3 November 2013

Branded hopeless

So plenty of people have responded to Russell Brand's position and comments by now, but the story rumbles on and on, so I thought it might be worth throwing my views on the heap as well.

I'll admit I've never really found Russell Brand that interesting, his humour, the topics he covers, the way he talks, all just seem to be at the wrong end of what I enjoy (and sometimes the right side of what annoys me).

So, when he eloquently put in to words so much that is wrong with our country in his Newstatesman piece and, less eloquently (but not as inarticulately as Jeremy Paxman), argued his point with the worst political interviewer of our time, I really wanted to cheer and applaud along with everyone else... but I can't. He's wrong.

He is right that large parts of the population are not represented in parliament, he's right that corporations and those with money have too much influence and most of all when he talks about the disconnect between the younger generations and politics, and our fascination with the material, he is spot, bloody, on.

Having rightly asserted that politics is more than putting a tick in a box to register your vote and bemoaned the lack of politicians and policy that relate to a wider section of society, it is then more disappointing that he fails to recognise that our part in the political system has to be more than just voting, or picking between a bunch of options given to us. "We've tried voting" he claims "there is nothing worth voting for" he decries "they do not represent us" he objects, and therefore concludes we should give up on the system all together.

No, we haven't tried voting.

To say we have is just wrong. The number of people voting has been on the decline since the 50's. For the younger generation this is significantly exaggerated. In 2010 it was estimated around half of young people eligible were registered to vote, in the 2010 election only 45% of those aged 18-29 who were even registered, bothered to turn up to do so. It is, I am sure, no coincidence that the decline in voting has gone hand in hand with the decline in how well we feel politicians represent us and our concerns. We haven't tried voting, what we have tried, is not voting, and it hasn't worked.

Worse though, voting is the least of what we should be doing.

Being politically active is more than just voting. People believe the role of an MP is to represent the views of their constituents in parliament (which it is), yet the majority of people now do not even know who their MP is, let alone what questions they ask in parliament, what issues they seek to influence and how they vote on the vast range of decisions that are made there. And if they do not know who their MP is, then their is no chance they actually tell them what their views are. It is very hard to represent someone's view when you have no idea what it is.

Unfortunately we've taken our cue from Paxman. We no longer engage in debate with our MP's, we bombard them with vitriol and scream that they do not 'know' the answers, usually by proxy too. We forget that if we want them to serve us, then we have to provide those answers.

But before we engage with our representative, we have to choose one, and that choice should be made on the basis of the platform they stand on... and that platform has to be created. Our involvement in this process is, again, woefully inadequate. Brand is wrong when he says he isn't the person who should be expected to come up with ideas. He's lived a life, he has opinions, he has an understanding of particular aspects of society... just as we all do.

If we want a democracy that works for all types of people, then all types of people need to be engaged in shaping it.

When party's are deciding the direction they go, then we should be there directing them down the path's we want to go down, only then will we see worthwhile options at election time; and if wading in to the established party frameworks proves frustrating and fruitless, then this is just all the more reason for new ideas, new parties, new options.

Our apathy may be understandable, but it is not justifiable.

Brand does have a good point that the disconnect between people and the system is to blame for this increasing apathy. But he couldn't be more wrong in saying: 
"There’s little point bemoaning this apathy. Apathy is a rational reaction to a system that no longer represents, hears or addresses the vast majority of people."
This apathy is not just a reaction, it is a cause. The less we engage with the system, the less it can reflect our views, and the more powerful those other vested interests become, and so we see less in the system that reflects our views, and we engage less.... cause and reaction in a continual cycle, pushing people further and further outside of the system which determines how our society functions.

Apathy is a destructive cycle, and the way to deal with destructive cycles is to break them, not feed them.

Brand himself admits that we would need some kind of administrative core... "people who serve us, not lead us." But that is just semantics, if they are making decisions on our behalf, then they are in some way leaders, which is not mutually exclusive with serving us, and whether they are serving us is entirely dependent on the decisions they make, so we need some influence over those decisions.

We have to have some form of democracy.

But we have a democracy, so what went wrong? Well, part of the problem is we never started with a democracy, we have been slowly and reluctantly granted more and more democratic control by those who had it, and there have always been vested interests influencing the direction of our society. We have, historically demanded to be more and more recognised and involved, and then, we stopped. Those who had achieved democratic involvement got distracted by the shiny promise of owning stuff, of satisfying our short term desires, of pursuing individual interest rather than a collective one. We believed that we had achieved democracy and we got complacent, but we hadn't.

Being 'democratically enabled' is about more than just being given the vote. We have extended the vote to a significantly large amount of the population now, but as argued above democracy is about more than just voting for a set of options, it is about influencing and creating those options. This is where we have stopped short, Before we had extended democracy to everyone, before we had embedded democratic ownership in society we opted out.

Education, understanding and opportunity are the keys to democratic participation.

Without these things the vote is just an empty symbol, with them however it is a powerful possession. We do not need to give up our vote, we need to make it worth something; we need to push for political education; we need to recognise our right and duty to be involved with the system; we need to demand our right to be informed, to smash the distorting lens the media filters anything to do with politics through; but most of all we need to accept it is our responsibility to make our vote worth something.

Unfortunately Brand, like Paxman, ultimately makes the error of believing that being able to (or choosing) to vote is the essence of democracy, and seeing that it hasn't worked, it must be time to give it up, he doesn't see that the people he feels have been ignored were never allowed the means to engage in the first place, and that that is the true crime... and it's a crime we are all guilty of letting happen.

The popularity of Brand's comments to my mind belies the desperate need to justify our apathy, to tell ourselves it isn't our fault, that doing nothing is doing something and not to feel bad that we don't do more.

It is hard not to compare Brand's intervention with that of the comedian Jon Gnarr in Iceland, here we have an example of someone who not only felt that things were broken, was sick of the 'same old' politicians and same tired options, but went and did something positive to fix them and now sits as Mayor of Reykjavik, with his 'Best Party' (we're the best party, we promise anything) in a good position for the upcoming elections.

So do something, get involved... and vote, even if all you do with your ballot is write "I demand better than this".