Campaign 2015: #Milibrand

When an image emerged on Twitter of Ed Miliband leaving Russell Brand’s apartment, speculation abounded that Brand could be about to endorse Labour. Having spent this year writing a case study on Russell Brand’s involvement in housing campaigns, I told everyone who asked that there was no way that Brand would ever endorse the Labour party. Then, this happened.

Having released most of the ‘Milibrand interview’ on April 29th, to mixed reactions, Brand suddenly announced that more ‘unseen footage’ would be uploaded 3 days before polling day. In this Trews, which has been viewed over 800,000 times, Brand shows ‘the part of the interview that I found most encouraging’, where they discuss the ideal of politics as community-led. Brand then concluded, ‘David Cameron might think I’m a joke, but I don’t think there’s anything funny about what the Conservative party have been doing to this country, and we have to stop them. So my view is this: If you’re Scottish, you don’t need an English person telling you what to do, you know what you’re gonna be doing. If you’re in Brighton, I think it would be a travesty if we lost the voice of Caroline Lucas in Westminster. But anywhere else, you’ve gotta vote Labour, you’ve gotta get the Conservative party out of government in this country so that we can begin community-led activism’.

Unsurprisingly, this got people talking. Some conservative-supporting papers speculated that Brand’s support would be damaging for Labour, criticising Miliband for ‘going to’ Brand.  I would argue, however, that Brand was taking the bigger risk in (temporarily) backing Labour. The risk to Brand was, of course, not an electoral one, but the possibility that his supporters might not back his decision. Whilst many articles mocked Brand as a ‘hypocrite’ for making a ‘U-turn’ on his (often oversimplified) anti-voting stance, I saw many more Trews viewers and Brand fans objecting to his ‘you’ve gotta vote Labour’ statement because they had already decided to vote for the Green party.

This is unsurprising; as I discussed in a previous post, Brand agrees with the Greens on almost everything, and has worked with Lucas on drug-reform campaigns. Brand also interviewed Caroline Lucas and Natalie Bennett, describing Lucas as a ‘lovely human being, the very kind of person you want making political decisions’, and encouraging those living in Brighton Pavilion to vote for her. Brand stopped short of endorsing the Green party as a whole, however, because whilst he agrees with many of their policies, ‘unless there’s considerable, massive electoral reform in our country, the Green party cannot impose those politics’.

Not everyone accepted an endorsement for the Labour party from the man who has been calling for revolution. The administrator of one fan group on Facebook, which has over 4000 members, announced that she would close the group (which had become, for many, a place to express support for the Greens), as she felt disappointed and mislead. Whilst members of the group talked her out of this, she was far from alone in her disappointment. Across Twitter, Facebook groups and pages and YouTube comments, there was much debate over whether the endorsement was a realistic assessment of the election, or a hypocritical betrayal of Brand’s ideals.

Having initially been shocked to see Brand back Labour, his motivations became much clearer and, in my opinion more relatable, after he posted a long piece explaining that he and the Trews team had actually decided to back Labour before the ‘Milibrand’ interview. His election day edition of The Trews also addressed the ‘often vicious’ comments he’d received following the endorsement. Brand explained that his opinion that it didn’t matter who won the election was chipped away at by the stories of those close to him, for whom Conservative welfare policies would cause missed opportunities and misery. ‘Ultimately what I feel, is that by not removing the Tories, through an unwillingness to participate in the “masquerade of democracy”, I was implicitly expecting the most vulnerable people in society to pay the price on my behalf while I pondered alternatives in luxury’. Ultimately, Brand concluded that whilst it was a poor choice, it would be easier to push for more meaningful change under a Labour-led government than a Conservative one.

Whilst many continued to criticise Brand, a greater proportion of commenters were now understanding of his opinion, even if they didn’t share it. Brand’s statement that ‘the gap between left and right is too small, but millions of people live or die in that gap’ reminded me of plenty of comments I’d seen from undecided left-wing voters who ultimately, begrudgingly, decided to vote Labour.

The election did not go the way that Brand wanted. This caused him to reflect on the endorsement, but also more broadly on his power compared to that of the Tory press, lamenting that ‘the old media, the establishment, is a powerful thing’. His regret was not so much endorsing Miliband, but that his endorsement seemingly made no difference. It may be true that Brand overestimated his influence or, even more likely, miscalculated his audience; of those who follow him, who are British adults and who were registered, there may have been some potential non-voters or Green voters who could be convinced to grit their teeth and vote Labour, but without the ability to influence anyone thinking of voting Conservative this surely is not enough. But he should not be so quick to wave the white flag in his war with The Sun; as Amy Smith pointed out in our joint blog post, they were all too quick to claim victory in ‘the phony war between traditional and newer media’.

