ReBrand

“Well, fine, you know, Paxman, I mean he’s lost his teeth anyway, he’s like Russell fucking Hearty these days.”

Cynicism about politics has existed since the first Greeks picked up some pebbles. Democracy, as wise men have said many times before, is the worst of many evils, and just plain doesn’t work.

Fresh from calling panellists and audience members “mate”, “that fella” and “Dave” on Question Time, Russell Brand faced Newsnight attack dog Jeremy Paxman for what appeared to be something of an old-fashioned slice of television, a long and characteristically sprawling interview during which Brand took apart (or tried to) every piece of scaffolding built around the country by Establishment & Sons, Ltd. Like the well versed man he is, Brand pebble-dashed objections, observations and general opinions with little regard to reason. This was not outrageous, nor was it Occupy; it was a proven performer performing.

The reaction has been immense, both on the largely pro- side, who consider Brand and politics to be the new Dawkins and religion, and from the anti- side, for whom the interview was little more than an exploration into the world of a badly dressed sixth former. Somewhere in the middle, surprise surprise, is where you currently find me. I am not subscribing to Brandism, nor do I dismiss everything he says as fluffy idealistic nonsense. As the man himself told Paxman, he can’t create utopia in a hotel room.

Not participating in the democratic process, as Brand advocates, is not a solution. Turnout at many elections, particularly local authority elections, are meagre enough as it is without celebrity-backed boycotts. The fewer people vote, the greater risk of one of two outcomes happening; the incumbent party holds on through lack of opposition; or extremists from either side of the political spectrum sneak through. Ah, people say, but we don’t agree with the electoral system at all, so such concerns don’t matter. I agree that the volunteer sector is proving that people can create opportunities for people to seek and provide help without local authorities’ direct involvement, but no town or city, however small, can survive on support networks created without some form of democratic organisation overseeing the results.

Unelected, unaccountable groups to whom local councils fob off services or decisions, the nameless “vision boards” and the like, are more unacceptable than volunteer groups running the local library. Rather than promoting non-participation in governance, Brand should encourage pressure being put on central government to award or return genuine power to Town Halls – abandon the use of arm’s reach boards and consultancies, and fire up true devolution through councillors to the people. I accept that not voting can, in itself, be a valid democratic act, but far more can be achieved by being within the process than always being outside.

The machinery of national politics needs rewiring, from lobbyists and pressure groups and how they work within the parties and not just outwith government, to the electoral administration of the country. Fix one element and the machine will purr again. Yes, your eyes can glaze over at the sound of the words “voting reform”, but lack of trust in the democratic process stems from members of the public knowing that it makes no sense for Britain not having a truly representative parliament. All those of you who complained – to me, with vigour – that your vote for the Liberal Democrats in 2010 somehow helped create Hell on Earth need reminding that your votes and millions like them, meant tiddly squat in a country where fewer than 100 of the 650 seats in parliament actually mean something. Far too many ‘safe seats’ created by First Past the Post can only – and has – encouraged apathy in millions of people who know that they can never change the government of the day.

Fewer government departments and less MPs would help reduce the cost of Westminster, and true devolution to the regions would loosen the London-centric media grip on covering ‘politics’. Our politicians are not representative of the nation at large – not those Labour front benchers who claim to be ‘on your side’ whilst backed by healthy donations from Unions, and who don’t earn, or would ever claim, anything approaching the average in their predominately working class constituencies; not Conservative members from the leafy shires who still do not understand the anger over expenses claims for comfy country pads and ample gardens. We need to open up Town Halls and Westminster to genuine representatives of the people, not just sharp suited bores straight from Uni who have only known a life of bag-carrying for MPs and climbing ladders within the system. If Westminster is to represent real people, those chosen as candidates by any of the main parties must stop choosing oiks who think The Thick of It was a lifestyle programme.

And yes, candidate selection and proper representation does go back to the dry electoral administration talked about earlier. Open primaries, proportional representation, recall elections, electronic voting, open hustings, votes at 16 – if we are a grown up democratic country, let us fix the machinery. There have been failed attempts at reinvigorating elections – the Referendum Party in 1992, the Jury Team, an ITV reality show to pick an independent candidate. Such ideas don’t necessarily have to fail if used as basis to try again.

