Interview: Rick Edwards

Rick Edwards – BBC3 Free Speech presenter, funny guy and a solid 9/10 hunk (although that is kind of irrelevant) has now released a book on politics, ‘None Of The Above’ will allow you to be involved in those politically deep chats your democratically engaged friends are having around you.

#theNOTAbook (‘None Of The Above’) by Rick Edwards is written impartially to provide key information on all the main parties, including a helpful glossary for any political jargon you may need translating too. It’s aimed at ‘young people’, or those who need to get more clued up on the electoral process, and reminding everyone that each individual vote counts. It even comes with a helpful ‘ready to deface’ sticker for those of you that feel none of the current political parties represent what you believe in. Use it wisely.

So what inspired you to write a book about politics? Didn’t you write it in a two-month turn around?

Yeah I did. Unfortunately, it occurred to me a little later than it should’ve done. If I had thought of it six months ago it would’ve been quite a relaxing and enjoyable process. But it wasn’t, it was a bit of a nightmare [laughs]. But I’m glad I did it. It felt like the right thing to do because I’ve spent quite a lot of time, well I present Free Speech on BBC3, which is a young person’s Question Time, that’s what introduced me to politics in a serious way. I was not that politically engaged before.

But specifically talking to young people about issues they care most about. And then to make people aware that first of all, young people aren’t voting, and secondly, the consequence to that is that they’re being screwed over. Then I did a talk about how I thought, practically, you might be able to increase the youth voter turn out and then I started doing work with Bauer who are an amazing organisation trying to get young people to register, which is a real problem at the moment. The most significant thing was that I just talked to a lot of young people and the most common thing I heard was that they didn’t really know where they could find stuff out about politics. They weren’t really getting taught it in school and didn’t have access to, or know where to look or that kind of simple explanation, about what’s going on, what the parties stand for and so on. I just thought well why not have a crack at writing a book that tries to lay it out in simple terms and avoid jargon. Just to give people, if they want it and it does say in the book it’s necessary to be informed to have your vote. I think there are clearly a lot of people of all ages who don’t really know very much about politics that will vote, and I think that’s fine. But for those people who want a bit of information just to allow them to make a decision that’s sort of who the book is aimed at.

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It’s so true that it’s difficult to find a place to find out the basic information on politics. 

There’s a lot of assumed knowledge and it makes the conversation about politics quite exclusive because the language that’s used is quite difficult to penetrate if you’re not fluent in it and when would you have got fluent in it? I’ve got friends that have always been really into politics and when they’ve spoke about it I found even with my friends I’d feel slightly sheepish about saying “I’m so sorry, I don’t really know what you mean when you say…” whatever it is, a bit of jargon. So I’d just kind of leave it [laughs]. That’s what a lot of people do, you just “oh well, I guess that’s not for me”.

You don’t want to look like you don’t know what you’re on about.

It’s kind of a question about where you can get that information, that stuff explained. Hopefully, the book will help.

Is there any reason you wanted to specifically keep in impartial? So you could cover more information?

Absolutely. I think it might have been difficult to write this book if I was staunch Conservative or staunch Labour or staunch Lib Dems. But I’m not, I’m a swing voter. Honestly, my political views personally are a bit all over the place. I agree with some right wing stuff, I agree with some left wing stuff, some stuff I’m moderate on. So that made it slightly easier for me to be impartial because I think I can kind of see the arguments on both sides, well there are more than two sides.

Also, I really would hate to write a book that told people who to vote for, what to do. Who am I? Who is anyone really to say “you should think this”. My ambition is that people will read it and go, “I agree with that, I agree with that, don’t agree with that, don’t agree with that” and then make up their own minds about who is the best candidate in their area and who would represent them the best. I spent quite a lot of time and energy trying to make sure it was non-partisan and anytime I said “this is the view those on the left take”, I’d always try and balance it by saying “but at the same time, people on the right would say this” and vice versa.

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Talking about representing, you mentioned how the people in government are so non-representative of real-life people in the UK, how there aren’t as many women as there should be, or those of other ethnicities. Do you think the same goes for representing young people?

