Can a TV presenter persuade young people to vote? Thoughts on None of the Above by Rick Edwards

Being interested in celebrity politics, I was excited to see another book about politics penned by a celebrity. Rick Edwards believes everybody should vote and that those who don’t are not lazy but, particularly in the case of young people, lacking the information they need to feel confident enough to make a choice.

   Several people have asked me who Rick Edwards is, but none of these have been under 30 and British. He’s a familiar face to the T4 generation. Edwards is a TV presenter in his mid-thirties with a science degree from Cambridge. His decision to write a book aimed at young people about British politics and the upcoming election is not as random as it may seem. Whilst he is best known for fronting E4’s Tool Academy (Google with caution) he currently presents BBC3’s Free Speech, where an audience aged 16-34 discuss political issues and put questions to politicians. The most recent episode saw Ed Miliband in the hot seat, as part of a series to help viewers decide how to vote, and he did pretty well.

Image from Amazon.co.uk

Image from Amazon.co.uk

Edwards was inspired to write None of the above by the questions he’s been asked whilst presenting Free Speech. In the introduction, he describes being told by teenagers that they didn’t feel that they knew enough about politics, parties or the issues to be able to vote, and being asked where they could get information. He couldn’t answer. The aim of the book is to encourage a ‘massive turnout’ in May, as Edwards believes that ‘the strength of our democracy is hugely improved when everyone has their say in choosing the government’.[1]

The book’s title refers to Edwards’ belief that there should be a ‘none of the above’ box on ballot papers. Until this happens, he suggests that those who wish to make their voice heard but cannot support any of the candidates on offer spoil their ballots. Naturally, the title has led to misrepresentation, with Vice going with the headline ‘TV Presenter Rick Edwards Wants You to Vote for ‘None of the Above’ at the UK General Election’. That’s not the case. He merely wants us to vote, and to have the option to vote for ‘none of the above’ if we want. Edwards probably knew his intentions would be questioned, as in his chapter on celebrity involvement in politics he describes how Russell Brand’s comments on voting have been misrepresented. Rather than going down the tabloid Brand-bashing route, Edwards argues that whilst he disagrees with Brand on voting he thinks that he has encouraged political debate and, through his involvement in the New Era Estate campaign, demonstrated that political engagement goes beyond voting.

    Edwards has certainly achieved his aim to provide information. Each chapter details the key debates and party positions over a policy area, such as the NHS, devolution, and inequality. There are also chapters on social media and politics, political leadership, and alternative voting systems and forms of democracy. Edwards does a good job of describing complex issues in a way that is detailed but also accessible; there is a large glossary at the back describing everything from abstention to zero-hour contracts. Alongside this policy detail, Edwards encourages readers to consider their broader beliefs about democracy and the role of the government, and parties to talk more about their ideological differences.

   Of course, one of the flaws of the book is that election manifestos have not yet been launched, and so cannot be included. But Edwards does a good job nonetheless of sketching out the similarities and differences (which do, he convincingly argues, exist) between the parties on a broad range of important issues. At the end of each chapter, he urges people to vote if they cares about these issues and, if he’s succeeded, hopefully readers will want to read the manifestos and have a better understanding of the issues (and jargon) they contain.

    This was a difficult task. Writing a book about voting without encouraging people to vote for a specific party. Writing a book that encourages voting without giving the impression that the electoral system doesn’t need to change. The limited personal opinion is unusual for a book written by a celebrity, though Edwards doesn’t always keep his views to himself. His refusal to engage with climate change deniers makes it unlikely he’s a secret UKIP supporter.

    At times, to a cynic like me, his belief in the power of voting feels a little over-stretched. The argument that if we all vote we’ll get who we want in parliament, as if there would no longer be wasted votes, is a little optimistic. But Edwards does do a good job of both encouraging people to vote whilst also advocating reform of the political system which would give more power to the people. In addition to the none of the above option, he discusses alternative electoral systems, open primaries, and reform of party funding. His concern about low turnout amongst young people is genuine, and his argument that this allows government to ignore young people’s issues convincing.

      Ultimately, it will be interesting to see whether a book that talks about political issues and democracy in Britain sells. Anyone else who’s been ‘the friend who knows about politics’ who gets inundated with questions at election time knows that there is a call for it. I doubt Rick Edwards will get his wish for a ‘none of the above’ box on the ballot paper any time soon, but in the meantime maybe he can persuade some people that their vote matters.

[1] Rick Edwards (2015), None Of The Above. Kindle location 87.

[2] Edwin Smith (2015), ‘TV Presenter wants you to Vote for ‘None of the Above’ at the UK General Election’, Vice, (online) March 11. Available at: http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/rick-edwards-none-of-the-above-interview-666

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