Despite many reporting Brand’s comments as his ‘resignation from politics’, whilst I doubt he’ll throw his weight behind a party again he made it clear that he would continue to back community campaigns, where Brand has already proven he can make a difference. In a way, Miliband and Labour not getting into office may be a dodged bullet for Brand, who will not have to spend the next 5 years responding to every Labour government cut, or the renewal of trident, with ‘but I didn’t fully back Labour’. Still, having spent 18 months defending their favourite radical comedian from criticism of his ‘anti-voting’ statements, some of his fans may not be quick to forget the outcome of #Milibrand.

From www.thenorthernecho.co.uk I am truly sorry.

From http://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk
I am truly sorry.

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General Election 2015: High, lows, and moments of confusion

It’s hard to believe that the UK General Election campaign came to an end just seven days ago. Having finally recovered from pulling the all-nighter to end all all-nighters, it’s time to reflect on the campaign. Whilst there are plenty of serious debates to be had, Amy Smith and I felt we would try to make light (and a little sense of) some of the campaign’s more interesting events. Here is a little discussion of the campaign moments that made us smile, or shake our heads in collective confusion.

Milibrand

Ellen: When Miliband was pictured leaving Brand’s flat and the press speculated there could be an endorsement, I laughed and told everyone that would never happen. Then it did. Brand’s ‘anti-voting’ position was never as rigid as the press reported, and he’d always liked Miliband, but I was still blown away. I think this definitely had more potential to damage Brand than Miliband, whatever the press say. Many of Brand’s fans support the Green Party, and he’s much closer to them ideologically. For me, the most interesting thing about the whole episode is the debate over whether Miliband should have ‘gone to’ Brand. Does this demonstrate the trivialisation of elections, or a bold willingness to reach out to Brand’s nine million followers? Cameron called Brand a joke…well, even if it made no difference, at least it showed that Miliband can take a joke!

 Amy: I agree with you that the point of interest here is the debate about whether Miliband was right or wrong to go to Brand. It speaks to a larger tension between older and newer forms of social media and did spark some discussion in the press along these lines. Both sides seemed to accept that this was an attempt by Labour to reach that notoriously homogenous, disengaged group known as ‘the youth’ (note: they are not homogenous and disengaged). The argument seemed to be divided into whether Miliband was doing the right thing because he was, at least, making an attempt to reach the youth through Brand’s social media following, or whether attempting to reach the youth was a pointless exercise. Whatever the reality, The Sun has claimed victory in the phony war between traditional and newer media, clearly ignoring the nuances of intermedia dependency even as it is displayed on the very same webpage (see below).

Screenshot of sunnation.co.uk’s “Brand: People do listen to The Sun”

Screenshot of sunnation.co.uk’s “Brand: People do listen to The Sun”

Ed Miliband: sex symbol or North London geek?

 Amy: The press had something of a crisis over how to represent Ed Miliband. Was he the “North London geek”, as branded by Jeremy Paxman in the ‘Battle for Number 10’, unable to eat a bacon sandwich competently and hence unable to run the country competently? Or was he ladies’ man, with a “Very Tangled Love Life”? The Daily Mail article did it’s very best to perpetuate the latter, but it read like a very boring account of the relationship histories of most people in modern Britain. The alternate headline made up in the PhD office, “Man has relationships with women he meets at university and through mutual friends before marrying his wife”, seemed more accurate if less sensational.

 Ellen: Our headline is definitely better. The ‘North London geek’ thing particularly intrigued me. We definitely saw Miliband play up to the ‘geek’ label more afterwards, talking more about his favourite video games and baseball teams in interviews. Paxman definitely didn’t mean it as a compliment, Charlie Brooker even speculated that unnecessarily adding ‘North London’ was an anti-Semitic dig, but Miliband tried to reclaim the geek label and use it to his advantage. I think that this was probably the right move; better to admit to having obscure interests than to forget which football team you ‘support’.

 Joey Essex

 Ellen:  Joey Essex interviewed Miliband, Clegg and Farage for his ITV2 special ‘Educating Joey Essex: General Election, What Are You Sayin?!’ He didn’t vote in 2010, and was on a mission to learn more about politics so that he could this time. Whilst the programme was (of course) pretty silly, the ability of some of Essex’s interviewees to relate to him demonstrated positive qualities in them. Anyone who knows Joey’s history must’ve felt a little ‘emosh’ seeing Nick Clegg talking to him about improving mental health care.

