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.

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Is Labour really as doomed as it seems? The polls have got it wrong before

Pollsters often overrate Labour's performance. But in two elections, the opposite happened. 

Few moments in the Labour Party’s history can have felt as gloomy as this one. Going into a general election that almost no-one expects them to win, their overall opinion polling is appalling. Labour seems becalmed in the mid-20s; the Conservative Party has rocketed into the mid- to high-40s, and has even touched 50 per cent in one survey.

The numbers underlying those voting intention figures seem, if anything, worse. The Conservatives have huge leads on leadership and economic competence – often even more reliable indicators of election results than the headline numbers. High turnout groups such as the over-65s have turned against Labour in unprecedented numbers. Working-class Brits have swung towards the Conservative, placing once-safe Labour seats in danger. There are limited, but highly suggestive, hints among the data that the swing against Labour is higher in its own marginal seats – a potentially toxic development for any party seeking to hang on to MPs, as Conservatives defending apparently impregnable majorities under John Major in 1997 would attest.

All the while, Labour seems confused about what it is really for. Try as he might, Keir Starmer’s term as Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary has been marred by a fatal confusion and indecision about the extent of the UK’s future engagement with the European Union’s single market. Labour seems neither the party of Brexit nor of Remain, but one determined to irritate as many voters as possible. A similar situation reigns in Scotland, where nationalists under Nicola Sturgeon face Conservative Unionists led by Ruth Davidson, and Labour struggles even to gain a hearing.

Many Labour policy offers – free primary school meals for all, the promise of free university tuition, nationalising the railways, upholding the triple lock of pensions, opposing National Insurance rises for the self-employed – are pleasingly universal, while in isolation appealing to different electoral groups. But together, they represent a massive shift of resources to higher-income Brits that would take huge tax rises to offset. Labour is dangerously close to offering a regressive package under the guise of left-wing radicalism. This is pretty much as far from the British people’s electoral sweet spot as it is possible to imagine.

It is therefore little wonder that Labour lags so far behind Theresa May’s Conservatives. Even some Labour strongholds appear likely to fall - regional polls from London and Wales suggest that many Labour seats will be lost in the party’s remaining citadels. Brutal stories are already coming in from the campaign trail. Rumours fly of truly epochal losses - though it is important to note that other anecdotes seem much less dramatic.

Still, there are other indicators – all too easily missed in the heat of the moment – that point in the other direction. Labour’s performance in local by-elections has been dire for the main opposition party, but the swing towards the Conservatives has been running at "only" just over 2 per cent. The party has certainly suffered some big swings against it, and it has lost wards to the Conservatives in local authorities as varied as Hertfordshire, Harrow and Middlesborough. But there is no evidence that its vote has collapsed on the scale that some of the polling suggests.

Relatively recent history should also give us pause before we write Labour off altogether. Consider the last two general elections in which Labour had near-death experiences, in both 1983 and 2010. Britain’s third party - first the Liberal-SDP Alliance, and then the Liberal Democrats - seemed about to overtake Labour in the popular vote, and steal scores of seats from the bigger progressive party. On both occasions, Labour was able to draw on hitherto unguessed-at wells of cultural identity and strength to pull away right at the campaign’s end. These are in fact the only elections in recent times when the polls have underrated, rather than overestimated, Labour’s likely score. It might be that the same phenomenon emerges this time.

The Conservatives’ huge lead right now has not resulted from a sudden collapse in Labour support, but rather from the United Kingdom Independence Party’s well-publicised implosion. If anything, after about a year of steady decline, the last week or two has seen Labour’s twelve months of slow deflation grind to a halt. Labour’s numbers have even ticked up a point or two as some voters appear to rally around "their" flag. It might be that, as you squeeze the Labour vote down, it becomes more resilient to further shrinkage.

As the Conservatives try to push into Labour’s heartlands, they might find it harder and harder to persuade voters across, from Ukip as well as from Labour. The Conservatives’ image is still far from good in such communities, whatever the underanalysed and separate appeal of PM May as a strong, considered leader in need of a negotiator’s mandate in Europe. Voters might be attracted to May, and repelled by Corbyn - that does not necessarily mean that they will actually vote Conservative. There is little evidence, so far, of any realignment in how voters see themselves – whether they "are" Labour or Conservative, rather than the more ephemeral question of whether they will simply vote for those parties.

Humans always look for patterns. Experts are no exception, while journalists and commentators can always jump to rapid – but wrong – conclusions in the overexcited heat of an election campaign. So it is with the threat of a Labour catastrophe on 8 June. The danger of just such a result is definitely there. But some of the data points we already have, and two recent elections at which Labour walked close to an abyss, cast a little bit of doubt on the inevitability of such an outcome. There are still just over six weeks to go. A Conservative landslide is still quite likely. But it is not certain. We should keep an eye out for the many hints that May’s gamble might end in a rather less crushing victory than we have been led to expect.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (Palgrave Macmillan: forthcoming, May 2017).

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