At the ‘i’ debate on Tuesday 11th March a panel of journalists from the Independent and i newspaper discussed whether or not, as Russell Brand suggests, a generation of students should give up on Westminster. I have always fallen on the ‘no’ side of this debate, believing that everyone should always involve themselves in politics as much as possible, even just through the very basic medium of voting. My argument rested on the fact that deliberately avoiding politics doesn’t mean that politics doesn’t affect you – after all, governmental policies will have an influence on your life whether you engage with them or not. Simply boycotting the polling booth does nothing for anyone.
However, since the debate I have reconsidered this position. The main pull of Westminster is that it is presented as the only real seat of power, and the only place where voice really has any meaning. As such we are conditioned to believe that change cannot be effected unless it’s happening on the benches of the House of Commons. Charities, journalism, direct action and campaigning are all very well, but compared to the pomp and might of Parliament they still seem small-scale, practically amateur. Those looking for a serious alternative to Westminster as a way of advocating change will find few legitimate avenues to go down.
So whilst I’m not saying we should give up on politics, maybe it is time to give up on Westminster. Fundamentally it is a bloated elitist institution filled with middle-aged white men who went to Oxbridge. And that doesn’t look like it’s going to change anytime soon. Supporters of the current system praise its historical values and its traditions of democracy, but how democratic is it really? Women, minorities, the young; they are all under-represented in parliament. The difference between the current parties can be reduced to what colour tie their leaders are wearing, rather than any real ideologically-driven policy divide.
There’s been talk of moving Parliament out of London into the North, possibly relocating to Birmingham. This would go some way to changing the Westminster mind-set and culture, but not enough. If young people want to prove that they are politically motivated, but just disillusioned with the Westminster bubble then we should do something truly revolutionary – form a party to represent the disengaged youth, set up our own Parliament in Camden or Manchester. If we can’t force Parliament to change through conventional means, then we need to effect that change ourselves. So yes – get voting, get campaigning, get political, but also get radical about reform. It’s time we found a different way to govern our country – and it shouldn’t be through Westminster.
It can often seem like Westminster politics is an unchangeable bastion of inherent inequality. The leader of each of the three major parties looks nearly identical to the white, middle class man next to him and each has worked since graduation on a career whose apex we are currently witnessing. It’s no wonder in such circumstances that the cries for revolution of characters such as Russell Brand start to seem appealing. But be warned: our generation giving up on Westminster is not the answer to the problems that politics presents us with.
It is a myth that ignoring Westminster will force them to deal with our concerns. This is apparent when you realise that the young have been ignoring Westminster for decades. The 18-25 turnout in 2010 was only 44 per cent, one of the lowest of any demographic. It is this apparent apathy that is then reflected in policy. While our tuitions fees have risen, our grandparents, no matter how wealthy they are, get their TV licence waived, receive a winter fuel allowance and could get their council tax reduced. This is unsurprising when you consider that 76 per cent of over 65s turn out at elections. While the desire to criticise Westminster may be genuine, simply ignoring it will only confirm its power.
While not voting projects an apathy that may not be reflective of the young’s true dissatisfaction with British politics, participating in the Westminster political system doesn’t have to reflect a complicit attitude to its practices. The idea of fighting from the outside and the inside is one we are all familiar with. By engaging with their system, we compel the political elite to engage with us. However, it is still possible to criticise, even while participating. This is why it is only a duality of attack that can prompt real change in our political system. Participating in the system legitimates us as critics of it, while criticising it from the inside actively reduces its legitimacy.
If we give up on Westminster politics, all that will happen is that Westminster politics will continue to give up on us. We will continue to see tuition fees rise, our debt sold to private companies and will never be able to buy property. If we engage with Westminster, we show that we understand their system and that our criticism is not simply the ignorant revolutionary whim of youth. It is only by participating in democracy that you can make real political change. To do anything else would be to undermine the principles we are so desperate to defend.