Mark Perryman argues that for Corbynism to succeed it needs cultural activism, in an exclusive edited extract from his new book The Corbyn Effect.
There were various models of modernisation available to Labour in the early 1990s. What the party chose in the end was one particular version, a conservative modernity which coupled populist rhetoric with a neoliberal politics to disavow even the mildest version of social democracy. The populist rhetoric was typified in Blair’s final Labour Conference speech as leader of the opposition prior to the ’97 landslide:
Labour’s coming home! (Applause) Seventeen years of hurt never stopped us dreaming. Labour’s coming home! (Applause) As we did in 1945 and 1964, I know that was then , but it could be again – Labour’s coming home. (Applause) Labour’s coming home.
The effortlessly uncritical appropriation of popular culture is a Blair classic. Harmless stuff, just a bit of fun? No, not entirely. David Stubbs in his brilliant book 1996 and The End of History captures very well the pre-millennium mood of celebrating all things new, the drive to reinvent and rebrand, and the technocratic managerialism divorced from the political that dominated Blairite thinking. It was founded on a belief that we were living in an era that was marked by the eclipse of left versus right politics, or as some mistaken theorists put it, the death of the ‘grand narrative’. As Stubbs says:
One of the main delusions of the decade, its most naïve conceit, was that we were past all that, post-all that: that the End of History meant the end of the old struggle between top-hatted Capital and cloth–capped Labour.
And what did this mean in terms of where New Labour ended up? David Stubbs is delightfully clear:
Post-leftism, post-feminism, drifting backwards into a future in which a communal conservatism would see to it that the present , the Be Here Now, was maintained as long as possible.
Billy Bragg speaking at the Red Wedge launch at the House of Commons, 1985.
Prior to all this there was a very different model of a popular, left, cultural politics. In ’86 I organised a gig on the Red Wedge comedy tour at what was then called Wolverhampton Poly. This felt like, sounded like, and joked like the kind of party I’d always wanted to be part of. The better known half of Red Wedge was music, I caught a night of their first tour in Birmingham. I’ve got a strong memory of my first sighting of Billy Bragg complete with amplifier in a rucksack blasting out something or other from the stage to a packed, if slightly bemused, auditorium. Morrissey featured somewhere, Jimmy Sommerville from The Communards, also I think Paul Weller was involved.
Coming out of the wave of benefit gigs that the 1984-85 Miners Strike had sparked, this was a well-intentioned and hugely ambitious attempt to keep a culture of resistance on the road. It was avowedly political, ‘soulcialism’ as us Red Wedgers liked to call it, and pro-Labour without being in and of the party. None of this is easy, then, or now. Music writer Sean O’Hagan put it neatly just as the venture was beginning:
The fact that Red Wedge has a distinctly loose, hazily defined relationship with the Labour Party is both a strength and a possible falling.
While Stuart Cosgrove, with Sean an early pioneer of the New Musical Express post-punk shift towards a 1980s politicised rock writing, put those contradictions in two vivid passages of critique. Firstly, the potential audience which he described in terms of geography, gender and class:
A red wedge is just a ginger haired typist from Carlisle who dances to soul music and has to save up for her holiday. And if Labour wins the typists’ vote, who cares what art students do with their ballot papers?
And secondly the fundamental challenge a cultural movement of the sort Red Wedge aimed to generate posed to the conservative organisational structures of Labourism:
What happens when the Red Wedge circus moves on? What does it leave behind, some satisfied souls and a few hangovers? Red Wedge has to become the animator not the afterthought, it has to generate events and not simply provide them.
Before adding to emphasise the point:
Red Wedge has to chase the improbable, and fast. It has to unite the night away. Labour: it ain’t nothing but a parrrty.
Of course nothing of the sort happened. Labour lost the ’87 General Election, and then reverted to cultural type at the notorious ’92 Sheffield Rally with Kinnock shouting repeatedly ‘We’re all right’ plus the occasional starstruck ‘Woah!’ for bad measure. Blair at least professionalised the output with celebrity photo-opportunities – but as for any cultural shift? There was nothing of the sort.
