One of my favourite ever Daily Mail think-pieces saw a journalist argue – line by line, and over 1,214 words – with the John Lennon song Imagine. To call the exercise a category mistake doesn’t begin to cover its madness. It’s like watching someone taking issue with a cloud, or doing judo against relativity.
Take a look: “Lennon disposes of property with: ‘Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can.’ This is, of course, the old discredited communist dream … Sadly, when it was tried, that particular concept gave us Mao Tse-tung, Stalin and Pol Pot.” There’s more. So much more. “‘Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for. And no religion too.’ So goodbye to nation states then, obviously an outdated concept. Mr Lennon envisages a world without inconvenient national barriers. But strangely enough, people out there stubbornly cling to them, and for good reason …”
Anyway, disagreeing with Russell Brand always feels like you’re dangerously close to being That Guy. Saying “Hey Russell, don’t tell the kids not to vote because disengagement has historically always been exploited” feels not a million rhetorical miles away from explaining to Lennon that imagining there’s no countries is little more than some EU bureaucrat’s wet dream.
Still, fair play to Ed Miliband for having a crack at it.
Arguably the boldest move of this preposterously defensive campaign so far – and that tells its own depressing story – the Brand/Miliband encounter is probably as close as we are going to get to what the Americans call an October surprise. A splashy news event in the final stage of an election campaign deliberately designed to swing it one way. In the US in 1972, Henry Kissinger declared peace was at hand in the Vietnam war. In Britain in 2015, Miliband climbed the stairs to Brand’s flat and explained that, actually, with respect, the creation of the NHS had been quite an important thing. Don’t let anyone tell you it was the politics that got small.
“Since suffrage, since the right to vote,” wondered Russell rhetorically, “what has meaningfully occurred?” Nothing much, he seemed to reckon.
“That’s just totally wrong,” replied Ed patiently, not for the last time.
“Go on mate,” said Russell, allowing Ed to list fripperies such as workers’ rights, the health service, minimum wage, gay rights, the Equal Pay Act …
His view, Ed said, was that “progress comes from people demanding change, politics responding – not all the way – and people pushing for that change to carry on”. And he wanted buy-in from Russell on this. “Do you accept my fundamental point?” “The NHS, yeah, the NHS, of course these things are important.”
Apart from a fairly woolly section on bankers, though, the main draw was a bit on Rupert Murdoch. “There’s no love lost between me and him,” declared Russell, who may have slightly overestimated his ranking on the News Corp overlord’s shitlist.
That said, he did his best to climb a few spots. “I hope it doesn’t sound adolescent,” he began to Ed.
“I’m sure it won’t,” lied Ed.
“But if Rupert Murdoch has this kind of power, this kind of voice, and you are the prime minister of Britain, can’t you just go: right, I’m prime minister now and we’re passing some legislation that means monopolies are going to be significantly broken up. Is that kind of thing possible?”
Well, said Ed, Labour’s manifesto did talk about media ownership. But anyway, “these people are less powerful than they were”. He’d spoken out against Murdoch, he reminded Russell. And just in case we didn’t get it the first time: “He’s much less powerful than he used to be.”
Oof. I think Rupert allows you just the one “less powerful”. Two, and he releases the flying monkeys. Wednesday’s Sun splash was MONSTER RAVING LABOUR PARTY. Thursday’s will simply state NOW ED KILLS KITTENS FOR ISIS.
Labour clearly judges the gamble to be worth it, and anyway, no one in any of the other parties seems to have any better ideas as to how to reach the Great Uninterested. Brand has been designated the community leader of people who are disengaged with politics by other people who do not really understand why the first group of people are disengaged with politics but think they ought to try in a way that doesn’t take too long.
Asked to explain the encounter at a press conference on Wednesday morning, Miliband pointed to the fact that there are 7 million people who are not registered to vote. Maybe it would have been better to reach out to them before the deadline to register passed 10 days ago. Still, that’s celebrities for you. You work on their clock, not civilian time, as anyone who’s ever sat for eight hours in a hotel lobby waiting for Mariah Carey to feel ready to be interviewed will attest.
For now, Miliband seemed to want Brand to adjust his expectations of how change actually happens and has done so historically. “I’m not looking for euphoria,” he explained. “I know that sounds a bit weird. You don’t want politicians saying ‘vote for me and on day one the world will be transformed’. It ain’t going to be like that. It ain’t going to be like that.”
And you ain’t going to be saying “ain’t” anymore once you get in your car after this interview. Still, there are a few more Trews days until the election, so Labour will be hoping the real October surprise will be some sort of Russell Brand endorsement for their guy. And if Brand does end up telling his followers next week that, actually, it’s vaguely worth their while to vote after all, despite everything he has said before, then let’s just realise that it’s all a journey or whatever.
His conclusion for now? “I think it shows a lot about Ed Miliband that he was prepared to come around here.”
And that is a statement on which surely everyone on all sides of this really only mildly unconventional moment in British politics can agree. Albeit for many different reasons.
This article was written by Marina Hyde, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 29th April 2015 16.13 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010