To vote or not to vote that is the question

A young man sits in a cream coloured chair; he is thin and tall, unshaven, with long messy Hoxton hair. His clothes are fashionable and the top few buttons of his shirt are undone. He leans forward earnestly; desperate to be taken seriously, when he speaks it is with a manic energy. He moves seamlessly from off the cuff remarks to buzz words taken from the meta-tags of any news website: “the 1%”, “occupy”, “apathy”. His words do not always make sense, his points half formed, he has more passion than facts and towards the end he starts to lose his temper.

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.

Do you know who Xi Jinping is?

I have been asking people this question and a lot of people do not know the answer. We will return to that shortly.

The world watched with rapped attention a fortnight ago as Barrack Obama won a historical second term in the White House. The global news schedules were drowning in coverage of the campaign and the Election Day itself. I personally stayed up until 5:30 in the morning to see the results. It was an event of global significance, a race the outcome of which would affect the lives of billions if not everyone on the planet. However while this was going on, the leadership of another country was also being decided, an event that could perhaps be equally as important.

The Chinese Communist party (the world’s largest political organisation, with more members than there are people in the United Kingdom) recently changed the membership of its politburo standing committee, the countries highest decision making body. Once every 10 years at the Chinese Communist party conference, China’s leadership steps down and new leaders are appointed. These leaders come from the 25 member politburo and its higher body, the seven person standing committee. The General Secretary of the Communist Party of China as well as other leadership figures are chosen from the standing committee. All of this is conducted in secret, with the conference ending with the new leadership being shown to the party.

The makeup of the standing committee and China’s new leadership are decisions with the same global signification as the race for the White House. China is the world’s second largest economy and it is predicted that during the new leadership’s term of office China will become the world’s largest economy. China also holds the majority of the world's debt as well as being a key export market for the growth starved west and a major financial centre. They have the world’s largest army, an expanding space program and now aircraft carriers and stealth fighters. In less than a decade the members of standing committee may become the most powerful people in the world. My question concerning all this is, why has there been a lot less media coverage of the events leading up the anointment of the new Chinese leadership?

There has been coverage, with articles on BBC website and in other new sources but I have not seen one piece on the Chinese Communist party conference grace the front page of a British national newspaper or appear as the top story on a news broadcast, as the American election did. The change of power in China is just as important as the change of power in America, perhaps more important as the new leader has a much greater ability to effect change in his country than Barrack Obama does in America. This is where I answer the above question, Xi Jinping is the new General Sectary of the Chinese Communist Party and is very likely to be the next president of China. So why is there less coverage of the method by which he came to power? Why are we not globally weighing up the pros and cones of perspective Chinese leaders, examining Xi Jinping's qualities as a leader and considering what his vision of China might look like?

The main reason is that people in the west simply are not interested, which is not only a shame but a dangerous way of thinking. We prefer to focus on our own politics, believing them to be most important events in the world, whilst dismissing events elsewhere as less than important. It is foolish to ignore the changes that are happening in China. By all accounts Xi Jinping’s forthcoming appointment to the presidency is a victory for China’s more conservative factions. He has close ties to the military and is the son of a past powerful figure and party elder. He is certainly not a reformer, but he does have a more global prospective than previous leaders. We should be concerned about our future and the power that China will hold over it, and we should be more concerned about the people directing this power and the means by which they are appointed.

Another reason why western media is not as interested in the change in Chinese leadership is that the key events happen in secret. The standing committee and a shadowy group of party elders decide in secret on the next generation of leaders and who will be appointed to the most senior positions. This process does not lend itself to the extensive coverage, which news sources use to attract large amounts of views and readers. The results are also a forgone conclusion. It had been known for a while that Xi Jinping would be the next General Secretary and that Li Keqiang would be his deputy. It is almost certain they will be given the most senior positions in the Chinese government, the presidency and premiership. Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang and others had been elevated to positions of power by outgoing president Hu Jintao, a man who favored loyalty above all else.

Chinese leadership elections are not as exciting as their American counter part, they lack scandal, uncertain results and a dramatic conclusions. News vendors may not be that interested but that does not mean the events are not globally significant. We may not be that cornered about the changes in Chinese leadership but as a nation we should be.

