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7 November 2013

Leader: The establishment may mock Brand’s naivety, but Westminster should take heed of his message

"A lot of people in their twenties are saying simply: Russell is right – bring it on."

By New Statesman

The New Statesman is a magazine of ideas. Our aim is not only to analyse and comment on society, but to change it. This is one of the reasons why we choose occasionally to collaborate with unexpected and influential people in society, such as the former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who as NS guest editor caused a rift between Lambeth Palace and Downing Street, the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who is still unable to leave China because of persecution, and Richard Dawkins.

Most recently, we collaborated with the comedian Russell Brand. His intervention into the world of politics has had an extraordinary effect, especially on the internet – his interview with Jeremy Paxman on BBC2’s Newsnight, in which he spoke about guest-editing the NS, his refusal to vote and his hatred of free-market globalisation, has had more than eight million views on YouTube. Paul Mason, the digital and culture editor of Channel 4 News, has described the Paxman-Brand encounter as a “big cultural event”, something comparable perhaps to the time when William Rees-Mogg, then editor of the Times, interviewed Mick Jagger in 1967.

The Paxman interview was, Mason writes on page 13, “akin maybe to one of those David Frost interviews in the Profumo era, only in this case it’s the interviewee, not the interviewer, who speaks for the upcoming generation. Because while [on my Twitter timeline] everybody over 40 is saying, in effect, ‘Tee hee, isn’t Brand outrageous?’ a lot of people in their twenties are saying simply: Russell is right – bring it on.”

We do not share Mr Brand’s revolutionary disaffection from the political process, or his contempt for the motivations of all at Westminster. But we do understand why so many young people respond to his rhetoric and why they, like him, feel so uninspired by politicians.

Consider the data. Youth unemployment in Britain is 21 per cent (958,000), a near record. Of this, 272,000 have been unemployed for over a year. There are 1,092,000 so-called neets, young people “not in employment, education or training”.

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Upon entering office, the coalition cancelled the Future Jobs Fund (only for a subsequent Department for Work and Pensions study to show that it had been an unequivocal success, with a net benefit to the economy of £7,750 per participant) and abolished the Education Maintenance Allowance, which had ensured that thousands of adolescents from poorer families who might otherwise have joined the dole queue remained in full-time education. Add into the mix a housing crisis. A lack of affordable housing means 3.7 million young people will be living with their parents in 2020, an increase of 700,000, according to a forecast from the National Housing Federation. The average age of a first-time buyer without parental assistance is now 37 and the figure is expected to reach 40 before the end of the decade.

The average student debt is now roughly £53,000 and the UK has the highest public university tuition fees in the world. In addition, the fall in median income suffered from 2008-2009 to 2010-2011 (6.3 per cent) by those in their twenties was greater than for any other age group. A disproportionate number of young people are reliant on the minimum wage, which is now worth no more than it was in 2004 after successive belowinflation increases.

Mr Brand calls for a social and spiritual revolution. The establishment might mock his naivety, but the young are listening to him – and they like what they hear. Westminster should take heed, before our crisis of democratic legitimacy intensifies.