The key point about Red Wedge was that it came from both within and without Labour. It was an ambitious attempt to effect change in the party’s culture that wasn’t factional in any traditional sense. Red Wedge was much more open than that, all who could see that Labour’s ways of working and appealing weren’t working could have a piece of that change, but the commitment to this necessity wasn’t deep enough, and it was swiftly jettisoned.
In Walls Come Tumbling Down, Daniel Rachel's superb account of Rock Against Racism, 2-Tone and Red Wedge, Tony Manwaring is interviewed. Tony was political assistant to the Labour Party’s General Secretary, and thus deeply embedded in the party’s organisational ways and means. He rather honestly describes this lost opportunity:
There was a moment of crystallisation of a new form of politics. It was brilliant and beautiful to see , and Red Wedge was reconfiguring the DNA. But I don’t think the Labour Party had the reflective learning capacity to draw and learn and honour what was being done. The Party was bound to let it down in some way because there wasn’t a clear enough expectation and conversation about what ‘good’ would look like.
Yet 30 years on Tony remains convinced of the potential that did exist:
The answer isn’t what Red Wedge brought to the Labour Party, it’s what kind of politics we could have created together. If it had developed for another few yeas it would have been extraordinary.
In 2017 something of this sort emerged once more. It isn’t that music has lacked politics in the intervening years, there are stacks of bands and artists who confound that well worn and incorrect observation, but at no point have any come together to create anything we might call a movement. This was true even at the height of the anti-war movement against the Iraq War, and ever since too.
Love Music Hate Racism tries but has never reached the heights of its predecessor Rock against Racism (RAR). It is too early to be sure with any certainty what #grime4corbyn will end up amounting to but already it has at least broken with this sorry convention. And like RAR it is framed first and foremost by the music and culture that generated it. For 1970s punk read grime now – music and politics both sharing their coincidental breakthrough moment. In a 2016 end of year preview of grime’s prospects for the year ahead Dan Hancox, author of Stand Up Tall: Dizzee Rascal and the Birth of Grime predicted:
It is tempting to think we live in more enlightened times, and that the nature of the music business in 2017 means that grime will be supported and allowed to stand on its own two feet. If the success of Skepta, JME, Stormzy, and Wiley prove anything, it's that artists and fans often do better when left to their own devices, without too much intervention from the music industry and their formulas. The future of black British music – urban, suburban, or global – is about to get a whole lot more exciting.
Dan was proved absolutely right. On its own terms grime achieved the success he could see coming. But who ever imagined this would happen hand in hand with Jeremy Corbyn? It is a measure of the music and the politics that it did, as Monique Charles points out here on Culture Matters.
Red Wedge was ten years before Blairism. It was an alternative model of modernising Labour, but eventually it found the door slammed shut. Now, in 2017, it appears to be open again. It is easy for timeworn politicos and hardbitten commentators to sneer at the rock-star style adulation of the Glastonbury crowd when Jeremy Corbyn took the stage. But there are precious few politicians now, or ever, who could attract not only such affection, but trust too, from young voters. And possibly even more threateningly, the 14-17 year old voters of tomorrow.
To help achieve that, Corbynism needs to shape a cultural activism. We don’t know what that might look like, though Red Wedge and #grime4corbyn each give us an inkling, but I’m certain it needs to be about bottom-up, localised, open and messy affiliations – a do-it-yourself culture. For an indication of the potential just look at what the We Shall Overcome Weekend festival of 160+ gigs all across the country has achieved, on zero resources. Imagine what this could become with the Labour Party, the trade unions, and Momentum fully behind it!
The 2017 General Election suggests a breakthrough of sorts, electorally and culturally, in making possible the kind of connections between Labour as an institution and young and not-so-young voters that may have a durability and significance Red Wedgers like myself could only dream of, all those years ago. Now, Labour is led by a guy who’s old enough to qualify as a Grandad-dancer and we can only imagine the kind of moves he might have on the dancefloor to prove it. Now that would be a sight for politically sore eyes, wouldn’t it?
The Corbyn Effect is edited by Mark Perryman, with a foreword by Paul Mason. It is the first serious attempt to understand the phenomenon of Corbynism and an essential post-election read, explaining the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and the fundamental shift in politics in 2017. It's available from Lawrence & Wishart, here.