset and I don’t want to do this anymore’.
‘I said: ‘You’ve got to stick at it, you’ve got to stay true to your principles’. As the election results came in, she saw her loyalty and determination had paid off.
‘They were expecting loads of seats to be lost, and then the exit poll came in, and the faces of the anti-Corbyn brigade were the epitome of mixed feelings.
‘The best part of the whole campaign for her was that Tom Watson was just about to go off to do his speech at his own constituency count. And in front of all the other campaigners, he turned and saw that Clare was smiling. He stopped. He made everyone listen and said: ‘Clare, I just want to say, you were right and everyone else was wrong’.’
When we first meet, on a scorching afternoon outside Parliament, Coogan is with Clare and his stepson Noah Cole, 16.
As part of the ‘Save Our Schools’ campaign, he is delivering thousands of messages to Number 10, in a bid to get the Prime Minster to stop the funding cuts.
His daughter clearly has the measure of her dad, and bustles him from A to B, directing him to interviews and photo-calls, making sure he meets his obligations and doesn’t talk too long.
‘My daughter went to state school in Brighton,’ he says. ‘My two step-kids go through the state system, too. I want them to stand up for it.
‘I think maybe there’s some people who don’t want to stand-up for this, because they feel a bit awkward, because they didn’t put their kids through the state education system.
‘So there is not a deluge of people willing to step forward on this. But I’m pretty watertight on that, so I can get involved without feeling awkward.’
So did moving away from London, to be near his daughter Clare, help him stay grounded? Coogan lives just outside Brighton, near to Clare’s mum and his step-children who he describes as ‘semi-adopted’ by him.
‘When Clare was little, I said to her mum ‘if you move to Brighton I’ll go too’. I like Brighton because it’s quite tolerant. I could never live in the Home Counties, with the David Cameron-types, with cashmere sweaters in the pub.
‘It’s kept me sane, having them in my life in Brighton. I love having them in my life. I would have liked more kids, I was one of six – four brothers and one sister. My sister is the eldest. Because I only have one daughter, I can afford to give her lots of attention.’
Coogan is about to move a little further away from Brighton to nearby Lewes, admitting, ‘it’s a bit Guardian-ish’.
I ask if we can expect more politicking from him – perhaps even a change of career.
‘I don’t really want to be a ‘campaigning Steve’. I think you have to sort of choose your battles, because people can get a little tired of people, in the public eye or celebrities, for want of a better phrase, having opinions on things.
‘But I live in a democracy, I’m allowed to have opinions, and if people are more prepared to listen to me because I have got a higher profile, then I will use that for things I think are important.’
‘If they listened to teachers, listened to headmasters, listened to pupils, without me being here then I wouldn’t be here, it’s the only way to focus attention.
Would he like to stand as an MP then?
‘I wouldn’t like to be a politician. You have to be too judicious.’
It would be a shame to see the fire in his belly put out though. Particularly as Coogan seems attuned to the sense of disillusionment felt by many following recent events, no more so than the Grenfell fire.
‘To me, it is even more than a terrible tragedy and needless waste of life,’ he says. ‘Although make no mistake, the impact on the dead, the bereaved and other survivors is more important right now, than acres of social analysis. But it will need to be pointed out that Grenfell symbolises the failure of the market, the failure of deregulation, and of outsourcing.
‘All those things, that were the policy ‘old reliables’ of the Conservative Party, have literally gone up in smoke. I think, in a few years time it will be seen as a turning point of the national debate.
‘You can’t have a competitive environment and also ensure things are to a certain standard, unless you have proper regulation.
‘And that’s the very thing the Tories said they want to get rid of. That rhetoric has all disappeared. It’s now about that idea that it is the government’s responsibility to take care of its citizens.
‘That’s not been the mantra of the Conservative Party – it’s been, ‘well you take care of yourself’. Everyone thought that the terror attacks would help the Tories win because of their image on ‘law and order’.
‘Although, I think if the Grenfell Tower disaster had happened before the election the Tories would have lost, because of that symbolism.
‘It is little comfort to those affected but the denigration of the public sector, the fact that health and safety was always framed as red tape by the government – this rhetoric of the government has been curtailed by recent events.
‘And that is a real opportunity to get involved and change the debate, because right now we are at a cross roads about what the government is supposed to be for, and there is an opportunity for us to make our voices heard.’
The crumpled jacket metaphor is just a facet of a wider crisis of political consciousness, according to Coogan’s logic, that began with the Brexit result.
‘Brexit is a poisoned chalice. The best result for Labour was not to win. They don’t have to do Brexit.’
He concedes that Corbyn was a little ‘lily livered’ on the subject.
‘The Tories will be divided between a hard and soft Brexit, and meanwhile the Labour Party will be saying ‘don’t blame us’.
‘We are in a terrible position to negotiate Brexit – the country is divided on it. It’s a mess and it’s a mess of the government’s making.
‘There is no sort of endorsement for them to move forward. Whatever they negotiate, its not going to make people happy.
‘Half the people in the country are disillusioned with it anyway, there is no unity on that issue and certainly there is no consensus that the government was looking for.
‘So they are fighting with one arm tied behind their back.’
So what would Coogan’s comedy creation Alan Partridge make of the current political climate and would he have voted Brexit?
‘Alan would have voted Brexit for sure. Hard Brexit, given the choice,’ he confirmed. ‘He’s a Brexiteer because the Daily Mail told him to be.’
Would Partridge make a better leader than the current President of the United States?
‘He would make a better president than Trump, yes. Alan’s inept but he’s also honest and well-intentioned. It’s a Little England thoughtlessness.
‘He tries not to be sexist, then is sexist. He’s the kind of person, a bit like my dad, who tries to impress but it comes out wrong.
‘A black person came to our house who was a missionary, and within a few seconds my dad was like ‘Do you encounter much racism?’
‘But the thing with Partridge, is that you can have fun with characters that you don’t like to burst the bubble as well, in a sort of ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ kind of way.
‘Like I did once on Alan’s radio show ‘Mid-Morning Matters,’ which is based on Richard Littlejohn, Rod Liddle, and Ian Hislop, all combined into one character. They all get on my fucking nerves, so I thought, I’ll combine them all. Into a kind of very cynical, droll character, who during Alan’s interview, is sort of putting Alan down a lot.
‘But when you watch it, the character is far more annoying than Alan is. Because, as well as being a bit of an idiot himself, you can actually use him to speak truths.
‘To say things that are sort of a bit ignorant, but actually, people secretly agree with him.’
Does he think the Tories learn to re-invent themselves then, as a sort of purified version of themselves? What about walking caricature Jacob Rees Mogg? Would that be more authentic? Isn’t his pre-war-style tweed simply the aristocratic version of Corbyn’s crumpled cream jacket?
‘I gave him a lift once, and yeah he doesn’t try to not be posh, so I can see how people go, ‘I’m me and he’s him.’
‘In that way, working class British people love a toff, so I understand that idea. He’s like a character on a Sunday evening costume drama. He looks like Mr Logic in Viz.’
But we both agree Rees-Mogg is not the right choice of leader for any sentient member of the human race, and perhaps to be talking about him is no more than an amusing diversion.
‘There was a time when Boris Johnson was seen as unspun. But his disheveled un-spuness just looks like it’s a different kind of spin now. And it probably is. And I always thought David Cameron was the kind of man who would lick his finger to see which way the wind was blowing.’
So what direction does he think the current political mood for change will take us? What does Donald Trump’s victory tell us?
‘Actually, when Trump was elected, through the fog of despair, I saw a glimmer of hope. If people can kick against the fog of the establishment, in one way, they can I do it in another way, as well.’