Dear Russell, choosing to vote is the most British kind of revolution there is

Robert Webb tells Russell Brand: your New Statesman essay has made me rejoin the Labour party.

Dear Russell,

Hi. We’ve met about twice, so I should probably reintroduce myself: I’m the other one from Peep Show. I read your thing on revolution in these pages with great interest and some concern. My first reaction was to rejoin the Labour Party. The Jiffy bag containing the plastic membership card and the Tristram Hunt action figure is, I am assured, in the post. I just wanted to tell you why I did that because I thought you might want to hear from someone who a) really likes your work, b) takes you seriously as a thoughtful person and c) thinks you’re wilfully talking through your arse about something very important.

It’s about influence and engagement. You have a theoretical 7.1 million (mostly young) followers on Twitter. They will have their own opinions about everything and I have no intention of patronising them. But what I will say is that when I was 15, if Stephen Fry had advised me to trim my eyebrows with a Flymo, I would have given it serious consideration. I don’t think it’s your job to tell young people that they should engage with the political process. But I do think that when you end a piece about politics with the injunction “I will never vote and I don’t think you should either”, then you’re actively telling a lot of people that engagement with our democracy is a bad idea. That just gives politicians the green light to neglect the concerns of young people because they’ve been relieved of the responsibility of courting their vote.

Why do pensioners (many of whom are not poor old grannies huddled round a kerosene lamp for warmth but bloated ex-hippie baby boomers who did very well out of the Thatcher/Lawson years) get so much attention from politicians? Because they vote.

Many of the young, the poor, the people you write about are in desperate need of support. The last Labour government didn’t do enough and bitterly disappointed many voters. But, at the risk of losing your attention, on the whole they helped. Opening Sure Start centres, introducing and raising the minimum wage, making museums free, guaranteeing nursery places, blah blah blah: nobody is going to write a folk song about this stuff and I’m aware of the basic absurdity of what I’m trying to achieve here, like getting Liberace to give a shit about the Working Tax Credit, but these policies among many others changed the real lives of millions of real people for the better.

This is exactly what the present coalition is in the business of tearing to pieces. They are not interested in helping unlucky people – they want to scapegoat and punish them. You specifically object to George Osborne’s challenge to the EU’s proposed cap on bankers’ bonuses. Labour simply wouldn’t be doing that right now. They are not all the same. “They’re all the same” is what reactionaries love to hear. It leaves the status quo serenely untroubled, it cedes the floor to the easy answers of Ukip and the Daily Mail. No, if you want to be a nuisance to the people whom you most detest in public life, vote. And vote Labour.

You talk of “obediently X-ing a little box”. Is that really how it feels to you? Obedience? There’s a lot that people interested in shaping their society can do in between elections – you describe yourself as an activist, among other things – but election day is when we really are the masters. We give them another chance or we tell them to get another job. If I thought I worked for David Cameron rather than the other way round, I don’t know how I’d get out of bed in the morning.

Maybe it’s this timidity in you that leads you into another mistake: the idea that revolution is un-British. Actually, in the modern era, the English invented it, when we publicly decapitated Charles I in 1649. We got our revolution out of the way long before the French and the Americans. The monarchy was restored but the sovereignty of our parliament, made up of and elected by a slowly widening constituency of the people, has never been seriously challenged since then. Aha! Until now, you say! By those pesky, corporate, global, military-industrial conglomerate bastards! Well, yes. So national parliaments and supernational organisations such as the EU need more legitimacy. That’s more votes, not fewer.

You’re a wonderful talker but on the page you sometimes let your style get ahead of what you actually think. In putting the words “aesthetically” and “disruption” in the same sentence, you come perilously close to saying that violence can be beautiful. Do keep an eye on that. Ambiguity around ambiguity is forgivable in an unpublished poet and expected of an arts student on the pull: for a professional comedian demoting himself to the role of “thinker”, with stadiums full of young people hanging on his every word, it won’t really do.

What were the chances, in the course of human history, that you and I should be born into an advanced liberal democracy? That we don’t die aged 27 because we can’t eat because nobody has invented fluoride toothpaste? That we can say what we like, read what we like, love whom we want; that nobody is going to kick the door down in the middle of the night and take us or our children away to be tortured? The odds were vanishingly small. Do I wake up every day and thank God that I live in 21st-century Britain? Of course not. But from time to time I recognise it as an unfathomable privilege. On Remembrance Sunday, for a start. And again when I read an intelligent fellow citizen ready to toss away the hard-won liberties of his brothers and sisters because he’s bored.

I understand your ache for the luminous, for a connection beyond yourself. Russell, we all feel like that. Some find it in music or literature, some in the wonders of science and others in religion. But it isn’t available any more in revolution. We tried that again and again, and we know that it ends in death camps, gulags, repression and murder. In brief, and I say this with the greatest respect, please read some fucking Orwell.

Good luck finding whatever it is you’re looking for and while you do, may your God go with you.

