Trust me on voting, Russell…I’m a politician

I read with interest Russell Brand’s piece on revolution and why he has never seen anything worth voting for, and was bitterly disappointed. I am a huge advocate for everyone using their right to vote, and for extending this right to 16 and 17 year olds so that they too can make their voices heard. As a councillor for a ward where we battle apathy more than we battle Tories, I’ve heard from a lot of reasons for not voting from a lot of different people, but my response is always the same – please vote, please let your voice be counted. Robert Webb’s reply to Russell Brand was sublime, but on the off chance that Russell Brand may well be interested in my thoughts, I thought I’d share them anyway. So if you’re reading, Russell, here is why you’re wrong:

When I was elected at the age of 18 (unlike many politicians because, you know, we aren’t all the same), responses were split into two reactions – the majority of people who were really judgemental and generally just really awful, who called me stupid and a careerist, and the minority of people who thought it was a positive thing, that someone young and enthusiastic would be a “breath of fresh air”. Lots of people share Brand’s view that politicians are “frauds and liars”, but I’m part of a generation of councillors which are trying to change that. I didn’t get involved in politics to lie to people, I got involved in politics to make a difference to peoples lives, to help make a positive change to families just like mine, children like me who need someone to give them the opportunity to make something of themselves.

I can’t completely disagree with Daniel Radcliffe’s view that politics is “exhausting”, because I find it exhausting too, but probably for very different reasons than Radcliffe. I find it exhausting because when you look at the House of Commons and council chambers around the country, they are distinctly unrepresentative of the communities they claim to represent. They are brimming with people who are “pale, male and stale” – mostly white, middle aged men. I got slaughtered on the website for my local newspaper when I did an interview to say I wanted local politics to be more represented. The Herald have moved onto a different website, so you can’t read the comments, but they were all based around the idea that I was being racist, ageist and sexist…against those poor, misunderstood, white, middle-aged men. It is exhausting because there is a clear lack of women, a lack of young people, a lack of BAME representatives, a lack of people with disabilities, a lack of people from backgrounds which don’t involve wealth or a private school. Real people making decisions for real people in our communities. The thing about that is, though, that those people don’t get elected without there people willing to vote for them. Not everyone can bring the same appeal as Eddie Izzard – and not everybody should. Politics is about getting the right deal for local communities. Boris Johnson is proof enough that having a personality does not always mean you’re any good at politics.

Besides, politics affects everyone and everything…and there is absolutely no getting away from that. I went to school with girls who told me that politics meant nothing to them, and in the next breath, were complaining about the cost of cigarettes or their car insurance. Politics matters, whether you like it or not. It’s in the clothes you wear, in the car you drive, its in the air you breathe. There is a compelling case for investing time into teaching young people about politics and democracy and exercising their right to vote – and there is a school of thought which supports extending the vote to 16 and 17 years olds, but not without political education being laid out first. Not something I am signed up to, as we have allowed the vote to many before us without any sort of political education (and I lay out my views on Votes at 16 here), but I am a supporter of making sure people know what their vote can do.

There is an alternative, and voting for that alternative matters. Voting – and most importantly voting Labour – gave people the National Health Service, the minimum wage and the abolition of Section 28. Voting Labour in Plymouth in 2012 has given council workers a Living Wage. I might not agree with Conservative politics, and sitting opposite the Conservative Group on Plymouth City Council whilst they blame world hunger on Gordon Brown might annoy the hell out of me, but hey, at least they believe it. Their attitude to those who claim social security, to the disabled and austerity might be utterly appalling, but at least they care enough about their point of view to put their head above the parapet and tell people “Hey, this is what I think about immigrants/”scroungers”/non-nuclear families!”  That’s better than declaring it pointless and deciding not to engage with the political system – mostly because very often, a lot of the people in my ward who decide not to vote are the very people who could benefit most from government changes, in whatever package they come in, whether its a Sure Start centre for their child, being able to marry whomever they want, regardless of gender, or earning the minimum wage.

It must be very easy for Russell Brand to declare voting as a fruitless task when he has a net worth of $15 million. It must be very easy not to care about which party is in power, who is making decisions on your behalf, when you don’t have to worry about feeding your children or heating your home or scraping together enough money to put some money on the electric. I can imagine voting for a party which has pledged to scrap the hated bedroom tax must be an alien concept to someone who has recently bought a $2.2 million mansion in Hollywood Hills (Daily Mail link). But hey, what do I know? I’m treacherous, after all.

Politics may not always be “sexy” to everyone, but it is relevant, and its damn important. Only 27.07% of around 8,000 voters in Devonport thought it relevant enough to come out and vote last May. 30% in 2011.  This time around, it is my mission to show people why politics matters – and while I’m at it, why they should vote Labour.

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2 thoughts on “Trust me on voting, Russell…I’m a politician

  1. Russell Brand isn’t leading a voter deregistration campaign, that’s to misunderstand what he’s trying to do. Webb’s piece was good but didn’t answer the question why it took Brand’s challenge to get him back into the Labour party. The reality is Webb getting off his arse again is the effect of Brand’s crusade, he will inspire campaigning of all kinds, both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary.

  2. What is dangerous about Russell Brand’s comments, was that he was saying people should abidcate from their responsibility in ensuring democracy functions and remains healthy by participating in it. If voting ‘dies out’ then so does democracy. A dying democracy, or one which does not reflect the proper will of the people, would see a slide into chaos and discord. It also opens the door for extremists to take advantage of the political vacuum, with all the consequences. The closest to this happening in Europe presently is in Greece. The ‘establishment’ parties have been routed, and right-wing extremist parties such as Golden Dawn have seized upon this chaos. Blood has been spilt.

    An alternative to democracy is chaos and dictatorship. Is that what Russell Brand is hankering for?

    That is not to say the political system is not in need of any reform. It is obviously in need of reform. Whilst Britain is not at risk of becoming another Greece, the situation here is, frankly, bloody awful. But there are signs the main parties are grappling with the issue. With more demands on our time, and less ties to ‘class’, political parties are trying to find new ways to engage and to increase participation. All parties of all colours in Britain have played around with ideas about encouraging more activity in the political system, to arrest the long-term slide of not just voting, but being involved with a political party.

    As you know, Labour is trying out new ideas to address this, through the ‘registered supporters’ scheme and Arnie Graf’s community activism model. The party has invested lots of cash for organisers to build up local parties and become more involved and engaged within their local communities. This may work, but it will take time, and restructuring politics to chime more with the local – matters that are addressed street by street rather than town by town – could take years. You are right, therefore, that it is up to local elected represenatives such as you and I to help facilitate the reinvigoration of the political and democratic process. Addressing the charge ‘you’re all the same’ by getting stuck into local issues, making a personal difference to people’s lives – bring things back to the basics (not in the Tory way, I hasten to add) will only do good. In essence, we need to reboot the whole system and start from scratch.

    The challenge is stark. Therefore what have we got to lose? I read somewhere that there are more members of the National Trust than there are of all the main three political parties put together. In the 1950s over a million people were members of the Conservative Party, and just under a million for Labour. Now each party has just around a fifth of that number. The Tories, maybe less than 100,000 if you believe the rumours. Turnout has also been dropping for years. Some local elections barely have a turnout of over 20% (as you refer to in your piece). I was elected on a turnout of just over 27% as well. Addressing the slide, stablising the decay, reviving the body politic will do all the good in improving participation to such an extent even ol’ Russell B could mark his “X”.

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