In the land of Twitter Russell Brand goes by the name of @rustyrockets. I wonder if that self deprecating metaphor might be better applied to those parts of the press that take such delight in saying how awful and how irrelevant to real debate he is. For they are the ones misfiring left right and centre, fighting for their survival, gasping to hold on to influence even as they feel it slipping away, while someone like Brand effortlessly makes the weather form around him.
Now I loathe the celebrity culture more than most. Reality TV, Simon Cowell Inc, crap magazines telling me A list Celeb A shared a bed with B list Celeb B while C List Celebs C and D have new tattoos on their arse are of zero interest to me. But Brand is a celeb with a difference. He has political antennae, something close to a worldview, and he connects with groups of people and motivates people in a way that few politicians seem able to.
I first became aware of him many years ago when my daughter told me she and her friends were hanging around his house, round the corner from ours, after school. He then moved away but came back into our lives when, at a time he was getting big and the press were starting to turn him into a Public Enemy, a mutual friend called me and asked if I would see him to discuss how to deal with newspapers which are hellbent on hate and destruction.
Readily I did so, and told him the story of a conversation John Prescott and I had around 1999 and 2000 when we realised we had both reached a position of genuinely not caring what newspapers thought or said about us. I cared what they said about Tony Blair and the government, but only if it prevented us from doing the things we wanted to, and my own profile, good or bad, did not really fall into that category. Once I stopped giving a damn what they said, it was liberating. It was the beginning of an approach rooted in the idea that all you can control is what you say and do, not what others say and do about it. This is a trend now accelerated by social media in which Brand is something of a star.
I have no idea if Brand adopted a changed approach thereafter but he has always struck me as someone with a very good sense of who he is, what he wants to achieve, and how. Not many people can claim to be actors, writers, comedians and activists, and very good at all of it, on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond.
There is another reason I am drawn to him and that is his experience of, and shared interest in, mental illness, in his case all manner of damaging addictive behaviours.
Like Ed Miliband, I have crossed the Brand threshold of his East London home. It is a lot funkier than the NW3 place that used to attract my daughter and her friends. Like Ed, I sat down with him and discussed politics. He was particularly keen to have a go at me about Iraq, and TB’s motivations. I was particularly keen to challenge him on his view, expressed when he was interviewed by – and more than held his own with – Jeremy Paxman, that voting made no difference. He didn’t change my mind about TB. I think I may have changed his about voting because afterwards I started to notice him changing his tune to the point of saying he wished he hadn’t said that, but he stood by everything else.
Since then, out on the speaking circuit, I have found myself mentioning Brand fairly often, saying I think he is wrong ever to advocate opting out of the democratic process, but right on a lot that he says about what politics and business have become. The need for revolution as it is commonly understood may be overstating things but that millions of people feel politics does not quite work, and our current economic model does not quite work, is surely beyond dispute. People like Brand can stir that up well, and actually to good not bad effect. Change can come in many ways, with many influencers along the way.
The interview we did was for a piece he was doing about the very subject of disengagement. In his last book, Revolution, he revealed that after I left his producer bollocked him – he thought Brand gave me too easy a ride because he was taken in by my shared love of a claret and blue football team and a shared zeal to improve understanding and services for mental illness.
But actually what I saw was someone who had certain strong principles and fixed views, but around them was fascinated by the views of others. We then did a slot for his online news chat, The Trews, where he looks at the newspapers with a guest. I was amazed how many people I bumped into in the next few weeks who had seen it. Any doubts about the reach of Brand were dispelled.
He also asked me if I thought he could persuade the party leaders to talk to him about politics. I was sceptical but told him how to make an approach to all of them. And I for one was glad when I heard Ed Miliband had said yes.
The papers today, rusty rockets firing and fulminating, are predictable in their outrage. But hidden within that outrage is a reality they cannot ignore – the story is on their front pages because what Ed Miliband says and does really really matters right now, because he may be a few days from being Prime Minister. And what Russell Brand says and does matters more than what the Sun, the Mail, the Telegraph, the Times, the Star and the Express are going to say on Election Day. Because anyone who has read them over the years could write it before they do. Predictable. Boring. Often nasty. Often wrong.
And if their readers believed it all, frankly Labour would be at around five per cent in the polls and Miliband’s ratings hovering just above the toilet. Just as if Scotland had voted in the referendum according to press coverage, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon would now be nothing more than footnotes of recent years rather than change-makers.
It is neither good nor bad that a young disaffected voter is more likely to listen to Russell Brand than Rupert Murdoch or Paul Dacre’s minions. It just is. And it is a good thing not a bad thing. Because it means old corrupt power structures are breaking down. That is why they rage ever louder, their growing impotence clearer with every howling shriek.
Russell Brand won’t decide the outcome of the election. The politicians will, by what they say and do, and above all the public will, by what they make of what the politicians say and do. It is why I suspect a nation groaned today as we heard or read that David Cameron would pass a law to keep him to his promises on tax. If ever there was a way to signal he broke them last time, he just did it. He has fought without doubt the worst campaign I can recall and it seems to get worse day by day. He didn’t deserve to win in 2010 and deserves it even less now.
And how predictable was his reaction on hearing Miliband had met Brand? ‘Brand is a joke and Miliband is a joke for seeing him.’ Whereas seeing Jeremy Clarkson or Katie Hopkins, or putting Karren Brady in the Lords to preside over half-baked small business PR stunts, or making Z-list celebs a ‘czar’ for this or a ‘czar’ for that, or sending best wishes to Tim Sherwood when he is made manager of phoney Dave’s claret and blue ‘team,’ that is all fine.
I have no idea, beyond what Ed has told me and what I have seen trailed, how the Brand interview will come out. But a few things I can be sure of. The Sun, Mail etc will rubbish it. More people will watch it than will watch any of the 24 hour news coverage that rolls like a lifeless blancmange over our TV screens from morning to night, and for every person who buys the Sun-Mail line and asks ‘why on earth is Miliband talking to that clown?’ a lot more will say ‘good on him,’ and think that the whole thing was good for Ed, good for Brand and good for politics.
As for the idea that it sets Brand up as some kind of serious commentator on politics, he already was. That is why it is Cameron, Murdoch and Dacre who are the jokes here, not Brand and certainly not Miliband.
Vote Labour and get this man, the worst and least strategic PM of our lifetime, out. Days to go. Can’t wait.