Why the political establishment has reacted so sourly to Russell Brand’s call for people not to vote and to think about revolution instead, should surprise no one. The comedian touched a raw nerve because the old politics is dying on its feet.
The repercussions are enormous. When a system of government endorsed by the vast majority for nearly 150 years loses the support of key sections in society, the political class has a right to be worried and angry with people like Brand who point this out.
His fiery exchange with Jeremy Paxman on BBC2’s Newsnight has had getting on for 10 million views on YouTube. Many of those are undoubtedly by a generation switched off from mainstream politics already. Brand was kicking at an open door.
A new survey confirms the worst fears of Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband. Some 46% of under-30s say they will not consider voting for any parties, including smaller organisations like the Greens or non-mainstream groups like Ukip. For this generation it’s “none of the above”.
The response wasn’t much better for the electorate as a whole, with four out of ten people saying they were “alienated” from Britain's political parties and say they will not consider voting for any of them at an election.
This research for the Committee on Standards in Public Life tallies with the latest monthly ComRes poll for The Independent, which shows that only with the 45-54 age group do you get a majority who say they are certain to vote at the 2015 election. Two-thirds of the 18-24 age group say they are absolutely certain about not voting next time round. Andrew Hawkins of ComRes, said: "The evidence all points to people being turned off by the traditional party system.”
The Committee on Standards in Public Life, an advisory body to the government, was set up in 1994 in response to sleaze at Westminster. It has seen disconnection with politics grow ever since. Commenting on its latest poll, the committee says 40% "hold sceptical or deeply sceptical perceptions of standards and do not trust those in public life" and that “an entrenched political disenchantment…appears to have acquired a growing foothold in the British public".
None of the surveys in recent years say that people are indifferent to what goes in society. It’s just that for many, they simply have no effective say or influence, whoever they vote for. And they’re right in that key respect.
Politics at one level can be understood as a mean to achieving organised control over a complex system of ruling a community or society – aka the state. Accelerating disengagement from this kind of politics coincides with how the relationship between state and citizen has changed.
The transition from a welfare state – which provided affordable housing, free education, support when unemployed or disabled, comprehensive health care, pensions, energy and public transport – to a ruthless market state is the story of our times. Some call it a corporatocracy – rule through and on behalf of the corporations.
A market state does what it says on the packet – make key services and provision subject to market and commercial considerations first. Politics, in this context, is reduced to managerialism, to adjusting markets, to reducing state provision even further. The parties have coalesced around this purpose, and in the process have dissolved existing politics. How is anyone supposed to relate to this?
The standards committee is deeply concerned and wants further research into whether the poll findings harbour “the potential for rejection of the system of representative democracy and for democratic norms”. With respect, the two don’t go together.
We want a democracy that serves the majority, not a system that actually undermines “democratic norms”. The present system of representation has outlived its usefulness and is now a plaything of powerful economic and financial forces.
Moving democracy on, extending it to areas like the workplace, replacing shareholder control with community democracy around a system of people’s assemblies is a model to consider. We should support the initiative launched by John McDonnell, one of a handful of Labour MPs who champion democracy, for a People’s Parliament to discuss where we go from here.