I was back in my hometown London last weekend, in east London and the famous York Hall, often used as a boxing venue, this night playing host to a Question Time debate, which was supposed to mimic the political jousting of our parliamentary representatives. The event was organised by the People’s Assembly, an alliance of socialists, the Green party and assorted groups of students, public sector workers and activists, hoping to answer the pressing issues of the day and come up with a strategy to tackle the increasing corporatisation of our culture and attack on our public services.
A crowd of 1,200 packed this beautifully crafted Victorian building, testament to a time when the richest people in society put money and effort into creating inspiring spaces in the poorest parts of London, recognising that if the poorest were left to rot, as had been the case in times past, even the rich suffered. It was only after outbreaks of cholera in the slums began to reach into the West End that investment in such buildings, and the green spaces of Victoria Park and elsewhere, brought some sanitation and some sanity to the area and to British society as a whole.
Today, it seems that there is investment in the area again, but rather than civic spaces, the money is going into private ventures, corporate hipsters taking progressive ideas and monetising them, creating rich playground spaces for the influx of billionaires now pouring into the capital city along with the less rich but equally eager immigrants, looking for a taste of this seeming increased wealth, at a time when we have been told by our elected government and their shadow parties, that the nation’s debt is too high and that economic austerity is the only solution, making the poorest pay for the billions lost by private banks in the financial crash of 2008. It is a swindle of epic proportions that should result in public outrage, but such is the control and propagandising of mainstream media, that we barely have a focused public response to this increasing injustice.
Since the Occupy movement sprang up in New York, London and elsewhere in 2011, there have been a number of theories as to why the reasons for this economic disparity have not been addressed. A number of academics and avant-garde thinkers have focused on the extreme injustice of debt-based banking, and anarchists, futurists, spiritualists and conspiracy theorists at least managed to find a voice in these public spaces, where they had previously been marginalised from both mainstream and leftist circles.
It needs saying, and you will not hear it often in regular organised leftwing meetings, but the anti-war and anti-globalisation demonstrations of the 2000s offered so much more than was apparent in the controlled and directed socialist narratives of the time. In the UK, the main organisers of demos and meetings were the Socialist Workers party and their part-creation, the Stop the War Coalition, an association of the SWP, the Muslim Alliance of Britain and CND, but a coalition which was, in effect, run by the SWP and administered according to their methodologies. You may detect here some criticism of this organisation, and you’d be right. From 2001, I attended a number of meetings and demonstrations and found them to be dogmatic and unwelcoming of alternative political viewpoints, particularly left libertarian and anarchist ones.
I leant towards more anarchist and progressive ideas, of which there were many, and I saw a systematic marginalisation of such outspoken voices by the politburo of the authoritarian left. That is not to say there were not progressive voices in those organisations, or that their organisational methods were not often effective. But you have to ask how a group that claimed responsibility for 2 million people marching on the streets of London in February 2003 against the imminent Iraq invasion a month later, was able to preside over the dissipation of support that now results in only tens of thousands marching against the recent air-strikes against the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Mistakes were made, in my opinion, mistakes that I have not seen dealt with but which need to be addressed for the left to heal and unite in a common purpose.
So, as I arrived at York Hall to listen to the speakers, perhaps I should have been more prepared for what transpired. But my critical faculties were suspended because of one important guest. A man who I believe has done more for progressive politics in the past 18 months than any politician, unionist, activist or academic. That man is Russell Brand, and the vision he offers is so in tune with what I believe are the sentiments of this country and the world’s resistance to injustice, that I did not think for a minute that the event could be anything other than a success. And despite my ultimate disappointment, his involvement on this platform did inspire a thought that headlines this piece, and which I will address towards the end.
As I walked into the hall, and saw the preparation, and recognised one particular face on the unilaterally organised “Question Time” panel, and heard the first question asked and the replies all conforming to a singular view, I realised that, on some level, I’d been had. Here I was, once again, on an SWP-like rally, where contrary opinion is not welcome, where questions are vetted (ostensibly because there are too many put forward, but how convenient that the editing process can be made behind closed doors) and where the mainly young, white, middle-class audience will walk away with a warm, fuzzy feeling of change, but where no real effort will be made to engage with the wider public, who instinctively turn away, seeing these kinds of meetings as idealistic agit-prop, and who will, instead, continue to feel frustration that their issues are not being addressed.
