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.

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Being subtle in the House of Commons is not particularly easy, let alone encouraged, so maybe it’s no surprise that Siobhain McDonagh (Labour, Mitcham and Morden) has gone full out neon-lit cuckoo-bananas with her Bash The Coalition Bill.

I’m so sorry; I mean, with her “Homeless (Voting Exclusion) and Head of the Household (Retention of Power over Vulnerable Women and Children) Bill.”

The idea behind the proposed law – which has no chance of progressing much further – has a sound core. It’s just the rest of the structure around it which lacks integrity. Surrounding the central argument is rice-paper and silly string, a ragbag collection of thinly veiled partisan attacks. It’s not surprise to me that a Labour politician wants to nobble electoral administration to benefit the Party; such an attitude was the basis behind their shameless attack against AV and the childlike squealing of ‘gerrymandering!’ during the ultimately killed off boundary change process. Nothing pleases Labour more than keeping the voting system and electoral administration firmly in their grasp, and McDonagh’s proposed Bill ensures the grip is tighter than ever.

One line of attack in the Bill – formally “Electoral Register (Access to Public Services)” – rubbishes individual electoral registration. The move to IER removes the nonsense of the ‘head of the household’ having the power to register (or in most cases, deliberately not register) people living at an address. In my “previous life” as an electoral candidate, it was something of an open secret that manipulation of the registration process by ‘head of the households’ and related problems with postal votes excluded women and young people from voting. IER will go some way to alleviate that problem. McDonagh tries to make a negative thing out of the loss of voters in Northern Ireland when they switched, ignoring the fact that many of the missing names on the Norn Iron voting register probably didn’t exist in the first place. Or indeed had been long since deceased.

The most remarkable piece of nonsense has to be the central part of her proposal. If a person wants to take part in any aspect of everyday life, then they must be registered to vote. I assume this is the same thinking which had the Labour Party promoting compulsory ID cards as part of the ‘war against terror’. Putting to one side the bizarre leap in logic required to accept the notion that wanting to drive has the same passion as wanting to vote, we get to the oddest sentence of all. Namely this beauty;

If someone does not like living in a democracy, that is fine, but they should not expect all the good things that democracy offers in return.

 

Does this remind you of Louise Mensch’s “you can’t be anti-capitalist if you use an iPhone” argument? I love the premise. “If you’re angry about an issue or specific policy, then you ruddy well better wait until an election, young person, rather than this placard waving protests you keep banging on about.”

It’s a wonderful piece of homeless prejudice too, as it completely misunderstands the journey many vulnerable people have to take to seek help. By making the register a form of National Registration Scheme, McDonagh takes the basis of democracy and squishes it into a flattened Colgate tube.

Reaction to her idea has been largely negative in the real world, where McDonagh and other MPs ignorant of democracy tend not to live.

Source, and source and source

Readers of a certain age may recall the fallout from the Poll Tax, during which time the electoral register shrank across the country as people tried all the could to avoid paying charges they couldn’t afford. Linking the electoral register with any kind of State benefits or crime-fighting purpose is therefore toxic in some areas, particularly Labour-leaning cities such as Liverpool or Glasgow which saw the worst of the backlashes. If McDonagh understood the problems people have with the words “electoral” and “register”, she would have realised that threatening to withhold benefits for non-registration sounds like a police sanctioned threat. It’s not the language of politicians generally let alone specifically Labour.

This horrible, twisted and offensive Bill will die a quick death, as the Parliamentary process is not kind to Ten Minute Bills and their related brethren. In the case of this proposal, which threatens women and children with social exclusion and places power in the hands of unscrupulous landlords, nothing could be kinder than a shot to the head. What a shambles.