"I decided not to vote once": Jeremy Paxman backs Russell Brand's apathy over politics

Newsnight presenter reveals he did not vote in a recent election, as he expresses sympathy with New Statesman guest editor's disillusionment with Westminster.

Jeremy Paxman last week challenged Russell Brand for guest-editing the New Statesman when he "couldn't be arsed to vote" - but revealed yesterday that he once did not make it to the ballot box himself.

The Newsnight presenter offered a rare personal opinion on politics following his interview with Brand, saying that he understood why many people would share the comedian's view that voting was pointless.

In an article for the Radio Times, Paxman wrote: "At the next election we shall have a choice between the people who've given us five years of austerity, the people who left us this mess, and the people who signed public pledges that they wouldn't raise student fees, and then did so – the most blatant lie in recent political history."

His comments echoed Brand's assertion in his essay for the New Statesman that most people "see no difference between Cameron, Clegg, Boris, either of the Milibands or anyone else. To them these names are as obsolete as Lord Palmerston or Denis Healey."

Brand added: "I have never voted. Like most people I am utterly disenchanted by politics. Like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites. Billy Connolly said: 'Don’t vote, it encourages them,' and, 'The desire to be a politician should bar you for life from ever being one.'

"I don’t vote because to me it seems like a tacit act of compliance; I know, I know my grandparents fought in two world wars (and one World Cup) so that I’d have the right to vote. Well, they were conned. As far as I’m concerned there is nothing to vote for. I feel it is a far more potent political act to completely renounce the current paradigm than to participate in even the most trivial and tokenistic manner, by obediently X-ing a little box."

In his interview with Paxman, Brand had said: "You’ve spent your whole career berating and haranguing politicians, and then when someone like me, a comedian, goes, “Yeah, they’re all worthless, what’s the point in engaging with any of them?,” you seem to have a go at me because I’m not poor anymore."

In response, Paxman wrote: "Russell Brand has never voted, because he finds the process irrelevant. I can understand that: the whole green-bench pantomime in Westminster looks a remote and self-important echo chamber. But it is all we have. In one recent election, I decided not to vote, because I thought the choice so unappetising.

By the time the polls had closed and it was too late to take part, I was feeling really uncomfortable: the person who chooses not to vote – cannot even be bothered to write 'none of the above' on a ballot paper – disqualifies himself from passing any comment at all."

 

Yesterday, Brand responded to Robert Webb, who had warned him that revolutions often lead to violence, saying: "I'm not saying lets go smash people up and certainly not kill people. Just for the record, I'm not in on the old death camps . . . I'm double, double against genocide. I am talking about a revolution of consciousness. Definitely no killing. I'm against that; I'm a vegetarian, I think we're all equal. I'm not saying smash people's stuff up, and definitely no killing."

In a conversation with Mehdi Hasan, Brand admitted that Marxist revolutions often "went a bit genocidal".  

Contesting Webb's point that being born in 21st century Britain was a huge privilege because "nobody is going to kick the door down in the middle of the night and take us or our away our children to be tortured", Brand added: "If you went to Oxbridge, if you went to a private school, no one is coming for your kids. They're not coming for you if you're from Oxbridge. That's my open letter to Robert. I hope it doesn't go to the other one by mistake - David Mitchell - who I really like."

 
Jeremy Paxman talks to Russell Brand on Newsnight.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad