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Was Russell Brand Right?

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Russell Brand has called for a revolution: an uprising, an awakening. Most people he says, 'don't give a fuck about politics', and, like him, shouldn't vote because it only encourages the money grabbing 'dicklickers'. He thinks a revolution is coming, in fact. By guest-editing the New Statesman this week and then tearing into Jeremy Paxman with facetious wit and pointed verbosity, I suppose he is trying to help it along.

I'm going to avoid the jealous side swiping. Lots of people in Westminster - like me - don't like what Brand has said because he's a rich famous celebrity treading on our turf. (I'm even more annoyed because people think I'm trying to look like him, even though I had a beard and long hair before he was famous). Nonetheless, all ideas should be judged on their merits. Does he have a point?

First, people's attitudes to politics. He's at least half right. Electoral turnout in the UK has been on a downward trend since 1950, when 84% of the population turned out to vote, compared to 65% in the last general election in 2010 - and only 44% of those aged 18-24. This year's British Attitudes Survey found that only a third of 16-24 year olds say they have an interest in politics, and only half think it's a duty to vote. At least some of this is surely driven by dissatisfaction at the system. A 2008 survey found that 68% of British respondents were either 'not very' or 'not at all' satisfied with democracy overall. They especially do not trust political parties. In 2012, 82% of UK citizens said they 'tend not to trust' political parties. Membership of the parties has plummeted since the 1950s.

But research also shows this might be because they think of politics as a narrow set of people and systems set in London. Work by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggest the young people think MPs are self-serving, party automatons. Politics is too narrow. But they also think politics is important, if it can opened up a bit.

There is also at least some truth to his claim that we are governed by a narrow elite drawn from the same narrow cast of actors. Since 1979 there has been a large decrease in the number of MPs who were formerly manual workers, from around 16% of all MPs in 1979 to 4% in 2010. Over the same period the number of MPs with a political background grew from 3% to 14 per cent. Of course there are also plenty of MPs from other backgrounds too, but the Houses of Commons is far from a cross sections of society. It probably doesn't help that Nick Clegg, David Cameron, and Ed Miliband literally look and sound the same: well spoken, well dressed, men in their early 40s from university, with roughly the same haircuts, waistlines and heights.

Is this a pre-revolutionary state? Perhaps. If you look across Europe, people are certainly turning to non-mainstream parties, even if they are some way from Brand's socialist utopia. Sometimes that takes the form of right wing populists (sometimes called right wing extremists). Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders from the Netherlands or Pia 'Mama' Keirsgaard of the Danish People's Party are examples. Sometimes they are of the left: witness George Galloway, or Melanchon in France. Beppe Grillo, from Italy, straddles both left and right. He is a popular comedian and blogger, and ran a vehemently anti-establishment ticket, selecting his candidates online, and refusing to give any interviews to the Italian media, communicating instead through his own blog. His political career really took off in 2009, when he held a 'fuck-off day' directed at the ruling classes. Despite going against every PR rule, one in four Italians voted for his Five Star Movement earlier this year.

The supporters of these parties are united with Brand in their general dissatisfaction with the institutions of political life. In my research looking at the online supporters of populist parties and movements, supporters consistently displayed significantly lower levels of trust in political parties, the justice system, parliament, the media than the typical citizen. Whether they were from the left or right was immaterial.

Brand is also right that changing communication is helping to turn this disenchantment and disillusionment into real world affect. Social media in particular is helping new parties pop up, organise and mobilise. It offers a way to circumnavigate the stranglehold the main parties have on local and national media, and the might of their established local presence and organising force. The cost of entry for new upstarts is also far lower: you don't need the weighty machinery of an established party. Facebook groups and Twitter feeds can spread a message and mobilise voters for next to no cost. It was instrumental for both Grillo and Galloway's recent astounding successes. I can foresee more coming (especially where voter turnout is so low).

But his enormous, fatal error, is that the answer is to not vote, to drop out. Brand wouldn't know - because he's never bothered voting - but there is in fact a remarkable array of choice when you get to the polling both: more than ever in fact. If you don't vote, then politicians are less likely to listen, meaning fewer people vote, and it all spirals downward into a sink if apathy. This makes extremists more likely to win elections. If you're not happy with the choice you have, then at the very least go in and spoil your ballot - it's a far more powerful register of frustration than doing nothing. (In the eyes of a politician, a non-apathetic non-vote looks identical to a very apathetic non-vote). Better still, start a new party and get people behind it. As Churchill said, democracy is probably the worst system of government ever devised, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.