This Week is an odd programme. Only the unique way the BBC is funded can ensure that this shambling, incoherent mess of an hour’s telly makes it to your screens every week. Want to hear establishment platitudes whispered as if they are naughty, almost unbroadcastable, pieces of mischief? Watch This Week. Want to sit in baffled amazement at politicians sit grinning, dressed in a bizarre rainbow of unhealthy colours, like two-week old clown puke? Watch This Week. Want to know what Peter Stringfellow and Gyles Brandreth and Olly Grender think about things? Of course you do.
Last week, they were still upset about Russell Brand, almost choking with inchoate rage as they, a group of political insiders, decided that he was wrong when he said our political system excludes the views of millions. It was like watching a group of stranded puffins, hooting for rescue, slowly realising the island they live on is made entirely of bird-shit.
Their obliviousness to the irony of seeing a group of political leaders agree that the political system was fine, and then for the state broadcaster to pump it out to the entire nation was delightful. Less delightful was the fact that many people, and some of them my friends, seem to agree with them. Some people seem to find it physically possible to tick a box and pat themselves on the back at the same time, which is no mean feat.
There was a torrent of sneering articles about Brand, suggesting he “go back to Hollywood” or “stick to shagging”. People who feign concern at the fact that democratic politics fails to engage much of the young population could wait to stick their fingers in their ears as soon as anyone articulated what that young population might be feeling. Brand was ‘unhelpful’, ‘naive’, and possibly ‘a git’.
Lots of people – including lots of comedians – decided that not only should you vote, but you should probably have to vote. “You have no right to criticise is you don’t vote!” came the cry.
Of course you do. I don’t like football. I think it’s a pernicious, violent game that people around the country use to sublimate their frustrations with life. I think it idolises cretins and thugs, gives its viewers a chance to indulge in organised racism and homophobia every week, and its shallow, comercial values are a deep sickness in our public life. So what do I do? I don’t watch it.
However, I now realise the error of my ways. What I should be doing is joining a football club, watching it every week, and supporting it vociferously at every occasion. Because only then can I hope to change football from the inside.
All of the critics of Russell Brand, however, are guilty of making the same fairly large fallacy of composition. Parliamentary politics is not politics. It’s not even a relatively major part of politics. It’s possibly to be highly political, and not to participate in party politics, and – I would argue – the most successful politicians have been.
People fought for years to get the vote. They did, and they did so successfully. How did they do it? Not by voting for a party that promised it to them, because they couldn’t. If that teaches us anything, it is that it is possible to bring about huge political change even when you can’t use the vote to get it.
The serious point here is that extra-parliamentary organisations are much better at affecting what MPs do than voters are. From churches to trades unions to billionaires, if you want the ear of an MP you’d better be able to either offer them money (or the chance to retain their seat, and its attendant money) or be able to cause trouble for them. That is where parliamentary power lies.
But people have died for the vote! Yes, people have also died during childbirth. That doesn’t mean we should all have to have children out of respect for their sacrifice.
But… But… democracy! Is it, though? Seriously? It’s not what Aristotle meant when he described democracy. It’s not what the Chartists meant when they described democracy (remember annual parliaments?). The prime minister can use the royal prerogative to overrule parliament and go to war. The heir to the throne gets to pre-approve bills to see that they don’t affect his business dealings. The Queen gets to veto private members’ bills she doesn’t like. It’s a constitutional monarchy with pseudo-democratic trappings.
And remember, there’s a House Of Lords as well! A whole parliament full of people who can reject bills, amend bills, and over whom you have absolutely no say whatsoever. Remember kids, even if you vote, even if you win, even if your party honours its pledges and puts together a bill, there’s still no guarantee it will become legislation.
Because voting remains a sideshow. You achieve less politically by voting than you do by buying Fairtrade coffee.
And the fact remains, my best chance of unseating my MP in my deeply-Tory seat is to vote UKIP, and hope enough of the Conservative electorate in my constitutency feel its a safe enough seat to do the same. When my only hope of having my vote count at all is to vote UKIP, there is something deeply wrong with the system.
Ah, but the British public rejected AV, so we can’t reform parliament. Yes, we entrusted the parliamentary class to set up a vote on whether or not the system that elected them should be changed. And they won. Entrenched political power is entrenched. Hence the name.