Xi Jinping will lead China for ten years during which China and the whole world will face serious challenges in terms of the economy and the environment China also faces many internal challenges, in rooting out corruption  finding its place among the other global powers, maintaining its growth rate and balancing political freedoms with the Communist state. Xi Jinping is not a man much is known about in the west but his character may come to define the next decade of global events.

In the west we need to stop thinking of ourselves as the main stage or the only stage as we increasingly become a side show. We need to pay more attention to events in China and Chinese politics as our economic recovery will depend upon it. Xi Jinping and the other new members of standing committee step into the spot light as Obama secures himself a second term in power but Xi Jinping will be leading China long after Obama has left the White House. Us in the west should pay as much attention to events in China as we do to America as they profoundly effect our world. Xi Jinping should be a name that is on everyone's in the west's minds.

The American Election: A Victory for Perspective

Having perspective about how people live in other countries is not something Americans are typically given credit for. In fact, they are known throughout the world for looking inwards, caring much more about domestic issues than international ones. This is true for most countries in the world, but American politics affects the entire world. The American economy drives the western world, their foreign policy defines who are our allies and who are our adversaries. It seems unfair that a decision of global importance, such who should lead America, can be decided by trivialities of domestic politics. In 2000 a few voters in Florida decided the trajectory of global politics. Had they voted a differently, the war in Iraq could have been averted.

If every person who was affected by the outcome of the American Presidential election was able to vote in it, the outcome could be very different. This is true of a number of countries. In China, even the country’s own citizens cannot decide their leadership and the decision is made in secret by a few people. Both leaderships have an enormous effect on the entire human race; the American decision is much more democratic, but both are made without considering the effect the outcome has on those outside the country.

As with most general elections, the recent US Presidential contest has been mainly fought over the incumbent’s economic record. Other issues were prevalent – foreign policy, social issues – but, as with most general elections, it comes down to the matter of which side the voters trust to handle the economy. After the credit crunch and the global recession, which began under George W. Bush, the American economy has stalled. Recovery has been slow and growth is lacklustre. Even after Obama was elected President in 2008, prosperity has not returned to America.

In the years since the credit crunch, America has not fared the best or the worst among OECD countries. When Obama took office in 2009, GDP was shrinking at 3.5% per annum. By the time of the election, growth had risen to 1.7% (all statistics are from Google’s public data). During the same period, unemployment has remained roughly constant at 7.8% (despite peaking at 10% in October 2009). Compare this to the UK, where growth is currently at 0.65% and unemployment at 7.9%. The same story of barely positive growth is true across most western economies. America is actually faring better than most but the prosperity of the late 1990s and early 2000s has not returned.

The question posed to American voters was whether they would be better off with Mitt Romney and the Republicans in charge. A growth rate of 1.7% leaves room for improvement, but it is certainly better than we are experiencing in the UK and better than a recession.

On Tuesday, American voters opted to stay with Obama and voted in favour of current economic policy. It was felt that the stimulus introduced by Obama in February 2009 had been effective, and that the bailouts of Chrysler and General Motors had prevented mass unemployment, which could have driven the country back into a recession. This vote in favour of the current administration’s economic policy is a reflection that Americans are aware that they are financially better off with Obama and better off than comparable countries.

Left learning social-democratic parties are generally out of power across Europe. Centre-right governments dominate and the fiscal agenda is austerity. In the UK, severe cuts to government spending have been enforced since the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition came to power in 2010. These cuts have killed off the green shoots of recovery and briefly pushed the UK economy back into recession. Looking at the British economy’s recent performance it is hardly a ringing endorsement of austerity and privatization. Americans recognise they are better off with Obama’s stimulus and steps to prevent mass unemployment than they would be with European-style austerity.

Usually Americans do not have a good deal of perspective, especially about how fortunate they are compared to other countries. However, in the case of the recent elections, it is clear that although Obama’s record on the economy is not stunning, Americans consider that they are better off with him than with the alternative. If anything, this week’s election result is a victory for perspective.