“Taking a risk, having a punt, having a go – that pumps me up!” declared Prime Minister David Cameron during a particularly energetic appearance at a rally last Monday. I wonder if he was feeling pumped up as he watched his rival for No10 taking a seat in Russell Brand’s kitchen to give an interview for the comedian’s YouTube channel – for it certainly represented a significant risk.
Why, you ask, was it a risk for a left-wing political leader to be interviewed by a left-wing celebrity? Well, Brand is probably the most divisive figure in the world of politics. The comedian-cum-activist blends a commitment to particular causes, such as more affordable housing, with an almost-jarring apathy with the whole model of representative democracy – infamously advocating not voting during an interview with Jeremy Paxman.
His unique message tends to be mocked by many of the political elite; even Miliband’s right-hand man Ed Balls referred to Brand as a “pound shop Ben Elton” whilst Cameron disparagingly called the comedian a “joke” for implying that voting was a waste of time.
But many have argued that his comments to Paxman back in 2013 sparked a national discussion about how we engage in politics, and it was evident that his remarks struck a chord with many outside our Westminster bubble.
Therefore to ignore Brand is to make a fundamental mistake. The man is hugely influential and commands mass appeal. He has nearly 10 million followers on Twitter and The Trews – Brand’s dedicated YouTube channel regularly draws hundreds of thousands of views. Of course, the 15 minute segment published on The Trews last week is not a vintage piece of cross-examination, but if it reaches out to a section of the electorate that feel disillusioned by mainstream politics, then it represented a calculated gamble that paid off.
In the end, Miliband himself gave a reasonable performance, coming across as a little awkward but certainly passionate and most importantly authentic. Some commentators have criticised him for adopting Brand’s speaking style at times, at one point saying “it ain’t goin’ to be like that”. But in reality, Miliband’s approach represented someone nuanced enough to understand that playing with a straight bat and refusing to engage with Brand would have achieved little.
The interview is illustrative of the broader campaign that Miliband is running. From giving a statesmanlike address during his party’s manifesto launch, to taking the viral sensation that was the #Milifandom in his stride, he has shown a willingness to adapt his messages to engage across the varied electorate. This is matched with an upward shift in his approval ratings; in contrast to a year ago, the more the public see of him, the better they think he is.
Miliband and the Labour strategists are acutely aware of the value of the young vote on May 7th - the party are anxious of losing the left-wing vote in tight marginals to idealists like the Greens, and need to make up as much ground as possible. The interview may have gone some way to achieving that – securing positive headlines and injecting vital momentum as the weary campaign approaches its final few days.
Some commentators, including one of our own, have noted that conducting the interview before voter registration closed would have been a shrewd move – and Miliband will hope that beyond the media noise his message cuts through to those able to cast their ballot on Thursday.
It is an irony that many of Brand’s followers, far from being anti-political, are among the most engaged. They are overwhelmingly young, and care about issues ranging from tuition fees to inequality, and the rights of women and the gay and lesbian community. They protest against the housing crisis, the inaction on the environment and a host of other important issues.
To mock Brand, as many of the elite have, risks delegitimising all those who are supportive of his views. Many of his fans will choose to not exercise their democratic right because they feel deeply disillusioned with mainstream politics and sceptical about the ability of the mainstream parties to enact meaningful change. Miliband took a bold leap to reach out to this group with his interview - he should be commended for his bravery.
UPDATE: BRAND CALLS ON HIS FOLLOWERS TO VOTE FOR LABOUR