I asked him about whether spoiling your ballot really changes anything and why people should listen to the political opinions of someone best known for presenting <i>Tool Academy</i>.
He's a tall, thirty-something bloke with designer stubble who started out as a TV presenter on E4, and now he's written a book about politics. So far, so Russell Brand.
But while Brand had an underprivileged and troubled youth that led him to drug abuse, Rick Edwards spent some of his formative years boning up on books at Cambridge. Maybe because of that, he has a different way of looking at the problem of modern politics and why so many "young people" (he says the phrase makes him cringe) are disillusioned and disenfranchised.
Edwards reckons that, instead of not voting at this year's General Election, like Brand suggested, anyone who doesn't feel represented by any political party should make their voice heard, choosing "None of the Above" – also the title of his new book – by spoiling their ballot paper at a polling booth on 7th May. But when I met him at a coffee shop just down the road from his house in Kentish Town, he also admitted that "being known as a youth TV presenter, doing shows like Tool Academy and Made in Chelsea end of season parties," means that chipping in like this might not be an obvious thing for him to do. We chatted about voting, spoiling your ballot, and why disaffected young people should listen to the opinions of a yet another white guy with a pretty sweet life.
VICE: You say the book isn't a reaction to Russell Brand, but why did you write it?
Rick Edwards: I did a TED talk about getting young people voting and spoke to quite a lot of young people over the course of researching that. I realised that one of the big problems was a lack of simple, clear information. They all wanted it, but didn't know where to find it. So I said, "Maybe I'll try and write it down". And I did. I do touch upon what Russell's been doing and I think he's had a really positive effect on the political conversation.
But he refuses to vote, and you disagree with that.
I do disagree with that. What he was saying is, "if there's no one worth voting for, then don't vote". But, as the title of the book strongly suggests, I'm in favour of a "none of the above" option. At the moment, spoiling your ballot is a kind of "none of the above" option, but I think people don't really realise that this is a valid thing to do. It's a way of saying, "Actually, what I'm being offered isn't good enough." And it will be counted.
Rick's TED talk
But even if people do spoil their ballots, it's hard to see how that would actually change anything, isn't it?
56 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds didn't vote in 2010, and I don't think anyone took those non-votes as a protest. This time, if a similar number don't vote, it's not going to be attributed to what Russell has said. And that's the problem – if you just don't vote, it's easy to get written off as apathetic and you get ignored.
But if, say, 3 percent of people spoil their ballot, that's a lot of people [about 1.4 million, based on the size of the electorate in 2010]. At the very least, that would tell the political class that something is seriously amiss, because you can't write all those people off. It would be a wakeup call.
Spoiling your ballot is a more active expression of dissatisfaction than not voting. Look at the reasons people give for not voting: feeling their vote doesn't make a difference, thinking all the parties are the same, not having enough information, not thinking the parties represent their views; only a small proportion say it's because they're not interested. In my view it's important to break up that group of people who aren't voting and not just lump them into one homogenous mass of apathy. I don't think that's right.
You went to private school, then Cambridge. You lead a manifestly privileged life. You're also 35 – so the vast majority of the people you're speaking to aren't like you. Why should they listen to what you've got to say?
I guess there's no particular reason that they should. Except, in terms of not being informed, that used to be me. Up until two or three years ago, I wasn't politically engaged. I voted, but I guess it was out of a sense of duty and because it was just a thing that you did. Hopefully that has helped me to come from a perspective that's not too dissimilar from the people I hope will read it.
There are obviously people who are better qualified to write a book about politics than me. But hopefully people who wouldn't read a book written by a politics expert or a political journalist might read this book, because they know me from Tool Academy or whatever.
In the book you encourage people to join a political party and "change it from the inside" or start their own movement. But you also point out that UKIP was founded in 1993, and still hasn't won a seat at a General Election – change takes a long time. On that basis, a 20-year-old starting a political party this year isn't going to have any serious effect on politics until they're middle aged.
Yeah, but I don't think it necessarily will follow the same pattern. If you look at Spain with Podemos, that was formed in 2011 or 2012 [although the official launch of the party was actually just four months before European elections in October 2014] and it won a significant amount of votes [8 percent]. And look at the Italian fella as well.
Yeah, again it started from zero and went on to win a lot of votes within a short space of time. [Grillo founded Movimento 5 Stelle in 2010. In 2013 it was the single largest party in Italy's lower house with 26 percent of the vote.] That can happen now with social media. But you're right, it's not like you can say: "Start your own political party and then at the next election everything will be fine."
Even if there are different parties with different policies, doesn't the system mean that the important ones will always act in a certain way – a way that a lot of people hate? And the ones who don't behave like that can't be taken seriously. That painful interview with [Green Party leader] Natalie Bennett suggests that even if they have good ideas, articulating them is impossible within the normal parameters of the debate and they end up looking like mugs. That or they really are mugs, so why bother?
The Natalie Bennet example is interesting. Obviously that interview was quite difficult to listen to – and I'm sure for her to be involved in – but the problem she had was that she wasn't as polished as we're used to seeing politicians in those situations. That's unlikely to change, they'll always be good talkers, good at arguing, but there's no reason you can't have people who are adept in those situations from very different backgrounds and with very different viewpoints.
Whatever the background, politicians will still be people who avoid questions and don't give straight answers. Do we just accept that? Is that the media's fault?
Occasionally you'll hear that the media is somehow to blame for the obfuscation of politicians – I don't really buy that. Obviously it would be amazing if it was a Liar Liar setup where they constantly told the truth, or at least had to give direct answers to everything, but realistically you just have to accept that is unlikely. Anyone who came out and started doing that would be very brave, but that's not to say it couldn't happen.
You say in the book that you don't want to tell people how to vote, but what you write about Nigel Farage makes it clear that you're not going to vote for UKIP, and what you write about welfare and the left's stance on LGBT issues strongly suggests that's where your own sympathies lie. Isn't it dangerous to set yourself up as a neutral source of information to help less informed people make up their minds – your own prejudices and views are inevitably going to influence them?
I tried very hard to be non-partisan. I have no interest in telling people who to vote for because it's clearly not my place to say. Any time I say, "Those on the Right would argue that..." I balance that with, "Those on the left would say this..." All I can say is that I've done my best to be neutral and hopefully people won't read it and think, "Ah, but he's subtly telling me to do this!" That's certainly not the idea.
I'm sure it's not, but subconsciously you might have let your own views seep through.
Because I work for the BBC doing a political programme [Free Speech on BBC3], one of the main focuses when me, my editor and my colleagues read through the book was to make sure that it felt even-handed. I'm very happy that it does, to be honest.
When the General Election rolls around on 7th of May, are you going to do what the title of the book says and spoil your ballot?
No, no. I think I know who I'm going to vote for. I think I know who represents my views most closely. So I won't need to spoil my ballot.
But you won't reveal who that is?
No. No. No.
That's a politician's answer...
Yeah... No, it's actually just an I-don't-want-to-get-fired-from-the-BBC answer! [laughs]
Okay, thanks Rick.