The Right to Vote in a Rigged Game

First published by New Left Project on 20th November 2013.

Russell Brand has recently made comments about the parliamentary process in the UK, specifically shortcomings in that process. During those comments he suggested that people shouldn’t vote because it has no effect within the current system. His comments have started a debate in the media and some [1] are taking his side whilst others are taking the opposite [2] position. Within the debate that has followed, Brand has been accused of several things, not least of all being labelled floundering, irritating, largely idiotic, and a Nazi [3]. In addition to this, his credibility has been questioned due to widely reported [4] allegations of him sexually harassing a co-worker. Russell Brand is part of an industry that systematically uses images and narratives that diminish, degrade and endanger half the population [5]. However their credibility in political discourse is rarely if ever questioned based on these behaviours. Brand’s political statements and his behaviours require different responses. The allegations of sexual harassment should be investigated and followed by criminal proceedings if found to be true, preferably in a non-patriarchal judicial process if one can be found. Equally his claim that the electoral process is systematically flawed must be examined if we are to accept the received wisdom that we live in a democracy.

In his article in the Guardian following the Newsnight interview Brand wrote “the impact of voting is negligible” and that he “fervently” believes “that we deserve more from our democratic system than the few derisory tit-bits tossed from the carousel of the mighty” [6]. The assumptions that underpin Brand’s statements are not new as he himself self-deprecatingly admits. His comments and the responses to his comments reignite the argument that antagonistic classes no longer exist within society as apparently we are all middle class now. However, stepping back from this doctrinal position it is worth considering the wider context. Marx described class as “structured antagonisms and contradictions of interest” [7]. Which leads me to believe that Brand’s comments once again raises the questions, are there still ruling and subordinated classes in the UK? Are they in conflict in 2013?And perhaps most relevant to the question of democratic representation, are the subordinated classes systematically stopped from being able to realise power within the parliamentary process?

The UK government describes itself as “a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch”, in which “the people vote in elections for Members of Parliament (MPs) to represent them”. In that system government is made up of a Prime Minister and a Cabinet who are most of the time “directly accountable to Parliament”. However, the Royal Prerogative recognises certain powers to the Head of State and their proxy, the government. “Today, most prerogative powers are instead directly exercised by ministers, rather than the Crown. They relate to areas including … certain areas of foreign and defence policy … [and] are beyond the control of the House of Commons and the House of Lords” [8]. Within these powers, the monarch and the government maintain certain rights with neither oversight nor mandate from any other mechanism within the democratic process. Based on this alone one could perhaps argue that it appears that today, aspects of parliamentary power is not controlled by the majority of society’s collective will.

Based on that conclusion it is worth discussing the current incumbents. One of the most effective political parties in world politics based on holding elected office is the British Conservative party, currently the senior partner in the coalition government voted in to power in 2010 [9] with 59.1% [10] of the 65% [11] turnout of registered voters [12]. The combined vote of the coalition parties in the 2010 election was 28% of the total UK population, whilst the Conservative vote alone was 17.18% of the UK population [13]. Therefore it could be argued that the Conservative government had not received a mandate from nearly 83% of the total UK population. One could further claim that in light of the royal prerogative, the unrepresentative government empowered by a hereditary Monarch in the most extreme cases is beyond the oversight of any day-to-day democratic process. Once again suggesting that a discussion about society’s collective will as represented by parliamentary process is at the very least worth having.

To make the leap from the position that the current incumbents are without mandate to the position that the UK is a society where a ruling class historically directs the economic and political structures to subordinate the rest of the society one would have to demonstrate that the system in and of itself is constructed in such a way to achieve that over time. John Scott describes this as requiring a power bloc within a capitalist class that “is an alignment of social groups having some similarity in social background and experience and which are able to monopolise positions of authority within the state elite over a sustained period” [14]. In short, for a ruling class to exist the state must be controlled by a minority group who utilise the mechanisms of government in favour of that minority group’s interest from one generation to the next.