Yeah, I do. Because not many young people are in positions of power, in government or in councils. There are some but it would be great if there were more. I think it’s probably a bit like the chicken and the egg. If more young people voted I think there would be more young politicians. But I don’t know which needs to happen first. Actually I think if suddenly there was a huge, let’s say in the context I gave, I suggested introducing compulsory voting for first time voters. So suddenly you have 100% of 18-22 year olds, I guess it would be, voting. So you’ve got this big mass that has gone from about half of them voting to all of them voting, then politicians would be out there chasing those votes and one sort of fairly obvious way of doing that is that, if I was running a political party, trying to get some people that would be able to relate to that select demographic, i.e. People of a similar age. If you saw a spike in youth votes I’m pretty sure you would see some younger politicians emerging.

Why do you think there is such a little amount of young people voting compared to the amount of the older generation?

It’s a pretty hard question to answer because there’s been a slow decline really. And voting turn out has generally been falling, but it’s been falling unequally. Not as many old people vote as they used to, there are far fewer young people voting. I don’t know, I think it’s going to be a number of factors. Party affiliation these days is really really low. When I was a kid, and I’m sort of half a generation out of all the young people we’re talking about, I knew a lot of people who’s families who were “we’re a Labour family” “we’re a Conservative family”. And I think that informed a lot of people’s decisions. Party membership and party affiliation is incredibly low now, I guess that that’s part of it so maybe that.

I guess the political landscape has changed. I think the key actually, is identifying what might change it. Honestly, I think, as I’m sure some very clever people have done many investigations into why the numbers of people voting have dwindled, but my inclination is focused on what can you do to get the numbers back up and I think it’s about information and I think it’s about getting politicians to understand how that is really the youth vote that they should be going after and looking to focus policies on, on things that matter to young people.

In the press, the relationship between politicians and young people is generally quite negative, which obviously doesn’t inspire young people to get more involved.

And that’s all sort of being led by policy. There’s just not that much policy that is being proposed or implemented that is going to have a positive effect on young people. That’s not entirely true, there is some. But probably not enough. So old people get their pensions locked and safe and young people get their education maintenance allowance cut or scrapped and they get tuition fees trebled. It is really hard to look at that and feel like you’re being looked after.

I guess what’s heartened me about it is if I felt like actually the 56% of young people that didn’t vote in the last general election, if I felt as I think Britain suggests quite a lot that that was just a load of young people who didn’t care because their apathetic then I think it’s quite a depressing situation and I don’t really know how to turn this round. Anecdotally, in my experience when I’ve talked to young people, it’s not at all that they don’t care or that they’re apathetic. Young people are so engaged with issues and campaigns and volunteering and it’s just that there’s not, for some reason, a link between all those issues and causes and the political process. The conversation that I had with most of them, I think, is someone saying, “I don’t really care about politics” and saying, “okay, what stuff do you care about?” And they’d tell stuff they’d care about and you’d go “well, all that stuff is politics really and it’s all sort of dependent on politics” and they’d go “oh right, I didn’t really realise that”. That’s the important link I think. It’s obviously not a failing on part of young people, I’m not sure who’s failure it is, maybe it’s politicians, maybe it’s the media, maybe it’s a bit of both, maybe there should be more political education in schools. I can’t see how you could argue against that.

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Talking about how to interact with young people and social media is so important in their lives now. You mention social media in your book and at the minute you could say it’s more a place for mickey taking rather than somewhere to take politicians seriously. But it does have so much potential, how do you think politicians should use that? 

I think you’re right, it’s definitely not there at the moment. Everyone sees that it has the potential to be an amazing tool for democracy and I think that does happen in small bits. But there’s also a lot of abuse [laughs]. I don’t think there’s a problem with that. It’s quite fun and funny.

The thing that I really believe about things like Twitter, maybe less so with Facebook, but with Twitter you really want to be a bit less straight-laced and be less formal and be a bit more, it’s horrible that buzzword authenticity isn’t it? But feel like an actual person as apposed to the robot who’s typing up policy statements. That’s not good enough, that’s not how Twitter works. Don’t just say “I visited a school today and I was delighted with…” It’s just a bit boring and there’s other ways of getting those messages out. I think you need to interact with people, and I know you can’t be expected to interact with everyone and if you are David Camera you’re going to get an absolute onslaught of tweets everyday, a lot of them you’ll have to ignore anyway because they’re not particularly relevant or they’re abusive [laughs].

