Opposite sits an older man, relaxed, confident in his own element, his suit is well tailored but not flashy. He has a beard, a change of image, it looks a little out of place. He leans back with easy confidence. His body language, his mood, his words are dismissive. He knows the problems with everything the young man says; the flaws, the details passed over, the over-ambition and the under-planning. He remains calm but over time grows more hostile and less accommodating.
It would be easy to characterise this as an argument between the young and the old or the left and the right, but it is really an argument of change against more of the same. The young embrace new ideas and flirt with left wing radicalism. The old have become jaded, they have seen so many grand-narratives rise and fall and see the same arguments, the same failings, repeated endlessly. They have become cynical and selfish and it’s easier to dismiss someone for their lack of thought than listen to their complaints.
This is the point we have reached as a society, change or more of the same. Soon, the political parties will begin the run up to the 2015 general election. Labour will promise change and the Conservatives will stand on the “more of the same” platform. However many young, poor and disenfranchised voters will see both as offering more of the same. On the ballot paper there is the same austerity, the same bowing to the Murdoch press and big business, the same paralysis to tackle the growing problem of climate change. There is a feeling that a vote will change nothing. The change we want individually cannot be gained by a single vote so it seems to be worthless. Any change that is promised is rarely delivered on. So many do not vote.
Onto this stage steps Russell Brand: to some an icon, to others a misogynist and for many, easy to dismiss as another pop-culture fad. The main message people will take away from his recent New Statesman editorial and his interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight is Billy Connolly ‘s old gag of “don’t vote - it only encourages them”. I think Brand was aiming for something grander, closer to Gandhi’s “be the change that you wish to see in the world”, something encouraging to the disaffected. However, the cliff notes version has been condensed to “don’t bother voting, nothing changes”.
This is, of course, what a lot of people think: “the current crop of politicians on offer does not represent what I want so I won’t vote for any of them”. This is usually countered by: “if you do not vote for X, Y will get in.” On the left Y is usually the BNP, UKIP or Tories. This is hardly a call to revolution: “vote Labour, the best of a bad bunch”. It is hard to build an energising national campaign around: “we’re not Y”. But this is where the left is. Many of feel us less than inspired by our leaders, both in parliament, the trade unions and the media. Tony Benn is old and ill, broken down by a lifetime of not quite achieving his aims. His son, Hilary Benn, does not represent the values we want. This seems like the best metaphor for how we feel on the left.
Brand, the Hoxton Hipster, with his don’t vote, spiritual revolution in the mind message could be the best encapsulation of a generation of young lefties. He is easily dismissed by the right for being childish, impractical and sensationalist, but he makes some good points in his Paxman interview and 4,500 word New Statesman leader which resonates with a lot of people. He says some of things we want our leaders to be discussing which are firmly off the table, mainly inequality and the environment. However his overall message lacks a grand narrative and falls down on the details.
So this is where we are as the left? Russell Brand as our spiritual leader? Is this because the right is so dominant in media? Is it because in a post-Thatcher world the political spectrum has moved so much to the right that only someone who is pretty far out can represent us? Are our views so far out of touch with mainstream politics that only a clown can voice them? Or is he a medieval court jester, the only one who is allowed to criticise the king because his comments are couched in humour? If no one takes him seriously he can say whatever he wants, which is the perfect moment to say something deadly serious.
I for one approve how of Brand is bringing leftwing issues to national attention. His personal life, obsessive self-promotion and endless discussion of his own life make his good points easy to dismiss and I sometimes wish he would just tone it all down a little to be taken that much more seriously. However if it gets people talking, thinking and most importantly reading more on left wing subjects than he can only be a good thing. He can be a gateway drug to the left. The convert goes from Russell Brand to Laurie Penny to Robert Tressell. Much the same way that Catlin Moran works for feminism. I am glad someone is kicking up a fuss or no one would be.
When it comes to his non-voting I must disagree. Partly because I subscribe to the “if you do not vote for X, Y will get in” tribalist leftwing view but mainly because democracy is decided by those who show up. Brand’s comedy shows are aggressively marketed at the youth because they turn up to them. However they do not show up to the ballot box so politicians do not target their policies towards the young. If the young voted at the same rate they purchased Hoxton haircuts then a whole range of issues would be on the table. Politicians would take inequality, the environment, youth unemployment, LGBTQ rights and drug legislation much more seriously than they do now. Brand lays the problems for disenfranchisement squarely at the feet of politicians. Others lay it out feet of those who do not vote. I personally think it is fault of both. The youth let politicians down by not engaging with political issues. Politicians let the youth down by not engaging with the issues that matter to them. It takes courage to involve yourself in the political process (and this goes beyond voting) and can be painful but it is essential to achieve want you want. Brand’s change of consciousness sounds like a good idea but it will mean nothing if the change stops short of the ballot box.
We are left with the basic decision of change or more of the same and I think the young, the poor, the disenfranchised and apathetic are still not convinced by either argument. The mainstream left has drifted dangerously close to more of the same as we need to stand for change like Russell Brand does. The left is in trouble when only a clown to speak for us and take the ridicule. We are also in trouble if old cynical people can dismiss us so easily. We have legitimate criticisms but sometimes we make them in ways which do not resonate where they are needed. Converting disenfranchised non-voters will be essential to winning the argument. The left needs to work harder at listening to their reasons for not voting. Above all we need to be better. Better at what we do, how we argue and how we present ourselves. When Russell Brand is the best icon of our movement we need to think hard about what sort of movement we want to be. Then go out and build it.