Meeting ‘ordinary celebrities’ is becoming yet another proxy for meeting ‘ordinary voters’, but I still wish Cameron had become involved. Joey did vote, after going to the wrong polling station, but we don’t know who for. I’d love to know if he got confused that Miliband, Farage and ‘Nick Legg’ weren’t actually on the ballot papers. Joey Essex general election pundit, Amy, what are YOU sayin’?

Amy: Well, where to begin? Essex’s programme naturally drew a lot of media attention and was much discussed on social media. It fits the trope of engaging ‘the youth’, although perhaps targeting a different demographic to that of the Brand interviews (ergo, they are not one homogenous group). It therefore helped to perpetuate ‘the engagement of young people in politics’ as a narrative throughout the campaign. Perhaps because of this, most parties wanted to become involved with his investigations, and took his slip-ups in good humour (the Lib Dems changing their website to feature the ‘Liberal Democats’ was a personal highlight). And who knows, maybe Essex’s programme did help some to understand the election and decide who to vote for. I think there’s probably a thesis in that, Ellen…

 #Milifandom (and #Cameronettes?)

Ellen: Whilst I feel like some of the photoshopped images of Ed Miliband’s face on semi-naked models will haunt my dreams forever, #Milifandom raised some interesting questions about participation. I was happy to see its founder, Abby, hitting back at journalists who saw her enthusiasm as childish, arguing that she had started #Milifandom as a response to media attacks on Miliband. I hope that she and other Milifans haven’t become totally despondent about politics before they can even vote.

Amy: I was overjoyed at the emergence of #Milifandom. After all the talk of youth participation here were some youth’s actually participating. Using a social media platform to express not only love but reasoned arguments for supporting Ed Miliband, it turned out that they were both knowledgeable and passionate. Obviously, there were some sceptics, with fandoms usually associated with 1D-obsessed teenage girls. Nevertheless, in #Milifandom we saw many of the traits that the old guard lament as lost in young people, and the wonderful thing was that it was organically created in a new media logic understood by its core audience and mistrusted by older generations. A timeless recipe really.

I was confused at the emergence of #Cameronettes. The Telegraph tried to clear it up, but in fact made me more concerned. Was it created by CCHQ, a teenage girl, a twenty-something male student, or a twenty-something male student masquerading as teenage girl? I stopped collecting data on this quite quickly basically because I couldn’t cope.

The ‘biased’ BBC

Amy: This also had me confused consistently. In my collection of data from Twitter and Facebook, I alternately learned that the BBC was left-wing/right-wing (delete as appropriate) and it was made clear that the Beeb was not giving enough airtime to UKIP, the Conservatives, UKIP, Labour, or UKIP. Even their debate audiences, as Nigel Farage brought to our attention, seemed to be unfairly weighted. Yet, the BBC is heavily regulated to ensure it gives even coverage to all parties, based on their size, and – as I found out by talking to their journalists – they have to produce graphs at the end of every week to prove it. So they are at least technically unbiased, then. Problem-solved. I must also give special mention to BBC Breakfast’s election coverage involving the ‘Travelling Sofa’ and the ‘Steph-o-meter’™, which kept me amused during many an early start. Kudos, Breakfast team.

Ellen: The BBC definitely cannot win. For the Conservatives, accusing the BBC of bias is a win-win, undermining negative coverage of them but possibly more importantly undermining the authority of the BBC itself. This is crucial when you plan to appoint a culture secretary who thinks that the license fee is ‘unsustainable’. As for UKIP, for all the involvement of comedians in this campaign its funniest moment was definitely still Farage attacking the audience at the Challengers’ Debate. How not to win people over 101.

The “selfie election”. Or was it the “social media election”?

Amy: Thesis-wise I was absolutely thrilled the media began to give various monikers to the election – it fits right in with my introductory chapter. However, both of the prominent ones given above are questionable. No-one can argue that selfies were not in abundance, but calling this campaign the “selfie election” refers to a derivative of a specific use of media, rather than having campaign activities aligned to a media platform, such as in “the television election” or “the internet election”. The “social media election” does do this, and certainly social media use by politicians, journalists and voters alike was central throughout the campaign. Yet in the aftermath of the vote, left-wing commentators considered that their existence within the social media bubble had led them to believe the outcome of election would be more favourable for them. It clearly wasn’t, so perhaps “the social media” election is somewhat of a misnomer, in terms of the medium’s impact on outcome.

