I want to be absolutely clear about something before I start: in my opinion, Russell Brand is an absolute twat, a jumped-up arrogant, self-important “radical” twat of the type I stopped being roughly when I stopped being a teenager and left behind University leftie politics for the real world. He uses all of his privilege to steamroller anyone who might speak from lived experience and puts his own thinky-thoughts at the pinnacle of wisdom and political understanding. It is depressing that he is seen as relevant, but I suppose unsurprising that he manages to engage with the people who are still teenagers trying to carve out a “radical-leftie” identity for themselves.
Be that as it may, this week sees two approaches to the Russell Brand version of politics, and the supposedly radical notion, “Don’t vote, it only encourages them,” or, “Whoever you vote for, the government always wins.” Which is to say, the idea that since radical change will not come from electoral, representative, politics, that it is pointless, even self-defeating, for those who wish to see change to engage in the process even by voting.
The story comes about because Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party, agreed to be interviewed by Brand. David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party (and current Prime Minister), responded by describing Brand as “a joke”.
It is, without doubt, the case that politicians within the electoral system have a vested interest in persuading people to vote for them: as the slogan says, it’s what gives them a feeling of legitimacy, and maintains the idea that they are earning their way in life. Miliband is not so much interested in challenging the philosophy (or sophistry) behind Brand’s “don’t vote” message, but rather, promising that if Brand’s followers were to vote (for him) then he would address some of the things that Brand says can’t (or won’t) be addressed by elected governments. Nevertheless, he challenges the idea that voting doesn’t change anything, and is useless.
Above all, Miliband, by doing this kind of interview, says, “Engage. Dialogue. Persuade.” Or, in his own words, “If we don’t engage in different ways with the people who aren’t engaging in this election, then we will have fewer and fewer people voting.”
Cameron’s response in many ways echoes the dismissiveness that Brand has previously shown to others:
On Tuesday, David Cameron denounced the encounter as a joke, arguing “he says ‘don’t vote’, that’s his whole view, don’t vote, it would only encourage them or something. That’s funny, it’s funny. But politics and life and elections and jobs and the economy is not a joke. Russell Brand’s a joke. Ed Miliband, to hang out with Russell Brand, he’s a joke.”
Firstly, that’s not Brand’s whole message, but for Cameron to admit that Brand has any other message, and that his other message is anti-global capitalism, would be to accept that there are criticisms of global capitalism that are hard to dismiss.
More importantly, though, Cameron’s attitude is that someone who has decided not to vote is unreachable, even contemptible. When Cameron says, “But politics and life and elections and jobs and the economy is not a joke,” and tries to portray Ed Miliband’s interview with Brand as “a joke”, he fails to grasp that Miliband goes to talk to Brand precisely because those things are not jokes. The only way to convince the election-abstainers that it’s not a joke, that these things matter, and voting is a way to say they matter and how, is to go and talk to them and make these points and to engage with the issues they care about.
I don’t get a say in this election: my vote is highly unlikely to mean anything, because I live in a safe Conservative seat, and I don’t vote Tory. But I’m voting anyway, because it will go to the overall percentages, and because doing so means putting a big X next to the idea that I want to have a say and I want to be heard by whoever represents me in Parliament. I’m voting because universal male suffrage made possible the Labour Party, and universal adult suffrage made possible the Attlee government, and with it, the Welfare State, the NHS, and all the good things the generation now in power enjoyed and are trying to destroy. I’m voting because people who didn’t have the vote, who were denied the vote, believed it was worth having to the extent that it was worth dying to ensure people had it. The vote is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the end-point of radical politics, and neither is it in itself sufficient to reach that end-point.
I have previously argued elsewhere that by choosing not to vote, people take their issues off the table (and that’s why even the radicals and teens should want to vote). But it’s a two-way thing: politicians should notice who feels like their issues aren’t on the table and try to put them there, so those people have a reason to vote. Cameron says, “Fine, I don’t want to play with you anyway”, while Miliband has shown that he wants as many people in the game as possible.
(Yes, I know I mixed my metaphors there. I don’t care!)
[EDIT TO ADD 30/4/15] This piece in the Guardian on young people’s reaction, suggests just how right Miliband was, and how wrong Cameron was, about it.