Matt Forde on life in political exile
- Credit: Dominic Marley
How was your first lockdown? Productive, learning Spanish and recreating Michelangelo’s David in Lego? Frustrating and made palatable by alcohol and chocolate? Or perhaps, like the politico-turned-comedian Matt Forde, you were one of the two million confined indoors for months.
Forde, who has a severe form of asthma, did not set foot outside his north-west London flat for three months.
“It was only really surreal, it was never that difficult,” the 37-year-old tells me from that same flat via Zoom.
“I’m very lucky that I had plenty of work and I live with my girlfriend and, you know, we don’t have problem neighbours or anything like that, we don’t have any small children to home school, so it wasn’t actually that bad. It was just a bit odd.
“But as a result of my asthma I’m still really scared of getting [Covid]. I still really don’t go out much. I leave for essential work, but apart from that I’m not going anywhere, I’m not getting public transport. I go for the odd stroll around the block, but not much.”
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Still, at least it gave him time to complete his first book. Politically Homeless tells the story of Forde’s time working as a staffer for Labour, including as a regional organiser and a particularly bruising period as advisor to the directly-elected mayor in faction-torn Stoke-on-Trent, through to the election of Jeremy Corbyn which left the arch-Blairite, as the title says, politically homeless.
At turns nostalgic and depressing it’s also frequently very, very funny. Forde’s first interaction with Tony Blair is, well refreshed at a free drinks reception, to ask the then prime minister for directions to the Downing Street toilets.
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“I always thought, when I worked in politics, you’re always lucky to see some quite big moments, particularly if you’re working for a party that’s in government,” he says.
“You get a little peek behind the scenes, and I thought there aren’t many books written by former staffers that aren’t at the top level, you know, they tend to be prime ministers, cabinet ministers. No-one ever writes a book about the kind of normal experience of working - not that it’s ever ‘normal’ normal but, you know, at the level I worked at.
“I suppose it’s a mix of, like, Fever Pitch for politics. It’s a tale of a kind of young obsession which then develops into a career and then becomes a nightmare.”
It’s also, I say, the most full-throated defence of New Labour in office I’ve read for a while, the party having spent much of the past decade trashing the period.
“In a weird way you think, how has it fallen to me to do this?,” he says.
“There are people far better placed who should be defending that period in our history and Labour’s period in office. It’s one of the most weird things about the Labour Party, its relationship with its most successful period. Because I get the impression that a lot of Labour supporters are kind of ashamed of that time. It seems really odd. It’s regarded now as a kind of continuity Tory government, which it absolutely was not.
“I think it’s so strange that so few people are prepared to stand up and really say ‘actually, that was brilliant, that was the best government of my life, I will live longer, I am better educated, I am safer as a result of the decisions taken in that period’. And yet it’s seen as, you know, a bad time when it absolutely was not. It was the greatest government of my life.”
One of the things he writes of in the book is how “the admiration of [the hard left] from elements of the soft left [is] so bewildering”.
“One thing I actually thought with a lot of the people that I spoke to that were really pro-Corbyn was, actually, I think they kind of knew that it was a bit of a game, that they kind of knew that he wasn’t going to win, they just really enjoyed making the Labour Party really left-wing,” he tells me.
“And if you really cross-examine them on what their values were, I don’t think they were as left-wing as they made out, a lot of them, I think a lot of it was slightly kind of performative. And, as a result, even more infuriating, because this isn’t a parlour game or a university debating society, this is the future of the country. And there are people, particularly on the streets that I grew up on, desperate for Labour to get back in while this lot kind of prance around.” Forde himself was brought up by a single mum in Nottingham.
I wonder how his stance went down with his fellow comics, many of whom were vocal Corbyn supporters, both on social media and in appearing at his rallies.
“I mean, there are some left-wing comedians who really identify with Jeremy Corbyn, there’s no doubt about it and I wouldn’t question their authenticity,” he says.
“I know comedians that are pro-Corbyn and that’s fine. I’m sure they would probably recoil in horror at the fact that I’d describe myself as a Blairite! So I have to respect that.
“The inability to see how repellent Labour were, and that actually Tory-Labour doesn’t always translate as good-bad, that actually there are Labour leaders that huge swathes of the country were really nervous about becoming prime minister and that, actually, Labour weren’t the goodies. Neither were the Tories, but, you know, that assumption that if you’re morally better then you want a Labour government was proven not to be correct at the last election.”
