Brand(ed) as a politician

A lot of noise has been made calling for Russell Brand to stand for parliament himself, following his very vocal concern about social issues on social media and on TV.  No time was this message said clearer than at last night’s Question Time, where he was heckled by an audience member who instructed, quite strongly, “Stand!”.

And what does he give as his reason for not wanting to stand?

Russell Brand on BBC Question Time

“I’m scared that I’d become one of them.”

“What a pathetic excuse!”, we all cry back in response.  “If you believe in something, you should fight for it, whatever the odds, and not let arbitrary fears get in your way!”

But I’m writing today to argue that, to some extent, Brand has a point.

A number of years ago, I wasn’t that interested in politics. I never saw myself as a politician, and despised party politics.  But I was deeply concerned about the issues, mostly sustainability and resource allocation, since I learnt just how much our global economy is reliant on cheap oil, and how the gradual depletion of oil is going to wreak havoc on our society, not to mention the natural world.

In the end, I took the plunge, stood for local election with the Green Party and won, and am now a City Councillor.

I have found the experience of being a councillor extremely rewarding. The prospect of helping my local community become the best it can be is what makes me get out of bed in the morning. But at the same time, I have felt enormous pressure to conform to fit the environment that I find myself in – of politics – pressure to become what you might call “one of them”. The very structure of our democratic bodies frequently demands it.

I despair sometimes at the pantomime that is a full council meeting.  It make no difference to the outcome of a vote what is said in the debate, because party groups have usually determined which way they are voting in advance.  The only purpose of “debate”, therefore, is for each side to state their case to those present, and most notably the press, who might pick up on one or two sound-bites which are then often taken out of context when it comes to any final article or broadcast. For anyone speaking, it is their own voice they want to hear, to strengthen their political advantage and standing.

So in the past I’ve said to myself “don’t rise to the bait, ignore them, don’t participate”. But unfortunately, this doesn’t work. Silence, in politics, is surrender. Our democracy seems to mandate that you must have an opinion when you are in politics, and you will be judged on it. You aren’t allowed to say “I need to assess the evidence and only take a view after consideration of further facts”.

And if you do find that you had misjudged something in the past, there is huge pressure not to admit your mistake.  You will be judged as weak.  You will be accused of doing a U-turn.  You will be pounced on by opposition and press alike.

Most people who go into politics do so to make a positive difference in the world, I’m sure.  So why are they so frequently dishonest, disrespectful, deceitful? Because the party political system demands that of them.

So, having had my rant, is there actually any way of breaking from this mould?  What might we do to make our democracy representative of people again, rather than a shouting match between ideologists, whilst the lobbyists run the show behind closed curtains?  Well, that is THE debate we need to be having right now, and one where I think the Greens really do have some positive steps forward.

We need to get rid of this party whipping system for good.   The very potent imagery it invokes is highly appropriate, since whipping is a violent and torturous act, used to enforce discipline within a party, making sure that only those at the very top of the hierarchy get any kind of control. This doesn’t mean that an elected representative shouldn’t be disciplined; they are there to serve and should always remember who they serve.  But who must they serve first and foremost?  Their electorate; not their party.

We need to get rid of a system where money rules. We need to get lobbyists out of Westminster, and funding of political parties needs to be completely reviewed.

We need to give the electorate the power to sack their MP, and to properly be able to hold them account for their actions in parliament all year round, not just once every five years at election-time.

We need to promote and respect participation in democracy, whether it’s through a decision to stand, as some of us are happy to do, suffering all the burdens that come with that; or, like Russell Brand and many thousands of other protesters and activists, participating through other means, like speaking out in the press, signing petitions, talking to your local councillor, marching through London’s streets for your cause, talking casually with friends about the issues, sharing posts on Facebook, tweeting opinions, attending lectures, writing letters to newspapers or blogging.




One Comment

  1. Posted 13 May, 2015 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I know exactly what you mean Simeon. But speaking out, even in a “whipped” council chamber, can help persuade others, eg some Labour backbenchers may agree with you secretly and be glad that you are saying what they can’t. You have to speak concisely and well and people WILL listen. Also give to your opponents, thank them for their helpful comments, which have helped clarify your thinking etc etc. It doesn’t have to be just grandstanding.

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