It's true that popular political causes need powerful expression. And there's no doubt Russell Brand struck a chord when he was interviewed recently by Jeremy Paxman. Paxman readily acknowledged that there are many, myself included, who agree with Brand's views on global justice, the environment, and on the hollowness of our so-called democratic system. But the question Brand seemed unable to answer was HOW to put real power behind those views; how to convert them into powerful, practical political action?
It's clear Brand sees voting as "compliance with the system" and so he rejects it. But his dilemma, and the dilemma of anyone seeking substantive change is that, short of bloody revolution which no one has the stomach for, you can't change the system without engaging with the system. This is the key point Paxman kept trying to make but Brand just side-stepped because he doesn't have a coherent answer. As the Guardian rightly put it, "he hasn't done the work".
Brand was right at least in identifying the growing number of people whose needs are not represented by the current political system, but there are better ways to serve that agenda than to disengage completely. The trick, to my mind, is not to abandon the ballot box altogether but to turn the system on its head - to our advantage - by using our votes in a completely new way which leaves politicians no choice but to comply. That is, by organising ourselves as a growing block of voters who tell politicians that in all future elections we'll be voting NOT for a particular politician or party, but for ANY politician or party that implements our agenda.
This might sound simple, but it's actually revolutionary. Because, with many seats and even entire elections hanging on fine margins, a growing block prepared to vote in this way could call the shots and punch well above its weight. What's more, it's already happening. The Simpol (Simultaneous Policy) campaign which I founded in 2000 succeeded at the last UK general election in getting 200 candidates from all the main political parties to sign up to its global justice agenda; an agenda designed not by politicians but democratically by citizens. Of those 200 candidates, 24 are now sitting in Parliament. In addition, the campaign is making progress in other countries.
But abandon voting altogether as Brand advocates, and you leave yourself inevitably stranded and, like the now almost forgotten Occupy movement, effectively powerless. Without the right deeds, you're just left with the words. You end up occupying nothing other than a short-lived media soundbite.
Powerfully articulating what we all feel about global justice and environmental sustainability is absolutely vital. And Brand (and Occupy) did a good job of that. But unless we follow smarter approaches to politics that engage with the system without becoming part of it, we'll continue to remain powerless.