Monthly Archives: October 2013

Russell Brand and the Emperor’s new thong

Russell Brand holds aloft the cover to his issue of the New StatesmanSo, Russell Brand’s interview on Newsnight and New Statesman editorial has caused an awful lot of brouhaha, and I’d kind of like to join in. I find a lot of what he has to say on the subject of voting not only wrong but actually quite offensive. His assertion that my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generation were “conned” in fighting for the vote is simply factually not true, unless you consider the welfare state, universal education and a national health service to be a “con” (as far as I’m aware, Russell Brand is not an Ayn Rand aficionado).

The fact that we’ve just lived through the deepest recession since the Great Depression and not seen the level of starvation and grinding poverty that destroyed people’s lives in the 1930s suggests that, for the most part, democracy has actually worked out quite well for most people in a lot of ways. Combine that with Brand’s obvious hypocrisy (opting out of the political system he despises while very much opting into the capitalist system which he claims to equally hate – yet very much profits from) and casual misogyny, and you have a pretty loathsome end product. Instead of miscrediting Billy Connelly with the quote “don’t vote, it encourages them,” just once I would have liked to see him engqge with Gandhi’s equally miscredited “be the change you want to see in the world” – it is all very well calling for a revolution of the mind, but if that’s where it stays, what is the point?

Here’s the thing though. Siding against Russell Brand means siding with an awful lot of rather distasteful people. I might not agree with his prescription, but I agree with a lot of the sentiment and many of the people whose pious critiques of Brand’s position I’ve read over the last few days have been the very people who I think are part of the problem.

Piously telling Russell Brand that he’s wrong is one thing, but if you’re one of the people who subscribes to the view that the current voting system is fine and dandy, and that your political party should be slavishly attempting to fix itself in the centre ground, or jump on whichever populist bandwagon which might get you the next short term voting fix, then you actually have less credibility than he has. Voting and political engagement can make a difference, but in spite of such people not because of them. Most people in the political establishment are not democrats, but rather technocrats who spend their time actively seeking ways to shut down public debate, not open it up.

And voting, especially for young people, is a bit of a prisoner’s dilemma. For individuals, voting is a cost in time and effort. It’s only if a critical mass of a certain demographic start voting that they are likely to make an impact, and no-one knows in advance how many people it will take (especially with our broken and random single member plurality voting system). If like me you voted in 2010 in the hope that we were on the verge of seeing a fundamental shift in voting patterns, you can understand why it is hard for people get their hopes up that they are a part of something bigger.

The benefits of democracy are indirect, long term and fundamentally collective. It is ironic that a self-proclaimed lefty such as Russell Brand can’t get beyond the very individualist and consumerist mindset that he claims to want a cultural revolution to overthrow, but he is by no means alone. And the political establishment has done nothing but encourage precisely this mindset over the past 35 years. The fact that Brand and so many other wannabe revolutionaries are creatures of this atomisation of society may suggest that their ideas are not so radical after all, but it ought to give the establishment pause for thought because it has the potential to cause them a lot of problems.

Young people aren’t voting. More than that, it seems to me that an entire swathe of young people are effectively opting out. It’s no surprise as they are being systematically shut out of the economic system. Mainstream politicians are obsessed with forcing them to run in ever decreasing circles trying to find jobs which don’t exist, only to find that even if they succeed in that they will have none of the economic security that their parent’s generation take for granted. When I was turning 30, I was in a minority in my peer group of people who didn’t own their own house (admittedly, most of whom were dependent on their parents’ for support); now I don’t personally know anyone under 30 who owns property. I can however tell you tales of people forced to move out of their over-crowded HMO because the landlord insisted on putting the rent up by an exponential amount and the stress that substandard housing and long term unemployment is causing people.

All of this amounts to a massive deal for our society, yet if you take a gander on Twitter, you won’t find many mainstream politicians talking about it at all. Instead they are determinedly issuing blandishments with hashtags such as #ForHardWorkingPeople, #StrongerEconomy or #FairerSociety and, urgh, #coalicious.

In Paul Mason’s response to Russell Brand’s intervention, he predicts that we will see increasing social unrest over the next decade. It isn’t a new prediction; the BBC produced a documentary 10 years ago saying broadly the same thing. Such dire forecasts don’t have to be 100% correct to be a cause for concern and it certainly looks to me as if we are starting to see signs that it could be happening.

So, ultimately, it isn’t enough to dismiss Russell Brand’s views. If an idiot child starts proclaiming that the emperor has no clothes, expending so much energy to point out that, in fact, he is wearing an extremely snug bright pink thong is to badly miss the point.

Jeremy Browne: off his trolley

Jeremy BrowneThe Times’s interview with Jeremy Browne today (link to the Guardian because it doesn’t have a paywall and there’s nothing in the Times original that you’re missing) highlights for me the inherent contradiction of the Lib Dem right wing.

They’ve always veered between two modes. One is that the wicked left of the party have tainted the party with social democracy and the purity of liberalism. This was the general approach of the Orange Bookers and the narrative that Nick Clegg presented during his rise to prominence. The other is to denounce the left for wanting to be a party of protest in permanent opposition. Notoriously, this was the subject of a Nick Clegg speech earlier this year, but it was also the main tactic 15 years ago when the right (the majority of whom were the same people), were arguing that the Lib Dems ought to be repositioning for a permanent alliance with the Blairite New Labour.

