Russell Brand was right - 'left/right' politics in the UK is over

A former BBC editor argues that the system is close to breaking point and meaningful voting and participative democracy, rather than revolution, must be the answer.

Mike Butcher
15 November 2013

From where I stand – fifty-something former journalist, reasonably successful small businessman and in that capacity, therefore (so we’re often told) someone to emulate - that there’s widespread rumbling discontent in Britain isn’t open to question. From customers to acquaintances, friends to social media feeds, unhappiness is hard to escape.

That the BBC’s main current affairs programme, Newsnight, had Jeremy Paxman interviewing a de facto voice of a younger generation, Russell Brand, on revolution is as good as any a reflection of this. Channel Four’s Paul Mason summarised what went on in his blog. And as the Paxman-Brand exchange demonstrated, and Mason’s article in effect emphasised, our mainstream political parties are irrelevant in all this. They didn’t and don’t arise as a potential source of solutions.  

A part of the rot that’s so badly infected the current system lies in safe seats and the very real – not perceived - futility of voting for many. The first-past-the-post system undermines any legitimacy based on the actual intentions of the electorate (how many MPs represent the majority of the eligible electorate in their constituencies?). No-one can decry those who opt not to vote while so many votes can only be cast in pointless contexts. No-one would decry not voting if a non-vote counted as a vote against all the available candidates.

State funding of parties – rather than funding by donors, the rich, interest groups, lobbyists and their ilk – may be a viable way forward. Possibly, that funding could be linked to party membership numbers.  

There are options out there, and this digital age affords myriad new ways to involve and engage voters. However, first we need to overcome the barriers to change.

If They’re Not Solutions …

A growing number of people, given voice by Brand, are opting to ignore ‘regular’ politics. I saw Brand live at the BIC after the Paxman interview – the cheer in support of him when he raised the meeting was one of the loudest of the evening.

It is not the case that his audience is apolitical – it’s that they have no faith in the politics on offer, and are right to feel that way. If you’re hankering for change then whatever the nominal political ideologies on offer may be, theory pales into insignificance when you’re on a zero-hours contract, or struggling to pay the heating bills and believe your kids are going to have a worse life than yours. You want action, and the political parties don’t deliver.

However, while notions of ‘left’ and ‘right’ as meaningful opposing forces in Britain are dead, they persist as dangerous hangovers.  If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

Both Of Them?

In the script we’ve been working to for decades, Conservatives stand for the establishment, the status quo, with Labour the opposition. The appointment of Simon Stevens as the head of NHS England serves to neatly demonstrate just how false these notions of establishment/opposition or ‘right’/’left’ are.  

The NHS is perhaps the most valued aspect of British life in the popular psyche. Notionally, the Tory Party is all about undermining the NHS, all about privatizing it.  Notionally, Labour is supposed to be all about defending it.  

From 2001-4 Mr Stevens worked for Labour, during which time he was a strong advocate of increasing the use of the private sector in the NHS. Now, the Tories have appointed him head of NHS England. Enough said. Let’s stop here. Rather than fool around debating it we need to close this chapter in our political history and move on.  

(The Liberal Democrats, with an inadequate power base, will cosy-up to whoever will best serve their long-frustrated craving for power. Thus, they have destroyed any credibility they may have had as proponents of a different ideology. They are a footnote in the chapter in British politics that is ending.)

Why Now

Arguably, the British (or any) establishment was ever thus. What has changed is that the establishment has become increasingly myopic in its understanding of what constitutes its interests. In simple terms: you can keep a population docile (and successfully feed off them) as long as you ensure the significant majority of that population receive enough to feel things are improving. As the concentration of wealth into the hands of the very few has massively accelerated in recent years, so those ‘crumbs from the top table’ have become ever more scarce. The establishment has become too stupid and too greedy for its own good.

We are on a cusp. There is widespread disaffection and there are many millions of people who know their living standards are falling and that coming generations face a bleak future. What isn’t clearly understood, yet, is that none of our current political parties represent a positive option for change.

