Tony Blair and Russell Brand are right: career politics must end

Both men recognise that politicians need to live, to experience the world, its hardships as well as its highs, before taking office.

At a Q&A at the Mile End Group earlier this week, Tony Blair was asked whether there was any hope that the Labour Party would one day be led by someone who was not a former special adviser.

He replied: "I think there is a general problem in politics, not just in our system but in Western democracy - I mean, it’s a far bigger topic this. But, I do think it's really important.

"You know, I advise any young person who wants to go into politics today: go and spend some time out of politics. Go and work for a community organization, a business, start your own business; do anything that isn't politics for at least several years. And then, when you come back into politics, you will find you are so much better able to see the world and how it functions properly."

Both Ed Miliband and David Cameron began their careers in Parliamentary circles soon after graduation: Miliband worked as a researcher at Channel 4 before joining Harriet Harman’s team, while Cameron started off at the Conservative Research Department until he went to advise John Major at 10 Downing Street.

On the face of it, Blair’s words appear to have nothing to do with Russell Brand’s guest editorship of the New Statesman, his appearance on Newsnight and the subsequent fallout. Yet Blair’s despair at the disconnection between politicians and the electorate - the former described by Brand as "frauds and liars" - gets to the heart of the latter's thinking, and offers a hint of a remedy that stops short of Brand’s revolutionary means.

Some argue that elevating Brand’s argument to that of serious political consideration is ludicrous given that, a, he is a comedian; and b, he does not vote. On the first point, Alex Massie, Nick Cohen and Tim Stanley fail to realise that comedians are some of the most observant and astute commentators on society the country has to offer. All three of the above used a typical "lamestream media" trick of belittling Brand, something infamously attempted by the Morning Joe crew: if you dress weird and talk in a Cockney accent, you ain’t got any right to talk about serious stuff. Massie described Brand as an "adolescent extremist", Cohen compared him to Miley Cryus, while Stanley decided he needed to talk a bit more "down-to-earth" to engage with the man from Grays, Essex: "Actually, Russell babes", began one of Stanley’s sentences. (NB: He would have got more Brand brownie points if he’d used a “z” at the end).

On the second point (that Brand does not vote and, therefore, should have no say), why should we ignore the growing proportion of the electorate that is disillusioned with politics? Thirty five per cent of Britons did not vote in 2010, so should we all ignore what they have to say, or rather try to engage with them and understand why Cameron, Brown and Clegg failed to entice them in 2010?

This brings me back to Blair and Brand’s similarities. Blair wants aspiring politicians to see the world first and then go into a career that can sort it out; Brand decries that "all of them lot" in power went to the same schools and followed the same path. It is this disconnect, between the career politician plus school pals and the vast majority of the electorate, that leads to the apathy that is at the heart of Brand’s essay. "Apathy is the biggest obstacle to change", is what he writes, as well as "Apathy is a rational system that no longer represents, hears or addresses the vast majority of people." And it is apathy which Massie and Stanley fail to address in their attacks on Brand. Both are content to attack him on his call for revolution. Rightly so. I don’t agree with Brand on the call to arms, but I agree with his eloquent description of the frustration of the electorate, which forms the heart of his astute observation of British politics.

Massie writes: "The more someone sneers about how stupid and venal and corrupt our MPs are the less likely it is that they know anything about an MP’s actual life and work". He says politicians work awfully hard, helping out their constituents at surgeries behind the scenes. No doubt that’s true. But that’s not what people are complaining about. How is it helpful for someone who has lost their disability benefits to go to their local MP, who is powerless in the face of the austerity juggernaut? Or for a pensioner to complain at surgery of rising energy bills in the face of corporate greed?

Massie thinks politicians are hard-working lovelies that want to see us all face to face and understand our problems. If that is so, argues Brand, why are the Tories taking the EU to court to stop it curtailing their banker pals’ bonuses? Cameron must have had a long queue of men from the City queuing up on the streets of Witney asking for some face to face time after the last election.

Brand is rightly criticised for his performance against Jeremy Paxman when he failed to describe how we solve this apathy. But he is a politically-aware comedian who has a talent at observation; he is not here to solve all our ills. Rather, the best part of the interview was when Brand leaned in and had Paxman silenced: "I remember I seen you in that programme, where you look at your ancestors, and you saw the way your grandmother were out to brass herself or got fucked over by the aristocrats who ran her gaff. You cried because you knew that it was unfair and unjust. And that was what? A century ago? That’s happening to people now."

Brand gets at what Blair is implying: politicians need to live, to experience the world, its hardships as well as its highs, rather than pal around with their mates in the corridors of Portcullis House waiting their turn at the table of the anointed. That’s why, as a believer in democracy, for all its failings, I’ve always admired the US system, which, despite its own problems, most plainly seen during the shutdown, has a capacity to better reflect its demographics.

I’ve argued before for primaries in this country, a sure way to allow career politicians to become a thing of the past and allow anyone to come to the fore and speak up for the people. Brand’s call for revolution and for the young to get out on the streets goes too far. If we simply allow a more inclusive grouping of people to be able to become our representatives, we can change the apathy than hangs over us. Brand says that "young people, poor people, not-rich people, most people do not give a fuck about politics." But I’m reminded of a friend of mine who actually did go out on the streets and did pound the pavements calling for change. The only thing is, she went over to Nevada to campaign for Obama. She had been a community organizer and had some life experience before she entered politics. My friend does not pound the streets for Cameron, Miliband or Clegg.

Massie and Stanley would not like this US primary-style inclusive system. Why? Because America’s system has allowed, shock horror, comedians to become lawmakers. Al Franken, the current junior senator from Minnesota, was formerly a writer and performer for the television show Saturday Night Live. Franken was a key voice during the healthcare debates and has sought more financial regulation. He has focused on core progressive principles, showing people that comedians can be substantial.

Can you imagine Brand, that "adolescent extremist", entering Parliament, or attempting to keep quiet during Prime Minister’s Questions, or debating Osborne across the dispatch box? Actually, I can, even if he can’t and won’t.

Tony Blair speaks at the opening ceremony to the fifth annual 'Climate Week NYC' on September 23, 2013 in New York City. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kiran Moodley is a freelance journalist at CNBC who has written for GQ, the Atlantic, PBS NewsHour and The Daily Beast.

Photo: Getty Images
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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.