‘No Suitable Candidate’ or ‘To vote or not to vote in a negative democracy’

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I could be accused of missing the hype with this blog, following Russell Brand’s interview with Jeremy Paxman a fortnight ago, Paxman’s own admission that he didn’t vote in the last election, and various backlash commentaries such as that made by Robert Webb and others, ‘branding’ Brand as irresponsible and even dangerous.

But then, this issue doesn’t go away just because the flash in a pan media hype has died down following one interview with a high profile celebrity. I’ve been having this debate internally and with my peer group since the last election. My feeling is, many, many people have been having this debate since the last election, even if they don’t realise it. I say that because if you’ve ever seen the news or some political commentary and had even the slightest feeling of, ‘Oh this is all bullshit’ – you may not have realised it, but that means you are a disillusioned citizen, utilising your most natural judgement mechanism, your instincts.

We underestimate the power of our own instincts in a world where we are increasingly asked to trust others who ‘know better’ than we do. This is the usual defence position against the voice of dissent. We can see this exercised in the Brand/Paxman interview in the typical ‘journo’ way – challenge the authenticity, intelligence or coherence of the voice raising the objection. Politicians use it to dismiss massive popular rallies all the time. Hundreds and thousands of people turn up to the countries capital to protest about the general cosy state of politics and big business, and are greeted simply by the line ‘What’s the alternative?’ The implication being that none of these people are either capable or coherent enough to articulate their dissatisfaction in a constructive manner.

There are a few problems with this argument. Firstly, it just isn’t true. At the one major rally I attended in London, the streets were awash with pledges and demands, printed in leaflets and with supporting websites to offer more detail. The message was, at the time, that we need to start with claiming the tax owed by massive corporations (rather than do the opposite and bail them out), before we start taking services and money away from the most vulnerable in our society. “But what’s the alternative?” they said. Well… that.

Secondly, how are groups of like-minded people who genuinely believe they’ve got no choice or chance using the current electoral process to affect any meaningful change, meant to construct alternatives and offer these to the wider population if they don’t have the ear of the media or the resources with which to do this? Let’s not pretend that it’s as simple as paying your deposit and standing for election in your local area. Inherent bias exists in the electoral system as it is, let alone the addition of millions of pounds of outside funding to the major parties which ensure they can field candidates in most constituencies, buy prime media column inches and airtime, and already hold ‘the high ground’ as it were. Before the last election, it was generally assumed that although the Liberal Democrats were looking strong, it was a near impossibility that they could actually win the election because of the inbuilt bias. As it happened, they became an ineffectual bit part player in a coalition, and have as a result, destroyed their own voter base (and try to find someone who disagrees with that prognosis). So no – if some of the oldest and most established parties in British politics are unable to make an impact, how are we, the unorganised electorate, even meant to do so in any kind of dynamic and immediate way? I suppose if you have a spare few hundred years to go at and a trust fund or wealthy benefactor somewhere you could do it, but that’s hardly dynamic and immediate, and many people feel that the crisis is already upon us.

On a more philosophical point of view, it is hard to see how we can ever expect our leaders to genuinely try and deal with the ‘problem’ of disaffection and distrust in the whole system, when they refuse to acknowledge there is one. Yes, they go on TV and Radio and say reassuring things like – “we know it’s a massive problem engaging people with politics, and we want to be seen to be doing this” – but putting words aside, we can just look at the evidence, look at the faces in the cabinet and commons, look at the statistics and biographies, and there we have it. A tight knit, interconnected group of people, in both parliament and the media, and even the judiciary, who hail from a narrow social background, closely linked to wealth and status of family members and peers. It is laid bare, we’re not making it up.

Another philosophical point of view when it comes to the actual act of voting is that of consent. As a collective we are providing a mandate, a 5 year contract, each time we go to the polls, irrespective of whether we want any of the options available. Remember, we don’t actually have any rights to terminate the contract or change any aspects of it during that period, we have to rely on opposition MPs for that, who we also don’t have any power to change during the term. What’s more, we don’t really know what the contract is, as pledges are notoriously, laughingly, different from what actually happens when parties are elected. What kind of a deal is that?

But, because of the clever constructs of our democracy, to not vote has no impact on any of this. The counter-argument to not voting is that it makes the democratic sample smaller, and makes it even easier for ‘them’ to win. But hang on, I don’t want to exercise my one power in the world that is meant to represent my whole ethos and opinions about how things could be simply by voting out what I don’t want – I would quite like to approach this with the view of voting in something that I think closely represents my views. This negative democracy model is hardly an argument that implies a working system, constantly retreating away from bad choices and hoping that the previous bad choice has magically become a good choice in the meantime, and so going back to it ad infinitum.