In Jeremy Browne’s flounce in the Times, he manages the double: the wicked left both want to be in permanent opposition and are not proper liberals. What’s interesting though is that it appears to be an open secret that the main reason he was sacked from the home office was because he was so comfortable with the Tories’ anti-immigration and increasingly authoritarian policies.

In theory, the one thing that unites Lib Dems across the spectrum is that they are liberal on social issues. The Orange Book narrative was always that the left, with its suspicious closeness to the Labour Party and love of the state and positive freedoms were the most susceptible to drifting into a “nanny state knows best” mindset. In practice however, it has consistently been the right which has ended up professing a love for Big Brother. Back when Mark Oaten was the right’s golden boy, he came up with the term “tough liberalism,” the only substantial application of which was support for ID cards.

Jeremy Browne can’t be entirely blamed for the Lib Dems’ tacit support for authoritarianism in government, even if it does appear to have accelerated since his promotion to the Home Office last year. It does appear however that the right in the party has a problem with definition. 10 years ago, the Orange Book launched on the premise that the right was economically liberal but still share the socially progressive goals the 20th century Liberal Party championed. Over the course of that decade, they have gone further back, increasingly ditching economic liberalism in favour of the classical liberalism of Gladstone where the only thing that mattered was unfettered markets. With the right’s poster child having now revealed his true disdain for basic liberal values such as civil liberties and the freedom of movement of people, you’ve got to ask yourself: what, aside from conservativism, do they have left?

Channel 4 News’s problem with women

Channel 4 News(Disclosure: I am friends with both a number of the women who have made allegations against Lord Rennard and Jo Swinson.

Channel 4 News’s interview with Sarah Teather summed up the misgivings I have had with its coverage of the whole Chris Rennard scandal.

Ostensibly about the coalition’s increasingly harsh line against immigration and welfare, on which Sarah Teather is outspoken, interviewer Matt Frei midway switched topic entirely to instead focus on the Lib Dems’ “women problem”, attempting to link her experience within the party with those women who have made allegations about Chris Rennard of sexual harassment. Two weeks ago it emerged that the Metropolitan Police had dropped its investigation into Rennard’s conduct.

Channel 4 News’s Cathy Newman of course broke this story earlier in the year, and so I suppose it is understandable that they feel a sense of ownership of it, but it is hard to see how ambushing Sarah Teather in this way is justifiable. She had agreed to appear to discuss immigration policy, something which has implications for far more people (including women of course) than the Lib Dems’ internal culture. Teather’s sacking last September served to highlight Nick Clegg’s failure to include enough women in his own frontbench team, but there is nothing to suggest that Teather was sacked in any way because of her gender. It is equally hard to see how, had Teather been a man, Matt Frei would have spent half the interview wanting to discuss this issue at all.

That double standard has, sadly, undermined Channel 4 News’s coverage throughout. Going right back to Cathy Newman’s initial piece, it was clear that Channel 4 News had identified Jo Swinson and Ros Scott as their main targets, despite the fact that the allegations focused around two complaints made to Bridget Harris’s manager and the Chief Whip Paul Burstow. Newman continued to focus on Swinson in her subsequent reports and Telegraph columns.

Now, it is true that Swinson was the equalities spokesperson at the time the allegations were put to her. However, this is largely irrelevant because the role of a spokesperson is to focus on policy matters, not on personnel matters. We are also talking about someone who, in 2007, had been an MP for a grand total of two years and had just been sacked by the then leader Menzies Campbell as the shadow Scottish secretary. I have no doubt that neither Jo or the women making these allegations made no mistakes in their conduct but regardless of how she did respond, one thing that is not in doubt is that when the allegations were first made, she lacked the authority to do anything about them. The people who did have that authority at the time – Paul Burstow, (then president) Simon Hughes and (then leader) Menzies Campbell – entirely escaped media scrutiny.

Channel 4 News, and especially Cathy Newman, have consistently applied a double standard in this story, whereby the implication has been that in issues concerning sexual harassment, women should be expected to behave to a higher standard than men. That theme came up repeatedly in Newman’s coverage, and Matt Frei returned to it yet again this week. It is a repellent world view that ultimately undermines both men and women; if scandals such as this are to avoid getting dragged into a blame game then the focus needs to be on the people with authority at the time and what they did; not, as the media likes to play it all to often, on whoever knew anything regardless of what position they were in to do anything about it.

In terms of the allegations themselves, I declined to blog about it at the time, but following the Metropolitan Police decision I feel the need to state for the record that I don’t personally doubt the integrity of any of the women who made allegations against Chris Rennard; nor can I understand what possible ulterior motive they might have for making them. I’ve known about these allegations for years and offered to give a formal statement to the police, but they declined my offer (not entirely surprisingly as all I could really do is corroborate dates and facts; I’m not a primary witness). I didn’t decide to leave the Lib Dems for any specific reason, but it is fair to say that this debacle was one of the various ones which lead to my disenchantment of it, inexplicably linked as it is to the narrow campaigning focus which Rennard represents.

In fairness to the party however, since these allegations were made public and Nick Clegg’s initial appalling mishandling of it, the party has done much to pull itself out of the quagmire it had got itself into; much credit for that must go to Tim Farron. And even after the Met decision, it has been made quite clear that the party is continuing to take those decisions seriously.