Yes, Brand looked beyond such tinkering to a much wider, radical, less democratic revolution, but I’m a believer in representative democracy, and I don’t believe I could any easier create utopia in my room than he could in his. No functioning country in the western world could survive without corporations or democratic institutions. I know far more people who hang on every word of unaccountable, unelected corporate suits – Apple, Rockstar Games, the FA – than those who could name their MP. That’s a failing of the democratic system. That’s not to be ignored as a problem, but it cannot be resolved by the dream-world candyfloss created by a very smart, very clever dreamer. Brandism is but suggestions for a better world already in the mix of debate, particularly in a country of Whigs and Liberals, Churchill and Mills, Dawkins and Hitchens. Let us use Brand’s ideas to form a new structure for the country – but let’s not use his blueprint for the future. It won’t work.

Word of 2012

This has been the year which has seen media cannibalism: the Leveson inquiry and all which continues to fall from that, both merely implied and strongly hinted. It’s been a year of trust and mistrust, stretching around the world and filling both television screens and social media feeds.

Twelve months ago my word for the year summarised the prevailing mood of the time – what seems now as more of a flash than a precursor, although continued demonstrations in Greece, Spain, Italy and elsewhere show the natural progression of whatever it was people planted in 2011. That word and its intent has been overtaken by one of its core principles, which is why I’ve chosen the destination as the word of the year, rather than the means by which it is sought.

“Justice” has wrapped itself around this year and continues to direct the news agenda. It’s been the heart of the matter and the guiding principles. On the football pitch (and considerable time spent off it), ‘justice’ has been the heart of the alleged racial abuse between players and amongst rivals. Across social media platforms, most notably Twitter, teenagers have been locked up for abusing celebrities, putting under strain the arguments of ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘democratisation’ which underpins the popularity of new media.

In nations across the world, different definitions of injustice either fill our news pages or are conspicuous in not doing. Israel’s ‘pillar of strength’ operation against Hamas in Gaza is framed by whichever definition of ‘justice’ it is to which you subscribe. In the Australian Parliament, the injustice of sexism was put to the sword by Prime Minster Julia Gillard in the most unexpected viral video of the year. As Conservative MP Nadine Dorries learns the hard way that you can’t talk about politics whilst eating an ostrich’s anus on prime-time ITV, her pet subject of abortion reform was brought into stark focus in Ireland with the death of Savita Halappanavar, lifting even higher the position of justice within that notoriously difficult debate.

Anders Behring Breivik was jailed this year for his mass murder in Oslo and Utøya. His actions – and the sentence he might avoid were he considered unfit for trial – examined what we considered to be rightful justice. In Norway and in the UK, the death penalty argument was brought to light once again, setting against each other what each consider to be rightful justice.

“We need to see that justice is done” is a common politician’s refrain. The on-going MPs expenses scandal brings in questions of justice, certainly when members are arrested (or not) for fraud. The vexed issue of votes for prisoners, and the century-long debate on the injustice of unelected politicos sitting in the House of Lords, questions our nation’s definition of justice. Of course for many Conservative  MPs, the judgements from the European Courts strike at the very heart of British Justice, capital letters underlined in bold, standing proud over the tinier, illegitimate Johnny Foreigner Justice. How Britain deals with people like Abu Qatada – with or without European courts – reflects on how diluted or otherwise our justice system may well be. Parliament discussed the right to live – and the right to be born – as did British Courts.

For the BBC, the ‘justice’ sought by victims of Jimmy Savile and others has been the Corporation’s defining moment, causing again those who want the wholesale abolition of Auntie to take their chance in making the case. Somehow the Savile case has caused ripples across the country into most unexpected areas. I have to be very careful in how I phrase this, as I don’t wish to be sued, so I’ll just say that “People who should not have been accused of wrongdoing were wrong accused of wrongdoing and that was wrong.”

Across Europe the ‘sons of Occupy’ and connected relations continue to push against the economic and political establishment which rule their lives. In Spain, a theatre accepts carrots in lieu of payment, and of course Catalan independence is a drum beaten with the sound of the pursuit of justice. Elections in former Soviet republics, such as Belarus and Ukraine, shake the expected definitions of democratic representation. In Athens, supporters of Golden Dawn reject the establishment for ‘real’ justice as opposed to the establishment oppression (as they see it) in the age of austerity.

Last year, I chose “Occupy”. This year, “Justice”. I notice that the OED and others have considered ‘omnishambles’ to be the defining word of the year, which might be true for a narrowly defined Westminster village version of the ‘national word of our age’, but it doesn’t work as universal. Well, unless Mitt Romney had won, I suppose…

Justified and Ancient

Well, hasn’t Nick Clegg caused a fuss today?

The leader of the Liberal Democrats has called for the cancellation of the Queen’s Speech, calling it “window dressing” and “a displacement activity”.