So to conclude, I want to offer some alternatives that may help ‘kick-start’ the process of creating pressure in a way that can’t be branded  as apathy. I just can’t accept the negative ‘vote them out’ ideology as my driving principle for talking part in this democracy, and I also don’t believe that any current party actually capable of gaining power (thanks to the inherent bias) is suitable to do so. Therefore, these three options seem to present themselves:

1.            Just don’t vote (and as discussed above, be accused of apathy, and potentially just make it easier for the system to maintain itself in its current form)

2.            What I like to call ‘Don’t Vote +’ – Don’t vote, but instead, find a way to register your reason for not voting in a coherent way. Ideally some kind of petition. This will of course mean someone setting this up. For example – a new petition called “No suitable candidates”. If this was done right, we could potentially show that more of us didn’t vote for this reason than did vote. It isn’t official, and doesn’t guarantee anything, but I think it may help satisfy people who don’t want to be branded apathetic, but don’t want to take part in the negative democracy model we seem to be part of.

What would they do if this happened? I guess that during the process they would discredit it and try and multiply the available petitions to ‘water down’ the impact. But presuming that can be overcome, they would be faced, as would the country (presuming the media reported it) with a natural democracy – outside of the system but expressing the view of a section of society all the same, maybe even a majority. Perhaps they would then  introduce official ‘No suitable candidate’ boxes to mitigate the loss of popular opinion this causes? It may be a start to a truly more accountable and representative version of politics, where we actually have the power to change manifestos and representatives before we vote them in, not after 5 years of wreck and ruin. The same approach could be done with a call for genuine ‘right to recall’ powers and other aspects that would help us be better represented. The important thing here is to match a no-vote during the time of the election with a principle – the petition must reflect this.

3.            Do vote – but vote for an independent or small party. This could have the affect of creating a rainbow cabinet (and we all like rainbows don’t we?) which dilutes the influence of the big three. I have some interest in how this might work, but my concern is that it would be hard to coordinate and you are limited to who is standing in your constituency. To try and harmonise this approach would be to try and launch a challenger party, which as I covered earlier, involves financial and influential factors not at our disposal. However, even just vastly cutting the number of the big three in the commons could potentially have a dramatic effect, and lead to better debate and compromise that suits local communities and a broader social range. This was akin to the promise of the coalition that never surfaced because it was a coalition of the established where we perhaps need a coalition of dissent.

So those are my options. It may be fairly obvious that option 2 seems my favourite at the moment, and I doubt I’m the only one to have thought of it, so hopefully I will find a petition I can back if I don’t feel I can vote at the next election in good conscience.

Just for the record, I have always voted before, this isn’t something I take lightly, and if you’ve got this far in the blog, it obviously isn’t something you take lightly either and I would be very interested to hear what option suits you, or your alternatives. Also, feel free to try and convince me why simply ‘voting out’ what I don’t want, in favour of something else I don’t want, is the way I should approach this, but I doubt you will succeed.

Thanks for reading.

The rise and demise of the boxed set?

This may not seem like a very important or cerebral blog, writing about the ‘telly’. But how shows get funded and distributed, and how that impacts our culture, probably is. Also, as a writer, I need to think about these kind of things. So here goes.

I recently signed up to the popular online TV and Film service Netflix, and it’s got me thinking about the way in which we consume entertainment and how this has changed over the years.

The thought struck me while I sat and watched another few episodes of Channel 4’s excellent ‘Peep Show’ and I realised that I was but a few episodes off having watched the whole available seven series in a matter of a few weeks.

‘Peep Show’ is one of those shows that I missed the first few series, dabbled in the middle, lost interest because I didn’t know the back-story, and vowed to “watch one day” if I could get my hands on a box-set from someone. It didn’t quite fit into the “I must watch this show so I will buy the box set” category, so for many years it seems, I just let it be a thing on the telly that I didn’t watch.

But then, at the start of this summer, I got reeled into a free-trial of Netflix and started perusing the available titles in this new digital treasure-trove of viewing pleasure, and what did I find? The first 7 series of Peep Show, all there, all waiting to be watched. No more ogling shiny boxes (actual boxes) in HMV while heading straight for the 3 for £10 DVD section (or even VHS, back when), the box set had come to me and unwrapped itself neatly into my TV screen alongside hundreds of others without the need for mass shelf storage solutions.

The good thing about watching a series in this way online is no adverts and no limits on viewing, meaning that in the time you may have watched a three hour film, you can basically watch a whole series of a show and not feel bad. Even better, you can watch the first episodes of a show you’ve never heard of or never considered before and not feel like you’ve wasted any money, which in the box-set days (actual boxes), really wasn’t an option for most of us. I doubt many people just wandered into HMV, picked up something they’d never heard of and spent a fair sum of money on buying the collected series, ‘just in case’ it was decent.

There may be some unfortunate side-effects. For several mornings following my Peep Show sessions, I have been haunted by the self-loathing voice of David Mitchell as I go about my day, floating in the back of my mind just like his inner voice-over that characterises the show.