Scott argues that as early as the 18th century “the capitalist landed class was a ruling class because it dominated the membership of the power elite and was able to ensure that the British state was operated in the interests of landed property” [15]. Political reforms in the 19th century, specifically the 1830’s and 1860’s changed the system of government drastically, eventually culminating in a series of collectivised associations based on interests akin to the modern party political system. However we must remember that the voting reform act in 1832 [16] still meant that the majority of working men and all women still had no vote. That being said, the aristocratic power elite responded to “the rising power of the class of industrialists by colonising the emerging machinery of party politics”[17]. Marx would later respond to Palmerston’s Ministry of 1855, accused of being the most aristocratic administration in history, by noting that the Ministry contained “ten lords and four baronets”[18]. Although political reform was changing the structure of the state, government continued to be a forum for a ruling class.

To argue that systematic control of power existed and continued to exist until today, one would have to evidence a system that ensured that the wealthiest would be able to disproportionately purchase political power within the “democratic” system which in and of itself would weaken the political power of the masses. In 1860 the Clarendon Commission identified the best public schools in the country at the time as “Charterhouse, Eton, Harrow, Merchant Tailors, Rugby, St Pauls, Shrewsbury, Westminster and Winchester”[19]. Between 1830 and 1868 “almost half of all MP’s in the period had attended a public school, with about half of these being Harrovians or old Etonians”[20]. As well as being educated within a narrow socio-economic clique, a ruling class would need to demonstrate shared objectives in conflict with the interests of the wider society. In the final third of the 19th Century the major industrialists and the landed aristocracy were finding common cause, “both groups perceiving common interests in the face of the threat posed by the great mass of the working class”[21].

As the 20th Century began and the working classes increasingly collectivised their power, first in Trade Unions and then with parliamentary representation through the Labour party, the ruling elite further entrenched its position. The 1905 Conservative government cabinet contained 8 members from Eton, 2 from Rugby and 1 from Winchester; 9 had gone to Oxford University and 4 to Cambridge[22]. The ruling class, when confronted with the newly organised working classes, further embedded in the systems of state in order to prioritise their interests ahead of those of the majority of society. “In all areas of the state elite in 1905 … there was a considerable over-representation of … families with interests in industry, commerce and land”[23], and the interests that they were protecting, “the top 1% of the population at the time … held more than a half of the country’s total wealth”[24], whilst the top 5% held 82% of the countries total personal wealth[25].

The ground beneath the ruling class was becoming increasingly unstable as the contradictions of interest and class antagonisms Marx spoke of became realised. Millions of workers worldwide were collectivising and confronting their respective ruling classes. The Communist Manifesto described the historical precedents, “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another”[26]. Against this backdrop, the economic mechanisms of wealth disparity had also reached breaking point. The unregulated banking systems of the 19th Century had culminated in massive runs on the banks, further destabilising national and international economies, and prompting “the bank of England to develop it’s lender of last resort function, [where the Bank of England would] provide stricken banks with cash to stem the run”[27]. Under this system, when Banks owned by the wealthiest failed, the government run by the wealthiest would bail them out with taxes taken from the poorest.

The first half of the 20th Century would witness two revolutions in Russia, the Wall Street crash, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, a civil war in Spain and two World Wars [28] that have been estimated to have claimed the lives of between 60 [29] and 90 [30] million people. Throughout all of this turmoil the power bloc in the UK continued. Writing under the Pseudonym of Simon Haxey [31], Arthur and Margaret Wynn’s devastating analysis of the Conservative party in the 1930’s demonstrated how “the government, the civil service, the law and the military were all recruited from an extremely narrow class background [whilst] Conservative MP’s … were drawn from the wealthiest sections of society, many being millionaires or near-millionaires”[32]. The Wynns would go on to argue that Eton and Harrow were “the most important training-grounds for prospective conservative politicians”[33]. By 1938, and against the backdrop of the global turmoil and financial calamities the top 1% had managed to hold on to 55% of the total personal wealth in the UK whilst the top 5% were still holding 77%[34].

As the decades rolled on, so the political status quo continued. “Virtually all cabinet ministers between 1951 and 1964 had been to public schools”[35], roughly one third having been to Eton[36]. Beyond the cabinet, 68% of 1951’s total Conservative MP’s had been to public schools, this number would grow to 74% by 1970[37]. However the picture was different in economic terms. During that same time there had been a dramatic decline in the relative wealth of the richest. By 1970 the top 1% only held on to 30% of the total UK personal wealth, whilst the richest 5% were making do with 54%[38]. It could be argued that during the post war decades the parliamentary process was effectively taking steps to equalise society. However all that would change.