He is absolutely right, of course. And don’t the political establishment hate it when someone says something against the grain of the norm?

Let us be honest. Gordon Brown is a dead duck, covered in oil and mud, sinking deeper into the mud ever closer towards political death. Attempts to help Labour from the worst election demise in history is akin to racing to the beach with a bucket and spade as the first waves of the oil slick slurp against the rocks. This Queen’s Speech will absolutely be used for pushing the clean-up of politics to one side for the political benefit of the Labour Party; think about it as pinning a rosette on Elizabeth’s crown.

Clegg has set fire to the norm because, as a refreshing and radical voice in politics, all liberals and Liberal Democrats walk with matchboxes in their pockets. There would be no benefit for Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs spending their time – no more than seventy days before the next UK general election – helping Labour form their next manifesto. Labour are a deflated and dying clutch of the desperate, a Party which is hoping a list of Bills they cannot possibly get through Parliament can grab the last positive headlines of their final months in office.

Thinking out of the norm is second nature to the real, credible alternatives in politics. Let us clean up Parliament for good, make real reform possible now, and stop dragging ourselves over the deep ruts of tradition for the sake of it.

Fixed-term parliaments, automatic General Elections as and when Prime Ministers are changed, voting reform, votes at 16, full devolution for Wales and the English Regions, ending the Royal prerogative on all but the most vital of reasons of the State, an automatic maximum number of Government Ministers, a fully elected House of Lords, directly elected Chiefs of Police, halving the number of Councillors and introducing “Street Panels” and inner-city Parish Councils: so much to do with our democracy, and not a single one of them needs Her Majesty, Black Rod, or the other flim-flam of a Queen’s Speech.

Why I support John and Edward

X-Factor viewers are not exactly in for a treat this year. Acts already out of the contest include a group who turned the self-referential nature of reality television on its head by being manufactured live on air; and a bite-sized Lee Evans with the inability to talk without breaking into tears accompanied by a soft-piano backing track, as though he pressed play on a tape-recording of sorrowful music whenever the moment suited it.

Remaining wannabes do not exactly justify the idea that the United Kingdom is the hotbed of musical talent. One contestant, Stacey, is something of a shapeshifter, talking like the a hairdresser from Hell one minute before channeling the spirit of a cruise ship warbler when she sings. A bloke called Daryl, whose attitude appears to be younger than the children he teaches, proves he can sing by unnecessarily holding onto notes at the end of each verse for the sake of a whooping applause.

Above all of the hopefuls sits the one last hope in reality television, however. I like to call it the “Michelle McManus Phenomenon”, relating to the woman whose success in Pop Idol some years ago was almost certainly down to the concerted nationwide effort to give victory to the antidote to variety shows. Larger than most pop stars, and without anything like a distinctive voice, McManus was the victor the producers, presenters, and music company did not want to touch with a bargepole. Her victory was probably best characterised by the mysterious disappearance of her second single days after appearing on television promoting its release.

“Michelle McManus Phenomenon” is about to happen again with the X-Factor secret weapon; two Irish lads called John and Edward. If enough Facebook petitions, bored tabloid journalists, and Twitter users can keep pressing Redial on their phones, these two lads may well be the death of X-Factors from this year hence. Imagine the power. “Jedward” have almost no actual talent; their singing is breathless and often out of tune, their dancing uncertain and without much choreography. Like John Sergeant on Strictly Come Dancing last year, their continued appearances are thanks to a population who want to stick two fingers up at the perceived wisdom that producers knows better than consumers. Nobody actually wants tone-deaf Irish kids on their radio every day, but imagine trying to give X-Factor and other such shows credibility ever again were they to win.

This is why I fully support the two frankly terrible young lads to win. Not because I am a fan of the show, or of them, or their “mentor” Louis Walsh. Because I remember the amount of laughing around the country when Pop Idol judges were forced to grin and applaud as Michelle McManus blandly warbled her way through a two-bit pop song. Because I remember Alex Parks on BBC One’s Fame Academy, the spiky-haired Cornish lesbian who sounded like Tracy Thorn with hiccups, but who nevertheless was an actual talented singer held back by the prejudices connected to winning a phone-in reality show.

Putting an end to such shows in the future is a bold aim. It could just work. To ensure X-Factor has to suffer a serious pride-fall from which it may never recover, all support must now turn to the two people who can bring down its empire. It’s time to vote like you’ve never done before. It’s time to celebrate the Britney Spears cover-versions and uncertain high-kicks and garbled half-forgotten lyrics. It’s time to hand victory to John and Edward.

It’s the least we can do for the good of our country.