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Labour should sing again

Labour conference singingWhen I wrote “A Pleasant Change From Politics”: Music and the British Labour Movement Between the Wars over a decade ago, the one thing I spent very little time thinking about was whether there was a strong case for Labour to still be using music today. It seemed obvious that we would be too busy analysing data, targeting swing seats and filling in voter ID records to hold an evening concert, or make sure we had a verse or two of the Red Flag at meetings. It seemed obvious that the early 21st century was a time when there was so much competition for people’s free time and leisure that the labour movement had to stick to its primary purpose. It couldn’t hold people’s attention for long enough to perform other roles.

In 2014 I’m no longer so sure.

In the early part of the 20th century, the labour movement sought not just people’s votes, or their subs, but a broader cultural commitment. People talked about how they became socialists in much the way people might talk of a religious conversion. People dedicated a “new life” to socialist and labour politics. Music was a fundamental part of this.

Music is an essential part of cultural life; music takes centre stage at the rituals and occasions that punctuate our lives.  Memories are bound to music. We remember what we were listening to at key points in our lives. People who belong to something often express that sense of belonging through music. Religious people sing hymns (and other forms of spiritual music); nationalists sing anthems. Associations –  from scouts to rugby teams to football fans – have their songs:  songs that define a community; that include people and yes, that exclude people too.

There was a time when Labour had that. It is not something that automatically goes hand-in-hand with party politics. It is not that there were never any Tory or Liberal songs (the Primrose League had its own anthems for example) but no mass political movement in the UK sought its own cultural identity in quite the way Labour did in the first half of the 20th century.

There is a reason for that. Psephologists tell us that political parties have to present a vision of Britain.  Voters, we are told, do not want to see parties representing sectional interests, and they certainly don’t want to see a political culture that seems bizarre, exotic, different or other.

But if you ever have wondered how a party could become the second party in the UK in such a short space of time and could command such tribal loyalty within decades of its founding without mass media promotion, part of the answer lies in its success in building something much bigger than a vote-getting machine. UKIP was founded over 20 years ago and despite its Euro elections results and extensive media coverage, it has a sixth of the current membership of the Labour Party and has no prospect of gaining power.

At the same point in Labour’s history (taking its founding as 1906) it had already had a stint in government. There has been nothing comparable in modern political history.  Some took Labour’s rise for granted; once the Labour Party existed it would inevitably gain most working-class votes.  But really there was nothing inevitable about it. The Liberals and the Tories had furious and tribal working-class support. When Clarion Vans first started travelling the country spreading socialist literature, they were literally attacked by trade unionists, furious at their criticisms of the Liberal Party. Labour did not just have to exist to win votes. Nor did they study opinion polls, conduct market research and carefully prepare a “message” and a “narrative”.  Instead they built a movement.

And there is a significant danger today that Labour is losing that movement.

Sometimes when I’ve put forward arguments for Labour’s winning agenda, I’ve been accused of proposing a “core vote strategy”. To have a core vote strategy you have to have a core vote. In 2010 there was still evidence of some sort of working-class base for Labour, though it was fractured and diluted. Although Labour has recovered in the polls and might well win the 2015 election, there is little evidence to suggest that the core vote has returned and, indeed, it might have suffered more damage.

There are lots of reasons for this. Trade Union membership has been halved in the last 30 years, most of this reduction coming in the private sector. The labour movement is made up of political and industrial wings (and needs both wings to fly, as has often been said). Blair talked about unions getting “fairness not favours” and Ed has redesigned the party’s relationship with trade unions. These factors combine to present a more fractured movement, one that can deliver fewer votes and one that is less instantly recognisable by the public.

A media onslaught on the labour movement from the 1970s onwards has also done much to blacken the name of trade unionism in the UK. New Labour’s reinvention in the 1990s seemed to get the party clear of the smear stories for a time, but it did not bring the unions with it. And now there is an anti-Labour Party agenda in the media again, those who were left behind by New Labour feel less loyalty to the party than once they did. Then there was the triangulation approach of New Labour; creating a “catch all” party that looked to attract the “median voter” and in doing so, seemed to take Labour’s traditional vote for granted.

But more than anything else is the issue of what Labour means to people.  What do people think of when they hear the words “the Labour Party”?  There isn’t a straight-forward answer to the question.  It would be interesting to conduct a survey on it.  Right-wing people think “socialism”, “trade unions”, “big state” and the same sorts of associations that they have always had with Labour. What is less clear is what people who, in the past, have either voted Labour or contemplated voting Labour think. And anecdotally, they appear to no longer think “the people’s party”; a working-class party; something that is on their side; something that is part of a greater movement and has a greater purpose and sense of mission.

This is no accident.  It has been deliberate political strategy for Labour to unburden itself of its image and its past. However, it has had little impact on the right.  Tories and their fellow travellers still use the words “Labour” and “Socialist” interchangeably. Online comments on newspaper articles regularly refer to even the most right-wing Labour leaders as “Marxists” and “Socialists”. Whenever a union conducts a strike – even if that union is not affiliated to the Labour Party, such as the RMT or the NUT – Tories relate that activity to the Labour Party.

But the tube drivers and the teachers don’t.

When Tories see the Durham Miners’ Gala – the combined bands and banners and great crowds – they think “Labour”. But increasingly those marching and playing and watching do not.

They haven’t defected en masse to another party. We are fortunate that such another party does not exist. We lost some Labour voters to the Liberal Democrats after the Iraq War and we got most of them back (although, as the election draws slowly closer, the polls show those same voters dithering between Labour and Green boxes on their ballot papers).