As time goes on, I think politicians will work out a way of managing that and they’ll see that there’s ways and means of harnessing Twitter as a way to talk to people. Because that’s it. It’s really exciting; ten years ago a politician couldn’t just get a quick gage of public feeling on a subject, it was impossible. Now you could just say, “I’m thinking about hiking up tuition fees again, what do you guys reckon?” [Laughs] and immediately get a thousand responses from people. It’s an exciting tool that I think will get used more effectively as time goes on, hopefully.

If everyone had the same Twitter personality as Barack Obama then the world would be a lot better place.

Actually, he’s a really good example. Weirdly, he doesn’t interact but he, again it’s that thing, it feels very him, he can be funny because it fits with his public persona. The fact that if he’s written the tweet himself you know he has because he signs off with not perfect initials.

-BO. At least you know it’s him.

It’s quite inspiring, so you’re not thinking one of his aides has written it. You know if one his aids has written it and you know if he’s written it. That works. Obviously he’s an incredibly busy man so he can’t be constantly tweeting [laughs]. I think everyone’s trying to get up to speed with how best to use things like Twitter and what persona is most appropriate. I think politicians are generally quite nervous about being a bit casual, but being casual is to be encouraged.

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Talking about online, you also mentioned online voting in the book. Do you think that’ll cause an increase in voters?

All the studies that have been done suggest you’d see a huge, particularly among young people, spike in voting turnout if you moved it online. Very few people argue against that. Everyone kind of knows it would have a positive effect on turnout, the worry is security. For me, I think that’s just a technical problem.

Didn’t you say if you can bank online then you can vote online? Very true.

All my money is all just online, all the time. Presumably, anyone could just hack into a bank. We’re all pretty comfortable with that so it feels curious that we wouldn’t be comfortable with voting online. Clearly you have to make it incredibly robust in terms of security but we do so much stuff really well and there are some really clever people out there, they will be able to design new systems. They’re being used, not widely but there are a lot of companies out there developing these platforms that are very well funded. They’re well funded because people are investing, they know that it is going to happen and it’s just a question of when. These companies aren’t going to have guarantee from any government in the world at the moment, but they’re rightly confident that it will be introduced. It’s hard to imagine in 2050 or whatever, us all traipsing to a village hall. We’re going to be doing it on our phones.

You also have a chapter about celebrity involvement in politics with a focus on Russell Brand and his recent stint highlighting wide political issues. Some of the points that he makes, even if they are slightly radical, are bringing attention to issues that wouldn’t have been looked at before. Why do you think the media is shining it in such a negative light?

I think the media are slightly guilty. The media portrayal of what he’s doing is pretty negative, I think people have the knives out for him. I totally get that he’s not everyone’s cup of tea and that some people find him annoying or whatever. But I guess it’s just playing the man and not the door. Why does it matter whether you like the guy? Because he’s not saying he’s going to stand to be an MP, he’s not trying to win a popularity contest. He’s just saying, “these are some things I think we should think about and try and tackle”. Again, it doesn’t matter whether his solutions are right or wrong, or whether you agree with them. It’s the fact that the public are talking about stuff they weren’t talking about before that is incredibly valuable and vital. I don’t see eye to eye with him on a lot of stuff [laughs] but it’s clear to me he’s having a positive effect on political conversation in this country and bringing it to people that would have never had these conversations before. At the same time, he’s obviously anti-voting which is the polar opposite of what I am. But it’s fine to talk about it, you shouldn’t shut someone down just because you don’t agree with them, it’s absurd. I think it’s a shame that people feel he’s had a negative effect.

If he can create that much talk about politics in people that are 18-24, then how is that a negative impact?

Have you seen that Paloma Faith has enlisted Owen Jones as the support act for her London and Brighton shows coming up?

I know, I know. I was texting her the other day about it actually, I think it’s brilliant.

Do you think it’s things like this that is going to have the effect on engaging politics with young people?

I hope so. It’s heartening to see people out there trying. Paloma is very left leaning and so is Own, she feels incredibly passionate about it. She’s trying to use her platform to mobilise people in a way that she thinks is right. And that’s amazing. It’s a really interesting tactic by getting Owen’s support, I wouldn’t expect it but how many of those people at her gigs are going to have heard Owen’s speak? Or know about what Owen will talk about? Probably, I’ve literally got no idea, but I suspect certainly not all of them. So she is bringing that message, whether you agree with that message or not is again sort of irrelevant, to a wider audience. An audience that is currently not engaging with the voting system, with the democratic process. So yeah, I think it’s really really fantastic.

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