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.