“Shreddies again” he seems to say as I stare at my breakfast bowl “I bet Stalin didn’t start his day with Shreddies. I bet he told everybody else to start their day with Shreddies when secretly he was at the sugar-coated Frosties. Communism is many things, but when it comes to breakfast cereal, I think we can all agree it just doesn’t work…”

Eventually David (aka Mark Corrigan) floats away and my own internal dialogue returns. The funny thing is I never get Robert Webb’s voice (as Jez) reverberating around my psyche, encouraging me to shirk my responsibilities and shag everything that moves. I guess that makes me more ‘Mark’ then ‘Jez’, which is probably oh so true.

For those of you who have never watched Peep Show, I can assure you all that stuff I just said, that actually makes sense.

Anyway, it got me thinking about the way we consume TV and Film now. Before the days of Netflix and other such services, I just wouldn’t have taken a punt on the £50 it would cost to buy the box-set, and so, I would still be ignorant of what has become one of Channel 4’s longest running comedy shows (as a writer who dabbles in sit-com, I can actually scratch the Peep Show marathon up to ‘research’, which makes me feel slightly better about it).

It’s even got to the point where Netflix itself has funded and released the latest series of the brilliant ‘arrested development’ (admittedly, the latest series was not as brilliant as those before, but I still enjoyed it). So can we imagine a world where all TV is now released in one big batch load of episodes, ready to be watched whenever and however we want, with no advert breaks, and no need to trawl through the hundreds of channels whose schedules, quite often, do not suit yours?

I think it is quite easy to see a future where we consume our entertainment solely in this way, and all funding is made from direct subscription to the service. But then, what if one service has something that the other doesn’t? I’m going to presume this already happens between the likes of Netflix and Lovefilm. What if, for example, one or the other acquires the whole ‘Lost’ collection on an exclusive deal, and we end up with a Virgin vs. Sky situation where you have to choose your side or go all out mental, signing up for everything? It would be the TV equivalent to owning an X-Box, a Playstation and a Wii, just so that you never miss a new game release.

Presumably this would embody the frenzied competition culture that we live in. Whoever gets the best titles gets the most subscribers, but never enough so that one ‘wins’ over the other, or we end up in a monopoly situation. So actually, by encouraging consumer choice in these matters, and presuming that very few of us would go around signing up for every service, it is actually going to limit our viewing choices. This may push more of us into internet piracy, simply downloading our series for free because we aren’t willing to spend yet more money on unlocking access to a database somewhere…

It’s a tricky question, and one that I’m sure the BBC and private networks are pondering. The broadcast channels must remain relevant and offer the kind of quality that keeps us switching on alongside the instant-fix of streaming services, otherwise, how can they continue to survive? At a thought, only news and sport seems to be the kind of thing that most people wouldn’t be prepared to ‘watch again’ at a later date, but I certainly wouldn’t pay my licence fee for one channel constantly rotating between news and sport (though sometimes it feels like that anyway).

My concern is for good drama and ‘event’ TV. Just like the gamers who will rush out and buy the brand new shiny title on the day of release for a whacking great £40, rather than wait a month or two for it to come down in price, TV consumers, I think, will continue to watch exclusives on the normal broadcast channels, if they are good enough, exclusive enough, and worth the money. Just like movies going from cinemas to pay-per-view to DVD, and eventually to broadcast, TV series will have to get into a staggered pattern of release that we all understand and can look forward to.

Broadcast TV perhaps needs to become a kind of ‘cinema’ in your front-room, showing the latest episodes of new content, knowing that one day the whole lot will end up eventually on a streaming service, but basking in the time frame they have to absorb the revenue for exclusivity, afforded to them because they funded the production. But then – and this is where it gets tricky – do we only want sure-fire popular hits to be funded because of this arrangement? Maybe something like ‘country-file’ isn’t a big hitter with the younger generations, and I expect it is a no-no on the box-set front, but would we want to deny the target demographic their entertainment, just because it can’t be branded as an exclusive and cutting edge drama/comedy/action etc…?

One thing I’m sure of, the physical big shiny box-set (actual boxes) in the window display of HMV must be on its way out. I know there are a few peeps who still like to actually physically own the DVD/Blue Ray etc… But this isn’t vinyl records we are talking about where the media itself is worth the experience of owning for its subtle nuances. If you’re internet is fast enough to stream HD TV down the wires, is there really any need to start constructing walls of Box-Sets in your living room that contain exactly the same copy as online but are prone to physical damage?

So online box-sets in the form of streaming services, fed into by the broadcast media (who will have to try harder than ever to remain relevant and hopefully as a result produce some really good entertainment) seems to be the model we are heading towards. But I don’t know if it is working. When I do sit down at the end of a day and flick through the usual channels, more often than not, I am heading straight for series-linked recordings or switching straight over to Netflix to watch something I actually want to watch, rather than waiting for some scheduler to be broadcasting something I like at the exact time I have sat down. But for some reason, I still like the idea that they are there and occasionally, something makes me turn to them still, but less and less so.

Conclusions? No, not really. But soon, I think, they will be made by us without even realising it and we will look back at this multi-option viewing period of history and laugh, or cry, into our google glasses, as we walk around each day to a constant stream of braking bad, the wire and the soprano’s beamed directly into our memory banks from a USB stick in our ear.