In 1979 the Conservative party would once again take office, this time under Margaret Thatcher and a cabinet a quarter of which where Old Etonians[39]. The rot the wealthiest found themselves in had to change and under the newly elected Power Bloc the relationship between government and the wealthiest would once again begin to flourish. According to Nick Cohen between 1985 and 1995, News International, effectively a family owned business run by the Oxford University graduate Rupert Murdoch[40], only paid £11.74 million in tax on profits of £1 billion earned over that period, equating to a 1.2% tax burden[41]. Furthermore, the anti-union laws enacted by the Thatcher administration in the early eighties allowed News International to sack nearly 5,500 skilled staff, cutting the wage bill by £45 million and effectively de-unionising production during the move from Fleet Street to Wapping with barely any legal recourse for the workers[42]. The power bloc was effectively setting the legislative framework to rebuild and once again begin increasing the disparity in wealth and power between the richest and the poorest.

Between 1979 and 2012[43], what would be termed the neo-liberal consensus, delivered increasing wealth disparity between the richest and the poorest[44], public sector spending[45] subsidising commercial takeovers[46] of the welfare state[47] and, perhaps most importantly, a culture where a subordinated majority [48] accept the derision and oppression [49] of a wealth-inheriting minority[50]. What appeared to be a shifting in the political sand in the election of the New Labour government in 1997 would turn out to be more of the same, with the Blair/Brown government committed to “no increase in income tax, sticking to conservative spending plans, accepting privatisation, dropping plans for a charter of workers rights [and] retaining the Tories anti-union laws”[51]. Under the Labour and Tory governments between 1991 and 2002 the trend continued in the right direction again for the ruling class. The share of total personal wealth held by the top 1% went from 17% in 1991 to 24% in 2002 and the wealth held by the richest 5% went from 35% in 1991 to 45% in 2002[52].

The process would once again come full circle when the Conservative party would regain government in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Under old Etonian and Oxford University graduate David Cameron[53], the 2010 UK cabinet would re-establish a long-standing tradition in British politics, the power bloc. 69% of Cameron’s cabinet attended Oxford or Cambridge, 62% were educated in public schools, nine coming from those deemed best in the country in 1860; three from Eton, three from Westminster, and one each from St. Pauls, Rugby and Charterhouse [54]. Did the wealthiest support the electoral ambitions of the power bloc? “77% of [old Etonian and Oxford University graduate][55] Boris Johnson’s mayoral campaign in 2008 was funded by hedge funds, private equity firms and their managers”, swiftly followed “in the run up to the 2010 general election, [with] city funding for the conservative party … quadrupled”[56].

I have argued that by being rich enough to buy access to a specific educational journey the wealthiest are able to ensure an intergenerational hold on the levers of power in British society, which in turn has allowed them to, at best, grow their wealth, and at worst minimise any trend towards equality. In 2011 the average wage in England was £21,330 [57]. In the academic year 2012/13 annual boarders fees for Eton were£30,981[58]. In the years 2007 to 2009, Eton was among 5 schools that together had sent more students to Oxford and Cambridge [59] than the combined intake of 2,000 lower performing schools [60]. Historically, 26 British Prime Ministers, at least 30 international leaders, 49 Nobel Prize winners and at least 12 saints have taught or been taught at Oxford University [61]. Whilst the University of Cambridge’s alumni includes 15 British Prime Ministers, 30 international leaders, 10 Kings and Queens and six soviet spies [62].

Scott’s conclusion is “Britain is ruled by a capitalist class whose economic dominance is sustained by the operations of the state and in whose members are disproportionately represented in the power elite which rules the state apparatus”[63]. Rosemary Crompton made the argument in 2008 that “it still makes sense to describe late capitalist society as being dominated by a ‘ruling class’ which is economically dominant, and has the capacity to influence crucially political and social life”[64]. It is difficult not to conclude how voting in such a well oiled machine has little or no effect. In addition to which the UK appears to be a society where class exists and those classes are in direct conflict with one another as they have been for centuries, with or without excising the right to vote.

In drawing the information together for this article I have continuously been asking myself several questions. Do I agree with Russell Brand that voting has little or no discernible impact on the political lives of the majority of UK society?Do I believe that he has the right to question the systems of government and if so must his attitude to other issues be taken in to consideration when analysing his comments?