Ellen: I agree. Social media use during campaigns is now obviously necessary, how out of touch would you look if you didn’t use it, but I don’t think it will ever be sufficient to lead a party to victory. Ed Miliband started using Instagram last September, much to the amusement of the press, and it became its own little fascinating bubble of Milifandom before #Milifandom was even a thing. Clearly though, David Cameron’s lack of Instagram, or a selfie with Joey Essex or a bride-to-be and her hens, wasn’t a barrier to electoral success.

And finally, Al Murray…

Al Murray

Al Murray reacts to Nigel Farage’s loss at the South Thanet count.

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

When it comes to Russell Brand, the Green party’s best course would be to tread lightly.

2014 saw growing support for the Green party, and with it complaints that they do not get enough media attention. As for Russell Brand, you’re more likely to see complaints that he gets too much.

Recent pieces encouraging Brand to vote and campaign for the Green party have coincided with dismissive comments from their leader, Natalie Bennett. Bennett says that the Greens are focused on ‘serious politics’, and don’t need a big personality like ‘hair flicking’ Russell Brand.[1]

Now, I’m not saying that ol’ Russ should join the Green party, stand in the general election, overthrow Nat Ben as leader and lead a mini parliamentary revolution. Bennett isn’t the only politician criticising Brand’s statements on voting, I’ve seen one already this year.[2] Whilst I really don’t think Brand is responsible for leading a generation of potential young voters astray (low turnout amongst young people was an issue back while Brand was still being Big Brother’s Big Mouth), I can see why Labour and Green politicians would worry – clearly no potential Tories are going to be dissuaded from voting by watching the Trews (Brand’s YouTube series).

There are other reasons to be nervous about embracing Brand as a campaigning tool. Deserved or not, he attracts negative media coverage (and if you’re The Sun, comparisons to Brussels sprouts). He’s unpredictable and, as he’s the first to admit, often volatile when faced with unwelcome questions and criticism. Also while he says he’s trying to stop being sexist, he definitely hasn’t got there yet.

But if the Greens don’t need Brand, he really doesn’t need them. It irks me when, as happened on Question Time, people argue that if he really cared he’d stand for election to parliament. I thought we’d moved beyond such a narrow view of participation – this sounds to me like a veiled way of saying that if you don’t fit within the political mainstream you should put up and shut up. Yes, Brand is volatile and unsurprisingly for a performer works best when he has control over his own message, such as in his regular (and often really good) Trews episodes. Is the place for someone like him really a political party? Think of those celebrities who endorsed the Liberal Democrats in 2010, only to put their hands in their pockets and walk away shaking their heads once the coalition was formed. Granted it’s very unlikely that the Greens will find themselves part of a coalition government from May, but this demonstrates the potential problems that come from publicly backing a party.

Brand and Lucas

So having said all this, why did Natalie Bennett’s dismissal of Brand make me cringe? Because those who’ve pointed out the similarities in their beliefs aren’t wrong.[3] He shares their anti-austerity ethos, as well as their views on the environment, taxation, living wage, the NHS, (scrapping) tuition fees, immigration, trident…

Not only are there big similarities of opinion, but in spite of having never voted for them Brand is often complimentary of the Green party, particularly of Caroline Lucas who he’s supported over drug reform and appeared with at anti-austerity events. A picture of Brand with Lucas on her Facebook page, with a very positive quote from him, got way more likes and shares than her page usually sees (though praise from Brian May was popular too).[4]

Yes Russell Brand is a comedian and says he wants everything he does to be entertaining, but to dismiss as not ‘serious politics’ someone who regularly brings the Green party’s ideas to a larger audience might not be the best idea. Brand’s ‘support from a distance’ could be useful. The challenge for Green supporters who are also fans of Brand/the Trews is to make others aware that they may also want to vote Green, without Brand becoming so associated with the party that his controversy becomes theirs.

So even if Natalie Bennett doesn’t want to fully embrace Brandland and appear on the Trews in a ‘Reloveution’ T-shirt with a blanket on her head (though I would watch that), it might still be a good idea not to burn any bridges. When it comes to Russell Brand the Greens should, at the very least, tread lightly.

breaking bad meme(Now back to the Breaking Bad rewatch. Happy New Year!)

[1] http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/natalie-bennett-green-party-doesnt-need-hair-tossing-russell-brand-win-votes-1480128

[2] http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/liz-kendall-new-year-voting-4902144

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/kieran-turner-dave/russell-brand-green-party_b_6328776.html

[4] http://on.fb.me/1xgCznZ