I had some sympathy at first for the suggestion, made initially, I believe, by Alex Andrews on Twitter, that it might just be worth attempting some Obama-style 'town hall meetings' over here in Blighty. That is, I did until I attended a recording last Friday at Broadcasting House of Mark Thomas's new show, 'The Manifesto'. Not that I didn't enjoy myself, on the contrary, Thomas is one of the country's best comedians and he was on particularly good form, comfortably making the inducement of mass hilarity look as simple and unforced as an evening in the pub with old friends. What it did not do was fill me with faith in the use of direct democracy for the achievement of radical political ends.
A lot of people accuse Mark Thomas's brand of left wing political stand-up as no more than preaching to the converted, but after a period touring and performing his latest show Thomas has no such fear. "You're not the converted," he informs us "You're lovely, but you're not the converted," before revealing that not a show goes by without at least one person demanding the return of capital punishment. The format goes something like this: before each show, the audience are invited to submit suggestions for new laws and manifesto pledges. The show then consists of Mark arguing the toss and debating with the audience over the merits of the suggested decrees, and ends with a show of hands vote for the most popular with the best ultimately being published as a booklet (the publishing house has even agreed to field a candidate bound by said manifesto at the coming general election).
So much of what was suggested displayed less political nous than petty-minded spite, a politics of vengeance and of envy enacted upon anyone seen to be having a bit of a free ride of it: bankers, publishers, MPs and the unemployed. "Rail bosses should be made to shovel snow," someone shouts out, "off the live rail!" In the midst of a discussion of the urgent need to castrate anyone working in the financial services, Thomas announces, "I feel a little like Torquemada here hosting a game show." But what seemed to be the source of the most heated debate was one woman's suggestion that our bus stop queues needed tighter regulation - a proposition that soon escalated to involve thumb print recognition and the forced labour of the unemployed. (We have a funny relationship to queues in this country, Thomas suggests one reason for widespread British anti-communism was simply queue-envy - 'Theirs are even longer than ours!')
Of course, Thomas ultimately dismissed this call for strict public order, and it soon becomes clear that, far from real direct democracy what we have here is a circus with Thomas as ringmaster. "I say this every week - we start off with a debate and end up with a fight." Without Thomas as arbiter it may well have ended up that way, though in some ways it was remarkable just how united the audience were on certain things, and on the whole things that no-one would call either left wing or particularly radical. The strange thing is that although the audience here certainly seemed to feel interpellated by Thomas's "we"s and "us"s, feeling themselves a part of his community of believers, it is perfectly clear that without the minimum of dictatorial control exercised by Thomas himself, he would end up with a manifesto that he would himself be embarrassed to stand behind.