Of far more concern are the non-voters. Turnout is appalling in Labour areas. Our campaigners are working hard to try and get them to vote with professional canvassing operations. But on a larger scale, we seem to have resigned ourselves to accepting those non-votes, provided they don’t get cast for somebody else.  Our rhetoric is all “squeezed middle” with little on offer for the “squashed bottom”.

In the short term, the answer to this problem is all about policies. Labour has to make a policy offering that appeals to people who do not vote Tory (whether they have voted Labour in the past or not).  But in the medium to long-term, Labour has an even more difficult mission to accomplish: to recreate and refound the Labour movement as a recognisable force for good in British politics. And that means being more than a vote-getting machine; having a cultural life and a sense of historic mission and purpose. And that might just involve singing again.

Much as I love the sound of brass bands, and enjoy singing the old socialist anthems, I’m not suggesting some sort of historical re-enactment society here. The Labour movement must be a dynamic, modern movement: respectful and educated about its past; imaginative and ambitious for its future and focused on the present.

Nor am I suggesting a re-hash of “Red Wedge”. It isn’t about lining up Labour-supporting celebrities and getting them to sing – we should sing ourselves! And this is not just about winning elections, but about winning hearts and minds and re-establishing Labour as the People’s Party, with a democratic, interactive and dynamic movement that commands both loyalty and enthusiasm.

Though cowards flinch, and traitors sneer
We’ll keep the Red Flag flying here.”


  1. William Jones says:

    As ever with these things perhaps I can remember what things were like in the past.I well remember the eve of poll rally in 1987 at Rhosllanerchrugog in the constituency of Clwyd South.There were over 400 people in the hall and I will never forget the singing of The Red Flag that night.I was myself singing full throatedly and there were tears streaming down my face.

    It made you feel ten foot tall and that you could overcome all obstacles together!

  2. Duncan says:

    Yes, that’s just the sort of thing I’m referring to. Music can create that sense of being a part of something big and special. The scale of some of the Labour musical events in the 1930s sound unbelievable today.

    I guess the “over 400 people in the hall” helps too… (I couldn’t imagine singing at our local branch meetings when we think it’s a good night if a dozen people show up). But then the two things go together, I think – the music (and cultural activity more generally) and the numbers.

  3. Annette says:

    Labour may not sing but many groups around struggles or single issues do and have sung. The Greenham songs and “Woman of the Working” Class from the Miner’s strike are still sung with passion.

    You’d have to have some policies you feel proud of to sing about – “We’ll keep the Tory benefits cap in Government” to the tune of the Red Flag doesn’t do it for me 🙂

    1. William Jones says:

      Well Annette there were many in the hall in 1987 who had been part of the Miners Strike and of the vital womens support groups that grew from its struggle.

      Its getting near the wire now though as we approach 2015.I’m afraid that if we say we would prefer five more years of the hardships and direct attack by this Government on those who have nothing,then so be it.

      I can think of many comrades in the hall that night who have since died.They would be turning in their graves though if we made the wrong choice.Quite frankly the time for self indulgent naval gazing has long since past!

      1. Robert says:

        I come from a small mining village which has seen some real serious tears, a place called Aberfan and now I live just out side of another Welsh giant of Rugby sadly singing in my area to day would have to be done by hiring in singers as the labour party has virtually died a death.

        During the 1983/4 period we had to hire a hall and then had to hire a leisure center to seat all the miners and supporters today you could hold a mining in my small tiny kitchen.

        I can remember in my youth in the valleys being about eight years old sitting on my grandfathers knee and listening to Nye Bevan.

        These days your just as likely to be told by labour in my area about the pride and joy of Maggie Thatcher and Tony Blair, it’s not the Red flag anymore as it is New labour.

        1. William Jones says:

          Well given Robert that we both come from areas with a strong mining heritage,albeit you come from South Wales and I’m from the North,it must be a very strange Labour Party you have there!

          I attended last Friday the Clwyd South Constituency Labour Party AGM and its just so happens that I didn’t hear a word of praise for either Thatcher or Blair!Indeed the vast majority that were there would have shouted down any such praise!

          I resigned from the Party following the decision to go to War in Iraq.I only rejoined the Party ironically on the Friday after some dismal Council Election results locally in 2008.

          I feel much better for doing so now.It stops me sniping from the sidelines!

      2. Rod says:

        Miliband’s lot are also promising austerity. Miliband supported the disastrous military intervention in Libya.
        Miliband refuses to allow a referendum on the austerity enforcing EU.
        Miliband’s and his Progress zombies have initiated a process that will result in the L.P. dumping the unions by 2019, following the cooked-up crisis at Falkirk.

        Are these the portends of your glorious Labour future?

  4. Duncan says:

    I agree Annette – I think it works both ways though. As you say, you need something to sing about; but also a proper collective movement is less likely to keep a Tory benefits cap. “Labour is a moral crusade or it is nothing”.

  5. William Jones says:

    I think it right that I include this recording from You Tube.I also think it right that we take note of the words of the third verse that is sung;

    It well recalls the triumphs past,
    It gives the hope of peace at last,
    The banner bright,the symbol plain,
    Of human right and human gain.

    I also think its right that we take note of the accompanying question that illustrates this video;
    Whose side are you on?

    I can only answer for myself when I say that I will always be on the side of those fighting for a better life for all!

    1. PoundInYourPocket says:

      Here’s another great song by the tyneside peoples choir. “resolution”

      Knowing you will fail to give us wages,
      Wages that we all agree to be fair,
      So we will take over all you factories,
      There will be quite enough for us if you’re not there.

  6. William Jones says:

    If you think about it Labour have much more to sing about than shall we say;Those who may think they are making all the running now.

    I commented earlier about being on the side of those who fight for a better life for all.

    We need to hammer home the message that all means all.Regardless of someone’s ethnicity,religion,sexual orientation,class or indeed country of origin!

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