Now, that is a harsh condemnation. The event itself was fun and informative on many levels. Russell Brand was his usual loquacious, vivacious and even rebellious self, offering many soundbites that chimed with the times we live in. I can see why the unions and socialist intellectuals like John Rees, who bat down dissent on the left as well as any rightwing politician, might want to use his celebrity status for their own ends. I’m sure that Russell Brand is smart enough to recognise if he is being used in such a way, and I sensed that perhaps he too was impatient at the plodding way the evening was structured.
My main issue of the night was in using the gimmick of calling the event Question Time, accusing the BBC of not allowing progressive voices on its programme (which is true) but then responding by organising an event which is merely a leftwing reflection of that same limited structure. At least there is some heated disagreement on the BBC’s Question Time, even if within a narrow band of opinion. There was little disagreement at the People’s Assembly Question Time. It became a backslapping echo chamber, which is not conducive to progressing ideas about how to tackle the world’s rapid shift to the right and the increasing control of public life by private corporations and the corruption of parliament. We need passionate dialogue, not a bubble of self-satisfaction.
John Rees spoke of the left’s failure being its fragmentation and bitter infighting. I would say its biggest failure is that the authoritarian left, which he is part of, successfully marginalised non-hierarchical groups, progressives and eccentrics of the left. Where Ukip has managed to find room for their own “eccentrics” (bigots of all descriptions, but a few harmless fools as well), the left has suppressed their own dissenters, often mavericks with important, if sometimes irrational and nonsensical contributions to make, as well as ordinary working class people with very pragmatic demands (how inspiring to see the E17 mothers and how starved the left has been of working class voices over the years). This is the essence of progressive dialogue, creating a broad church of differing but equally valued opinion, yet such views have been stifled and the structures of these debates could learn a lot from the Occupy movement. The authoritarian left is thus a distorted representation of a broader left movement, and the debate in such meetings and demos becomes controlled and sterile, which I believe has contributed to the public being unable to relate fully.
We are complex human beings, often contradictory and irrational in our beliefs. We cannot be squeezed into boxes that do not shift in perception. That is as stifling whether it comes from the left or the right. It is ridiculous and dangerous to objectify Ukip and their supporters simply as ignorant racists. We thus give them a power they do not possess. But it is just as dangerous to characterise those who wish to talk about alternative medicine and the role of Big Pharma, or debate the media narratives around 9/11 and 7/7 as conspiracy theorists. The authoritarian left has done this as effectively as anyone from the mainstream or the right and this has severely hampered open debate and a broad strategy.
Everyone on the panel, even Russell Brand to some extent, took this position of going for the cheap shot of Ukip (they can hardly be blamed, as the anger at their increasing power is completely understandable). It got laughs and cheers, but later that night Ukip got their first MP, so the laughs kind of fell flat. They will get an extreme amount of the media spotlight now (even more than the excessive amount they have already been getting) and they have done so, not only by appealing to the public’s ignorance and fear, but by being willing to go after and engage with the mainstream politicians (assisted by a hefty does of ruling class funding and a barely concealed mainstream media support, it must be said).
The authoritarian left, and that includes the radical elements of the country’s unions, is also used to shouting dissent from the sidelines. As I write this, I have to confess that I often do the same. When you have little sense of power, when you feel victimised, often the only chance you have is to voice your discontent on the margins of acceptability. I had the opportunity to voice my disapproval at that meeting in the York Hall. Why did I remain silent? I was angry at how stage-managed it seemed to be. But, because of past experiences of being shouted down at meetings, and because of the size of the attendance, maybe I backed out of voicing an urgent rethink of how we should organise in the next few months leading up to the general election. Maybe I also recognised there would not be enough time to engage in such a debate from the floor of a meeting attended by a thousand people with a structured process and time limit.