So, Let’s Move On

If we want to move on, we need to recognize the obstacles that have to be overcome.  Attitudes need to change radically: everyone normally thought of as middle or lower class needs to fully comprehend that the political parties they have historically voted for have come to represent one broad ruling establishment, and that the establishment is concerned with the interests of the establishment, and little else.

That will be a difficult and bitter pill to swallow. Perhaps thankfully, the parties themselves - by their crass failures and obvious betrayals of their roots and supporters - are providing the sugar coating.  

Not Just The Parties

Obviously, the broad establishment’s interests are only represented in part by the political parties themselves. It also enjoys direct representation through the mainstream media in all its guises. Consume any of it and you will be very hard pressed to find even an occasional, timid challenge to the bedrock of the status quo.  

Boats may be rocked a little – MPs’ expenses for example – but whatever the noises they make, the mainstream media is also defined by notions of ‘left’ and ‘right’ and hence by their relationship to the political parties. As such, at root the mainstream media are similarly all primarily concerned with the preservation of the status quo – of the broad establishment that sits across and subverts the interests of the nation for its own ends. When you witness any boats being rocked, you’re witnessing minor spats within the establishment.

Know Your Enemy

There will be many who would want to dismiss calls for radical change or revolution as heresy or lunacy or mere celebrity babbling. Listen closely: all the critics are really arguing for is the status quo, from the viewpoint of the status quo.  

Bear in mind it’s not just the rich and powerful, those in the ‘traditional’ establishment, who want to keep things as they are. There are plenty of lower-paid, lower profile folk who depend on and are defined by ‘left’ and ‘right’ for their pay and status. There are the journalists, the party workers and the academics, the quango staffers and civil servants, the charity executives and union reps and so on.  

Judge any comments and commentators by their relationship to the existing ‘left’ / ‘right’ norm: if it’s anything other than outright opposition, they are more than likely going to be part of the problem.

Know Your Enemy’s Tactics

The digital era is, independently of any disillusionment with politics, bringing about a rapid waning in the reach and power of the existing mainstream media. The media barons of old have largely failed to dominate new media channels.

That waning, the questioning of the politics of ‘left’ and ‘right’ and the values of the broad establishment, the undermining of old certainties – that all combines to mean we can expect a lot of voices attempting to fight change. The fight against change will be loud, long, dirty and dismaying.

Dismaying? Yes, dismaying, for what it says about human greed and selfishness.

Research into how tobacco companies behaved despite knowledge about lung cancer; research into how people with fortunes tied up in climate-change-creating industries orchestrate and fund bogus, specious arguments against doing anything to ameliorate coming climate-change-generated disasters, and you’ll understand how low humans are willing to sink.

And If We Don’t Act?

If we want to imagine a future politics that is still democratic, then once we’ve understood the meaninglessness of our existing system’s token ideologies, we need to move on to a new chapter, with new political parties and new media channels – with a new legitimacy. We need to start work now, on creating a new, participative, representative democracy that reflects the needs of the people.

If nothing changes, the current system will break. Sooner or later, a tipping point of too many people experiencing real hardship will be reached. Quite possibly it will break in an unmanaged, unpredictable way. That is something we should all work to try and avoid.

While some may call for revolution, a very large majority of the people of Britain, as disaffected as they may be, aren’t calling for a revolution in the sense of rioting, bloodshed and lawlessness. The system may be rotten, but it is better than anarchy – at least at the moment.  

Besides, unless we’re able to change human nature overnight, history strongly suggests violent revolutions, even if momentarily popular, create just as much misery for the ordinary citizens as whatever system the revolt was overthrowing.

Democracy, when it works as the word ‘democracy’ actually means, is the best system humanity has come up with for government. Just as no-one should criticise anyone who doesn’t vote while so many votes are pointless, so we shouldn’t reject voting per se.

What we should be fighting for is meaningful voting – and it would be revolutionary if we achieve it.

A Perfect Epilogue

In a perfect epilogue to this chapter of British political life, Jeremy Paxman, the man who criticised Russell Brand for not voting, subsequently admitted (in a Radio Times interview) that he too has not voted, has described our political parties as “unappetising” and observed that “People are sick of the tawdry pretences.” That may in itself be a small but revolutionary step forwards.


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