Anti-Thatcher songs (2): Red Wedge

This post is the second in a series of four focusing on anti-Thatcher songs and song-writers. In this installment, we focus on the Red Wedge movement through the analysis of an academic article by Jeremy Tranmer. Given the difficulty of the article, the activity is intended for Master’s students, in a seminar-like setting. I provide answers to the comprehension questions at the end of the post, as well as a paragraph by paragraph summary of the article under study.

 


 

Link to article here. Link to YouTube anti-Thatcher songs playlist here.

Jeremy Tranmer« Political Commitment of a New Type? Red Wedge and the Labour Party in the 1980s »Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique [Online], XXII-3 | 2017, Online since 05 July 2017, connection on 16 March 2020

Red Wedge was an initiative launched by British musicians in 1985-1987, who supported the Labour Party through a series of concert. Major musicians of the time took part in the tours: Billy Bragg, The Style Council, The Communards, Junior Giscombe, Lorna Gee and Jerry Dammers, and guest appearances from Madness, The The, Heaven 17, Bananarama, Prefab Sprout, Elvis Costello, Gary Kemp, Tom Robinson, Sade, The Beat, Lloyd Cole, The Blow Monkeys, Joolz and The Smiths.

Questions

1. Explain the following references to British politics:

  • link between the Labour Party and trade-unions
  • marginal constituency =/= safe seat
  • fixed-term parliaments

2. Where does the name Red Wedge come from?

3. In what political context did Red Wedge emerge?

4. What were the relationships between Red Wedge and the Labour Party?

5. What were the differences between Red Wedge and Rock Against Racism?

6. What were the social, political and cultural dynamics on which Red Wedge built?

7. What was the repertoire of contention (Tilly 1978) of Red Wedge?

8. What was Red Wedge’s strategy?

9. Given the way Red Wedge worked and their objectives, can you identify which values were theirs?

10. What was new about Red Wedge?

11. What difficulties did Red Wedge face?

12. In what way(s) did Red Wedge have a hybrid status?

13. According to the author, what were the achievements and legacy of Red Wedge?

Exercise:

Based on the previous questions and your personal appraisal of Jeremy Tranmer’s article, write a synthesis of the article. It should include an introduction, a summary of the article’s content, as well as considerations on the approach used by the author. +/- 350 words.


 

Keys

Summary of the article:

§1 Red Wedge is a movement which took place around the 1987 British General Election. It is the only coordinated attempt by musicians to support a party in the UK. Labour candidate they supported: Neil Kinnock.

§2 They received material support from the Labour Party and trade unions but had their own agenda. Aimed at winning young people over.

§3 The musicians organised an 8 date national tour in January 1986, as well as forums and meetings. They also published a quarterly magazine (Well Red).

§4 The Labour manifesto for this election was called: iMove on up. A Socialist Vision of the Future.

§5 Their strategy included supporting candidates in marginal constituencies.

§6 They kept going for 3 years but had difficulties. The youth vote went up.

§7 Difficulties: disillusionment, lack of money, drugs.

§8 Difference with Rock Against Racism (RAR). RAR targeteted racism in music, racism in society and far right parties. Their music style was punk and reggae. They organised concerts in constituencies where the National Front was standing candidates. They defeated the National front.

§9 RAR had an inspirational effect for Red Wegde musicians, although few were invloved in both (Billy Bragg).

§10 Red Wedge was influenced by punk music and its Do It Yourself ethics.

§11 Red Wedge was characterized by its opposition to Thatcherism. Major songs angainst Thatcher: Ghost Town by The Special (1981), One in Ten by UB40 band. Songs with very explicit references to news, political events and practices.

§12 Red Wedge built on the tradition of musicians raising money for political causes, in particular during the 1984-1985 miners’ strike. 

§13 They criticized, to some extent, the Labour Party, in particular Callaghan and his lukewarm support for the miners’ strike.

§14 There is a history of relations between the British left and music (for instance Red Ken and concerts).

§15 Billy Bragg organised a Jobs for Youth tour in 1984. Neil Kinnock, the Labour candidate for the 1987 election, was in his forties, so he himself was younger than most Labour politicians. See Stuart Hall’s work on popular culture’s role in resisting Thatcher.

