Joking: uses and abuses of humour in the Election campaign

Humour can be a powerful tool in both political communication and resistance. Joking articulates dissent in a way that disarms opponents, and can provide a protected space to raise risky concepts. A funny idea can spread like wildfire, its inherent enjoyableness uniting support around its core message.

It seems that political parties have not yet mastered the craft of comedy. Witness the Liberal Democrats’ short-lived puppet gag: a pair of videos satirising Johnson and Corbyn which were released online then removed from view after they met with virulent criticism, including from within the party’s own support base. Johnson’s joking has often been controversial: sometimes cited as highly appealing to voters, his sense of humour has also brought him accusations of unstatesmanlike behaviour, ‘dog-whistling’ and bigotry. Humour is widely theorised as a way for minority and marginalised perspectives to challenge the dominant and powerful, so we are perhaps inherently suspicious of top-down approaches to joking.

In this Election, the more captivating uses of humour were to be found in the grassroots campaigns which sought not to serve power and officialdom, but to tease, jab and question it. The Prime Minister’s constituency, Uxbridge and South Ruislip, was one target of the Votey McVoteface campaign, which encouraged itinerant boaters to choose marginal constituencies as the place to register their vote. The strategy was extended to sofa-surfers and others of no fixed address. The campaign’s name mirrors an act of collective mischief in which the public voted to christen a polar research ship RSS Boaty McBoatface. In referencing this gag, the Votey team could reasonably hope to replicate that spirit of collective comedic action. No data is currently available to determine whether a significant number of boaters really did participate; certainly they did not succeed in overturning Johnson’s majority. It seems likely, though, that the campaign’s good use of humour was an important factor in gaining excellent mainstream publicity (from the Guardian, i news and BBC, among others).

Johnson’s constituency was also the target of several candidates who stood either as a joke, or using humorous names and costumes to draw attention to a marginal position or issue. These included Lord Buckethead (a recurrent character this time appropriated for the Monster Raving Loony Party), Count Binface (who shares a well-publicised personal rivalry with Buckethead), Yace ‘International Time Lord’ Yogenstein and Bobby Elmo Smith. None of these candidates made a significant dent in Johnson’s 52.6% vote share. The joke candidates’ modest impacts ranged from 125 votes for Buckethead to a miniscule 8 votes for Elmo, in comparison to Johnson’s 25,351. It is easy to dismiss these apparently flippant candidacies as an irrelevant, ineffective nuisance. This, though, would disregard a significant tradition of protest.

The nomination of joke candidates is a political tactic with its own history. Examples include the Yippies’ nomination of Pigasus (an actual pig) for President of the USA in 1968 and the cat that polled well for a Siberian mayoral post in 2015. Putting animals up for election, like the positing of a fictional persona, asserts that conventional candidates have fallen into contempt. Usually operating with tiny budgets and minimal campaign teams, joke candidates get attention through imagination and mischief. Receiving a negligible number of votes, they do not generally threaten to topple traditional candidates nor electoral systems. This is not truly their purpose. Rather, they function as a small but notable presence, demonstrating and critiquing the operation of power.

The formal campaign in Uxbridge and South Ruislip was largely discussed as a two-horse race between Johnson and the Labour candidate Ali Milani, but media attention also went to the Buckethead vs Binface dispute. Although the tone of Johnson’s victory speech at his constituency was triumphant, the pomp of the occasion was certainly called into question by the theatricality of this alternative contest. Buckethead was positioned directly behind the podium as the Returning Officer read the results, so his reactions were televised. As Binface’s result was read out, Buckethead conspicuously turned to face him, directing his audience’s attention to this specific rivalry. Buckethead jeeringly held up both middle fingers at Binface as his own victory was confirmed. So, the public were presented with a parodic parallel two-horse race, characterised by pettiness, personal animosity and narcissism, which mirrored some possible, cynical interpretations of the formal campaign.

The Lib Dem puppet videos sought to win power rather than critique it; the same is true of Johnson’s humour. Such top-down efforts arguably undermine the joy and function of joking. Humorous campaigns, by contrast, do what joking is celebrated for. They throw into question the dignity and legitimacy of those who seek power, and the very systems by which power is managed, distributed and won.