No electoral system is perfect but the UK’s first past the post system can often alienate voters who do not fall into the simple political binary offered by a two party political system. Minority parties can take power, parties with good levels of support can be marginalised and those with non-mainstream perspectives can find themselves without a voice at all. Add this to the fact that many politicians were born into wealth and privilege and have been educated in the same schools and universities (33% of currrent politicians attended private school) it should perhaps not be surprising that the percentage of people who don’t vote has been increasing election after election. It is not always apathy that keeps them away from the polling booth. Feeling that their views go unheard or are disregarded puts a lot of people off. For example:
- In the 2010 election, 64% of voters did not vote for the Conservatives but the country has had a Conservative led coalition government for 5 years. 36% of the votes gave them just below 50% of the seats;
- The Liberal Democrats’ popularity increased in the last election. in 2010 they received 23% of the votes but only won 9% of the seats;
- Safe seats account for 56% of constituencies. People whose political belief differs from their immediate neighbours may feel their vote is a waste of time;
- Safe constituencies are not a priority for parties – there is no need to work hard there as the seat has already been won or lost. Of more importance are ‘marginals’. Constituencies where there is no clear favourite;
- The only important voters here are the ones who are ‘undecided’ during the campaign. These are the people politicians are interested in because elections are decided by people who don’t have a clear party allegiance;
- Those who have a party allegiance may find themselves needing to vote tactically. When asked who he was going to vote for, comedian Stewart Lee said he had the luxury of living in a safe Labour seat so he could vote for the party that he didn’t feel angry with (The Greens) - but only because he need not worry that ‘something awful was going to happen’ if he did so.
The fact that no political party was a clear winner in the last election seemed to take politicians, the media and voters by surprise. The current electoral system has meant that the UK is used to having a binary system at work within politics where the ‘left wing’ challenges the ‘right wing’ and the mainstream news media reflects this (now outdated) relationship. Most UK newspapers have an allegiance to a specific party or political perspective. The UK has seven ‘right wing’ papers and two that support Labour (one tabloid and one broadsheet). The whole of mainstream politics has, however, moved to the right in the last few decades. The Labour Party are barely more left wing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems have been dragged right by dint of being in coalition with a Tory led government.
The ‘left’ and ‘right’ positions of the UK parties at the time of the 2015 election. From Political Compass
These political divisions were once seen to be very important as print news media was seen to hold a good deal of political power. Newspapers have always endorsed parties and individual leaders they still spend a lot of time putting a specific political spin on the stories of the day and creating hatchet-jobs to try to discredit or undermine individuals they don’t like (for example, Ed Miliband’s father Ralph). Some newspapers have seen themselves as definers of political perspectives and as ‘King Makers’ – for example The Sun took the credit for the Conservative win in 1992 declaring ‘It’s the Sun Wot Won It’ on its front page.
However, that was 13 years ago and the press and politicians find themselves in a different world. Newspaper sales are falling, successful ‘news’ sights offer gossip, scandal and scare stories rather than real political debate and audiences access their news and political insight from any number of sources rather than the traditional mainstream press. The power of the mainstream media is definitely in decline and the two-party system of power they represent is no more. A stark indication of this can be seen when looking at images of the televised debates. in 2010 power was being fought for by three grey suited men. By 2015 the political system is clearly more fractured and fragmented with upwards of seven parties appealing for votes. The 2015 debate line-up looked very different to the one five years before, especially with the inclusion of three female party leaders (from ordinary family and educational backgrounds).
The 2010 Debates
Participants in the 2015 Debate
People are no longer divided into two simple political groups. The reasons for this are varied and complex but changes in the media have been influential to these political changes. The rise in digital media has meant that people get information from a variety of sources, they are able to get involved in issue based politics and they are not reliant on the mainstream press for information in the way previous generations were. The mainstream media is clearly struggling to keep up with the fast moving debates that unfold on social media and traditional news media has been slow to respond to the changing nature of politics.
Russell Brand has used social media to voice a range of non-mainstream political perspectives via Twitter and, since February 2014, his YouTube channel. He has been highly critical of the mainstream political classes. He has identified and given a voice to the feeling a lot of people in this country have had that there is no point in voting. It is not surprising that people feel there is ‘no point’ if they want a green government, if they believe in proportional representation or if they disagree with neo-liberal economic policies. Brand pointing this out on Newsnight in 2013 attracted a lot of criticism.
Brand represents a new phenomenon – grass-roots politics using non traditional media platforms to broadcast, publish and interact with their audience. Brand is now a one-man (with a great team behind him I’m sure) politics machine with a book (Revolution), a film (The Emperor’s New Clothes), 9m+ Twitter followers and over 1m subscribers to his now 300+ video channel. This makes the comedian, actor, broadcaster and activist a politically powerful person. His YouTube channel is dedicated to analysing contemporary culture and the way the mainstream media reports on it. He has supported activists fighting for affordable housing (amongst other things) and has been involved in internet arguments with Fox News on numerous occasions.
His YouTube videos, his book, his film and his perspectives have, however, been mocked by media outlets of all political persuasions so when Miliband was ‘spotted’ leaving Brand’s house (and ‘Trews HQ’) on Monday night, press speculation went into overdrive. Cameron declared that ‘hanging out’ with Brand made Miliband ‘a joke’ and most of the press united in treating the fact that Brand had interviewed the leader of the Labour party as something quite ridiculous. The general tone was dismissive at best and much of the commentary ended up being nothing more than personal attacks on Brand and his troubled past.
When reading and listening to the mainstream news media this week there was a clear sense that Brand has stepped outside the position ‘allowed’ to him. Being a celebrity, a state educated Essex boy, a womaniser or an ex-addict shouldn’t stop him having a political voice but perhaps it is not just his personality and background that offends. Brand is a clear indication that the mainstream media’s power is slipping away. The ‘old boys’ network of political power held by the BBC and print media journalists is being eroded and their dismissal of Brand feels like the media establishment desperately trying to drown out any challenge to its dominance. Cameron may not have grasped this yet but Miliband, Bennett and Lucas have. Power in politics may have to be shared more as more political voices are heard. The mainstream media may have to accept it is losing it’s position of power to multiple voices using multiple platforms for debate, discussion and, in some cases, dissent.
Here is the Miliband interview
… and Brand’s discussions with Bennet and Lucas from the Green Party
In the spirit of balance, here is his take on The Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats and UKIP.