Parliamentary politics has delivered MPs who are prepared to challenge entrenched power twice in its long history. Once in 1945, and once in 1645. And we shouldn’t have to wait another 300 years until there’s another world war or Battle of Naseby in order to try to make politics serve people.
People who say “they are all the same” are the problem. No. People who refuse to see that they are are. People who cling to the last shred of hope that the Labour Party isn’t the corporate, authoritarian, centre-right, managerial party it appears to be – and governed as from 1997 to 2010 – can sit in their attics like Miss Havisham, waiting for Tony Benn or Dennis Skinner or even bloody Michael Meacher (who looks and acts like he was left in the sink overnight to soak). Those figures are fig-leaves for the Labour Party to retain the support of the Labour movement.
Let’s look at most of what people like to complain about the Coalition for:
Tuition fees – Introduced by David Blunkett, Labour Education Secretary in 1998. The Dearing Report which had suggested introducing fees also advised keeping the grants system, something Blunkett rejected, getting rid of maintenance grants altogether.
ATOS - ATOS were first brought in to run work capability assessments by – wait for it – the Labour Party. If you want to read about the ways the Labour Party distorted evidence and victimised disabled people for years this paper is quite helpful.
NHS Reform – Let’s not forget that the party who started the creeping privatisation of the health service was Labour in 2002. Remember Tony Blair “not having a reverse gear”, and people who opposed privatisation of the NHS being “the forces of conservatism”? Fun Fact: the reforms Coalition’s Health and Social Care Act wouldn’t even have been legal without Alan Milburn’s 2008 reforms, and he remained committed to gutting the NHS even after stepping down as Health Secretary. Alan Milburn went on to become a consultant for Alliance Medical, a private healthcare company bidding for work in the NHS, and is now a Director of Bridgepoint Capital. Which invests heavily in lots of private health care companies. Those Labour conflicts of interest in full.
Free Schools – Introduced as ‘academy schools’ by Labour.
The Bedroom Tax! - Introduced by Labour for private tenants in 2008.
Um… Foreign Policy – I suppose we might have a government that at least expresses a little regret when it starts wars, but I doubt it.
The fact remains that if you want an unfettered, authoritarian, right-wing, corporate-friendly government that’s happy to demonise disadvantaged groups for electoral gain, you’re best off voting for the Labour Party.
And it’s not just MPs. It’s our entire political class, in which I include the police and the media. From expenses through phone hacking and Savile and Hillsborough and the Met’s collusion with reporters, there is nowhere for an honest citizen to turn. Our laws are made by the corrupt, presented to us by the corrupt, and enforced by the corrupt. The idea that political change will come from our law-making apparatus is fanciful.
So what do we do? If it makes you happy, vote. I do. It’s a habit I can’t break. I couldn’t wait to be able to vote, and being able to participate, in however minimal and nugatory a fashion, in the way governments are formed. However. I am well aware that this makes my complicit in a system that deliberately excludes, and rather than boast about the great democratic tradition I’m upholding, I know that voting is a weakness. It’s an essential naivety that I can’t get rid of.
But there are lots of things we can do, as soon as we stop waiting for politicians to do it for us. There’s relieving each other of debt. There’s homesteading. There’s protest. There’s organisation. There’s non-violent direct action. There’s publicising issues that affect us and those around us. There is doing what you can to make what you can better than when you found it.
We can join things. We should join things. We’ve lost the habit of being parts of political organisations that aren’t political parties. Trades unions have never been less powerful than when they have entrusted their interests to the Labour Party. Join a union. Join a church. Join an atheist congregation. Join an organisation that campaigns for what you are interested in, and give it your time. Start an organisation if one doesn’t exist. Get used to sitting through boring, frustrating meetings, and standing in the cold waving flimsy banners, because it’s only through engagement that things are going to change.
And, if you just can’t shake the habit, at the end of it, you can vote.
Voting has, in the last couple of weeks, become a currency of self-satisfaction, a shibboleth displaying how politically engaged we are, when quite the reverse is true. Voting is the twentieth century equivalent of signing an online petition, a quick, relatively painless way of convincing ourselves and others we are good, involved people, although it costs us very little, and means almost nothing.
It’s not the most important thing we do politically. It might well be most self-defeating thing. But really, who cares? Let’s not pretend the people who don’t are fundamentally unserious. They may be the most realistic of all of us.
So, just for a little while, let’s forget about voting. And do something political.