I believe engagement is important, that many radical ideas can be brought to the table, from all sections of the progressive left. Unions discussing pay and socialists discussing capitalism are but two facets of a much deeper and broader critique of society that involves ending drug prohibition, introducing hitherto banned natural remedies and patent-free chemicals, that there is strong, clinical evidence to suggest will deal with many of the country’s minor to medium health problems, which will save the NHS millions of pounds and take away our dependency on private pharmaceutical companies.
Additionally, there are complementary and psychospiritual methods of healthcare and counselling, with an evidence base derived from decades of research, that can begin to address the individual and societal trauma affecting not just our country, but the world particularly in the most violent and inhospitable places. Why aren’t these issues being addressed at the People’s Assembly? If it will not address them, then the People’s Assembly will fail in its objectives, in my opinion. If it seeks to use the same methods and critiques that have failed to engage with the public over the past few decades, why would anyone feel they can engage now? We have to look at more radical strategies.
The Green party has a major role to play in the progressive debate, I feel, since it is steeped in the kind of empathic and compassionate worldview that is conducive to such dialogue. Their members are generally aware and welcoming of the socialist critiques of capitalism that are necessary, and they are open to non-authoritarian methods of engagement. What they lack is a figurehead to galvanise members and to engage with the media narrative and thus get through to the public. Leader Natalie Bennett is a skilled politician and activist. Green MP, Caroline Lucas, is a brave and articulate campaigner who has put her reputation on the line tackling issues such as fracking. They will remain the intellectual and political driving force of the party and rightly so.
But to be honest, for all their knowledge and experience, neither can be said to capture the public imagination in a way that grabs headlines, causes controversy and has newspaper editors scrambling against their better judgment to discuss the pros and cons of their policies. It may be unjust that politics in the media world should be reduced to superficial notions of personality, but this is how society presently functions and to ignore that is to throw away the possibility of effecting change through the pragmatic apparatus of parliamentary democracy. Why waste this opportunity when a radical and effective alternative exists?
In progressive politics, leadership should be about creating a focal point, the individual should act as a lightning conductor, able to absorb and transmit public attention towards the many pioneering and necessary ideas contained within the structure. The Green party has many policies that need exposure and which the public would relate to if they were presented them in a simple and direct way. I can see only one individual presently who is capable of creating that kind of buzz. He will of course enjoy the attention, but I believe he is also genuine and generous and prescient enough to understand why he could be effective in being used in such a way, and would be skilled enough to know how to direct that attention on to the issues and policies at hand.
The Green party’s election campaign trail represents an opportunity to bring as many progressive ideas to light for discussion as are needed at such a crucial moment in time. I would like to see Russell Brand take that step from rebellious voice to entering into the parliamentary fray as the Green party leader, and for the organising committee to show they are not like the authoritarian left and to recognise the opportunity that may be presented to them and which may not come again and put him up for nomination and a vote. It is a venture filled with risk, and there may well be huge resistance within the party, but nothing less than 100 or so Green party MPs at the next general election will do to prevent the further injustices, the roll-out of the Translantlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and rolling back of decades of European Human Rights laws, and there is no chance that with the party’s present set-up, it is equipped to successfully challenge the mainstream media narrative and the cult of personality that is Nigel Farage.
It is a massive gamble, one that I admit is unlikely to happen without a monumental shift in perception, but it is a massive gamble to allow our society to continue as it is presently. The heat generated from such a move will be enough to galvanise support in many constituencies, off the back of the undoubted controversy and searing narrative that will be generated by a radical leader who is highly skilled as an entertainer and condenser of complex political ideas, who has proved his commitment to changing our society for the better. The Green party, under the banner of a maverick, can gather the support of the left which will challenge the monstrosity of austerity politics and the criminal transfer of public wealth into private hands. And if it happens, then this new alliance can begin by going after the establishment and fake establishment politicians to engage in a more honest debate about the future of this country. Can you imagine a live debate between Russell Brand and Nigel Farage? Does anyone doubt who would come out on top? “We’re never gonna survive unless we get a little crazy,” the singer Seal once cried. So why not now? Is there really any other alternative that can challenge the rigged game we are being presented with? I can’t think of anyone better suited to challenging the cult of Farage than the boy from Grays, Essex. Russell Brand for Green party leader. You heard it here first.