The book ends - **SPOILER ALERT!** - with Forde ambivalent at best towards Labour as it moves into the post-Corbyn era. Having left upon Corbyn’s victory, he doesn’t think he’ll ever be a member of another party again.
“Obviously Keir Starmer is a world away from Jeremy Corbyn, so I’m kind of tentatively positive about him, and just the fact that Labour has a grown-up leader, has a talented leader who’s competent, all those things are just a relief, all the basics have kind of been satisfied,” he says.
“But the party itself is a different thing. And Covid has kind of paused whatever Keir Starmer was going to do with the Labour Party at the conference or whatever. We’re not really talking about that at the moment, and rightly so, but that conversation is gonna have to be had. What is the Labour Party and what does it stand for under Keir Starmer? And I think until that’s clear I think I’m kind of still on the sidelines, really.”
At the 2017 general election he spoiled his ballot paper, and last December voted Liberal Democrat. “The Lib Dems were the only UK-wide pro-European party. I didn’t want the Tories to win, I didn’t want Jeremy Corbyn to be prime minister, so I was kind of boxed in by a process of elimination, really. And I actually thought Jo Swinson did really well on that Question Time. I realise there’s only me and Jo Swinson that think that!”.
If Forde’s disdain for Corbyn is unsurprising, one of the other villains of the book is Ed Miliband, who he blames for steering the party to the left and then, in opening up the party’s leadership election, leaving it wide open to entryism by the far left. Is he surprised, then, to see him in Starmer’s shadow cabinet?
“Well, I guess he’s a big figure… and he’s got experience of running a party and there’s not many people that have that, and specifically of running the Labour Party, so I guess that he’s talented,” he says.
“I feel bad, because I get on with him and I know people that work with him and stuff like that, but I don’t think you can write a book that necessitates honesty if you kind of pull your punches and… the period that Ed was leader, I really struggled with. I struggled with the kind of showing the hard left a bit of leg.
“What really drove me mad was, he lived through the Militant experience in a way that I didn’t. Moving Labour to the left never wins elections.
“You can’t understand the need that I had as a kid for a Labour government. You can’t understand… you know, my feeble lungs needed an NHS that was properly funded. If you’re not driven by that flame, and you see the evidence of what wins and what doesn’t, how are you not learning this lesson?
“He’s a nice guy and he’s a talented bloke and he’s a clever bloke so it feels bad, but I can’t pretend that that period didn’t really frustrate me.”
Away from the book you might have heard - if not seen - Forde recently as the voice of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, among others, on Britbox’s rebooted Spitting Image. His talent for mimicry comes, unsurprisingly, from the playground.
“Yes, it’s as basic and as predictable and as tragic as that,” he says.
“I started impersonating footballers when I was a kid. As a Forest fan I would do, like, Stuart Pearce and a bit of Brian Clough, and then [John] Motson and Alan Hansen and people like that.”
His Johnson and Trump are spot-on (and if you haven’t heard the latter, it now introduces The New European’s podcast). But what I wonder is how he also impersonates Starmer. How do you mimic a man the most remarkable thing about his voice is it’s unremarkable?
“The first thing I noticed about his voice is he sounds like he’s got a bit of a blocked nose.” [Adopts Starmer voice] “There’s definitely a blockage there. I mean, very serious.”
“Basically you start off with a blocked nose and you go from there,” he giggles, in his real voice.
The new Spitting Image, of course, was attacked by the right before a single scene had been shot for a perceived left-wing bias, as part of a silly season storm over TV comedy, the BBC’s in particular.
The most important thing about comedy, though, Forde says, is that “something’s really funny”.
“And I think that should be the number one priority for any sort of comedy on any platform: make the funniest possible thing you can, because I think people are capable of laughing at stuff they disagree with.
“Certainly with topical comedy, my instinct has always been to attack all sides… not out necessarily of a sense of fair play, although I think it’s partly that. All sides make mistakes, so purely out of a selfish point of view, why would you limit yourself to only attacking the left or only attacking the right when incompetence is equally distributed across the political spectrum, as is sleaze?
“A right-wing person could take the p**s out of Boris Johnson for the same things, can’t they? They could say he’s incompetent and he’s a b**ls**tter. That doesn’t make you left-wing.”
● Politically Homeless by Matt Forde is out now, published by Quercus Books in hardback at £16.99
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