Rob

 

Robert Webb to Russell Brand: "The young are in desperate need of support". Photo: Getty

Robert Webb is a comedian, actor and writer. Alongside David Mitchell, he is one half of the double act Mitchell and Webb, best known for award-winning sitcom Peep Show.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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The BBC's Question Time shows how narrow our establishment really is

 35 per cent of all panellists in the show's history attended Oxford or Cambridge.

In February the Sutton Trust published a report digging into the backgrounds of professionals across a wide range of industries and the findings pointed to one unambiguous conclusion: in the upper echelons of society, the privileged still dominate, with wildly disproportionate numbers attending private schools and Oxford or Cambridge University.

But how does this actually manifest itself? We have spent some time crunching the data on what we think is an indicative snapshot of the establishment: the BBC’s Question Time.

Each week, David Dimbleby is joined by politicians, journalists and other opinion formers, who together represent the spectrum of opinions it is acceptable to have in public life. Looking at this pool of people is better than analysing something as narrow as, say, Members of Parliament because it encompasses a wider subset of people who make up the ‘establishment’ - politicians, journalists, activists, business leaders and cultural figures too. But is this establishment truly representative? Does the panel truly reflect Britain at large?

The short answer is “no”.

And this is clear simply by looking at the gender split on the panel: Throughout the show’s history only 35 per cent of panellists have been women - though of the shows broadcast in 2015, this rose to a slightly less dire 42 per cent. And when women have appeared on the programme, producers have been drawing from a smaller pool - with women more likely to put in repeat performances. Shirley Williams is the most ubiquitous panellist, having put in 55 appearances on the show.

But the real meat of our digging comes from research into universities.

To find this out, we took the data on appearances on the show since it began in 1979, and matched each panellist with the universities they attended. For the approximately 1500 panellists, we relied on publicly available information, and we were able to find data on around 85 per cent of panellists. Some of the data we used will almost certainly contain errors - but we’re broadly confident that our findings hold up. Even if the following numbers are not precise, they certainly represent the magnitude of the figures involved.

In an echo of the Sutton Trust’s findings, Oxford and Cambridge are massively over-represented. 35 per cent of all panellists since 1979 attended Oxbridge - and if you count it by the number of appearances, as a measure of who is sat around the panel on each show, 42 per cent of the seats in the show’s history have been occupied by Oxbridge graduates (and this doesn’t count Christ Church, Oxford, alumnus David Dimbleby, nor his Oxford predecessors Robin Day or Peter Sissons in the host’s seat).

Graduates of “Post-92” institutions, the so-called “New Universities” make up just 3 per cent of panellists.

93 per cent of every episode of Question Time ever broadcast have included an Oxbridge graduate. And amazingly, this got worse in 2015, where not a single episode was broadcast without Oxbridge representation. Our hypothesis is that any attempts at positive discrimination are cancelled out by the professionalisation of the political classes, as many non-university attendees early in the show’s history were people from a trade union background. One trend over the course of the show is the decline in the number of guests who haven’t been to university at all (and yes, that’s despite Nigel Farage appearing what feels like almost every damn week).

Of the top 20 most recurring panellists, half went to Oxbridge. By comparison, less than 1 per cent of the UK population went to Oxford or Cambridge.

Measuring which institutions get the most graduates onto Question Time also enables us to build a new league table. The best represented institution over the show’s history is women-only Newnham College, Cambridge - with graduates like Diane Abbott, Patricia Hewitt and Mary Beard, 76 of its alumnae have made it on to the Question Time stage.

What’s particularly amazing about this is that Newnham only takes on about 500 students per year. Second in the list is the LSE - with 54 different alumni appearances. And this is despite LSE taking in 10,000 new students every year. The best-represented post-92 institution is Middlesex University, with just 5 panellists over 36 years, despite taking on 23,000 students every year.

This makes for distressing reading - not least because both of us attended post-92 institutions. Was our hard work for nothing? Does Question Time suggest that the gates to the establishment forever remain firmly bolted shut to us?

To be clear, we don’t entirely blame BBC for these findings - nor would we want these figures to be used to make foolish allegations about “BBC bias”. The BBC is more worried about party political representation - and as our findings make clear, the producers of Question Time are clearly drawing from a pool of people who are already overwhelmingly dominated by Oxbridge.

Whether Oxbridge’s dominance is a symptom or a cause is up for debate. Looking at a year-by-year comparison since 1979, what’s most striking is how little has changed. Though we like to believe that society is more progressive now than it was in the dark old days, Oxford and Cambridge still dominate the upper echelons of public life.

More than 1500 panellists have appeared on Question Time over the last 36 years. They were selected due to their role in forming or reflecting the opinions held by the nation on some of the most important issues we have and will face. Is it really right that the less than 1 per cent of the population who attended Oxford or Cambridge Universities should have such a loud voice?

James O’Malley tweets as @Psythor, Blakeley Nixon tweets as @BlakeleyNixon.