Firstly I believe that a small minority of the inherited wealthy has demonstrably controlled the systems of politics and terms of representation for over 150 years whilst the masses have been actively misguided in to thinking that they are in some way involved as anything more than spectators. The game is rigged and visibly so. The burden of the capitalist model is paid by the working majority whilst the benefits are accrued by the wealth inheriting minority. For the privilege of state controlled financial and political inequality, the non-wealthy are allowed to choose the colour of tie that their oppressor wears. And the cost of this privilege is not only to submit, but to do so quietly and gratefully. Universal suffrage has ensured little. It reminds me of the often misattributed quote [65] that democracy is like two wolves and a lamb voting on what’s for lunch. When I first heard it I thought it was simplistic and mildly amusing, now I have the nagging feeling that I’m on the menu.

In answer to the second question, I don’t think that any group has a monopoly on discussing the right to political representation. The whole principle of democracy is that everyone has the right to express opinion. I also believe that to belittle the commentator in order to draw attention from the comment is inherently dangerous in a society that alleges freedom of speech. The term Nazi is bandied around too easily, but the principles of Fascism in 20th century Europe were very much based on dehumanising and disempowering groups and individuals that thought, lived or behaved contrary to the oppressive institutions of elites. I am not a fan of Russell Brand, I don’t like his films, I don’t like his television programmes and I don’t like the way he talks about women on chat shows. However I do think there are far worse examples than Russell Brand of gender, economic and political oppression in the very foundations of our democracy. The fact that he has chosen to question the process of political power in the UK is welcome and democratic. In many ways it is these very sorts of provocative statements that draw attention to hidden totalitarian agendas.


[7] Who Rules Britain, John Scott (Polity Press, 1991)
[14] Who Rules Britain, John Scott (Polity Press, 1991) p118
[15] Who Rules Britain, John Scott (Polity Press, 1991) p57
[17] Who Rules Britain, John Scott (Polity Press, 1991) p60
[18] Who Rules Britain, John Scott (Polity Press, 1991) p26
[19] Who Rules Britain, John Scott (Polity Press, 1991) p113
[20] Who Rules Britain, John Scott (Polity Press, 1991) p62
[21] Who Rules Britain, John Scott (Polity Press, 1991) p61
[22] Who Rules Britain, John Scott (Polity Press, 1991) p127
[23] Who Rules Britain, John Scott (Polity Press, 1991) p130
[24] Who Rules Britain, John Scott (Polity Press, 1991) p81
[25] Poverty, wealth and place in Britain, 1968 to 2005, Dorling, D. et al. (Joseph Rowntree Foundation and The Policy Press, 2007) p18
[26] The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (Penguin Classics, 1985) P79
[27] Them and Us, Will Hutton (Abacus, 2011) p159
[32] Who Rules Britain, John Scott (Polity Press, 1991) p27
[33] Who Rules Britain, John Scott (Polity Press, 1991) p28
[34] Poverty, wealth and place in Britain, 1968 to 2005, Dorling, D. et al. (Joseph Rowntree Foundation and The Policy Press, 2007) p18
[35] Who Rules Britain, John Scott (Polity Press, 1991) p132
[36] Who Rules Britain, John Scott (Polity Press, 1991) p133
[37] Who Rules Britain, John Scott (Polity Press, 1991) p132
[38] Poverty, wealth and place in Britain, 1968 to 2005, Dorling, D. et al. (Joseph Rowntree Foundation and The Policy Press, 2007) p18
[39] Who Rules Britain, John Scott (Polity Press, 1991) p133
[41] Cruel Britannia, Nick Cohen (Verso,1999) p143
[42] Hidden Agendas, John Pilger (Vintage, 1998) p466
[50] Chavs, Owen Jones (Verso 2011)
[51] Them and Us, Will Hutton (Abacus, 2011) p143
[52] Poverty, wealth and place in Britain, 1968 to 2005, Dorling, D. et al. (Joseph Rowntree Foundation and The Policy Press, 2007) p18
[56] Them and Us, Will Hutton (Abacus, 2011) p182
[63] Who Rules Britain, John Scott (Polity Press, 1991) p151
[64] Class and stratification, Rosemary Crompton (Polity Press, 2008)