§16 Dynamics supporting the Red Wedge initiative: history of benefit concers.

§17 What was new was that before Red Wedge, musicians only did music. 

§18 With Red Wedge, they hoped to create a new movement, and to create new relations between musicians and politicians.

§19 Values of the movement: cooperation between artists, communal living.

§20 These values also showed in the musical choices, for instance in the Move On Up song: soul music, collective song, rather than individual creations.

§21 Other difficulties: individualism of the music industry. Gagng mentality of bands.

§22 Besides music, the musicians of Red Wedge organised meetings, press conferences, meetings with young people.

§23 Other difficulty: musicians had other professional commitments, so there were schedule conflicts. 

§24 They also had various political affiliations and backgrounds, which made working together harder.

§25 They tried to change the attitude of politicians, for instance by giving adivce to candidates.

§26 They were on the left of the Labour party, which they still supported because it was the only electoral alternative to Thatcher.

§27 Having close relations with the Labour Party was not without problems: the Fulham 1986 by-elections showed it quite clearly. The Red Wedge crew were unorthodox, and there were questions as to who leaflets, who organizes.

§28 There were political conflicts between different factions of the Labour Party (The Young Socialists, close to the Militant tendency), and between the Labour Party and the Socialist Workers’ Party. Red Wedge stood in the middle.

§29 In the end, they achieved partial success. They were really trying to square the circle by uniting music and politics.

§30 They succeeded in cooperating, and implementing new forms of political commitment in the music sector. Then came Tony Blair and support from musicians was not on the agenda anymore…

Questions

1. Explain the following references to British politics:

  • link between the Labour Party and trade-unions : there are strong links between the two. The Labour party is composed of two entities: the Trade Union Congress, which brings together all trade unions, and the Parliamentary Labour Party. The PLP and the TUC have both financial and ideological links. Traditionnally, the TUC is more socialist in its position that the core of the PLP.
  • marginal constituency =/= safe seat: constituencies are the area for which a Member of parliament is elected. A constituency is said to be marginal when the MP only has a short majority. A safe seat is held by a MP who is not at risk of losing the next election.
  • fixed-term parliaments: since 2011, all general elections are to be held on the first Thursday in May, 5 years after the previous election. Before that, it was for the Prime Minister to decide when the next election would be held.

2. Where does the name Red Wedge come from?

Reference to sovietic politics: Beat the White With The Red Wedge: 1919 propaganda poster. The Reds: the Bolsheviks, the White: anti-communists.

3. In what political context did Red Wedge emerge?

After years of neoliberal government by Thatcher, and two consecutive victories of the Conservative Party at General Election. Before the 1987 general election. 

4. What were the relationships between Red Wedge and the Labour Party?

Strong relations: material support from the Labour Party, ideological support from Red Wedge towards the Labour Party. Also criticisms from RW towards the LP.

5. What were the differences between Red Wedge and Rock Against Racism?

Red Wedge worked within institutional politics, with a definite institutional goal (having the Labour Party elected). RAR targetted racism as a whole, and started as an opposition to racism within the music industry (Eric Clapton). 

6. What were the social, political and cultural dynamics on which Red Wedge built?

Popular will for change.
Tradition of fundraising gigs, of protest songs.
RAR.

7. What was the repertoire of contention (Tilly 1978) of Red Wedge?

They used different modes of action: concerts, rallies, meetings with voters, leafleting, press conferences. Some were therefore “traditional” political modes of action (leafleting for instance) and others were not. For instance writing a magazine is closer to counter-cultural practices seen in the 1960s in the US rather than to traditional party politics.

8. What was Red Wedge’s strategy?

Convincing young people to vote for the Labour Party to get Margaret Thatcher, in particular in marginal constituencies (so they were . Bringing the Labour Party candidates closer to young voters.

9. Given the way Red Wedge worked and their objectives, can you identify which values were theirs?

Cooperation, communal living, , socialism.

10. What was new about Red Wedge?

Bringing politicians and musicians together, changing their relations. Making musicians take a stand in favour of a party. Making politicians listen to musicians’ advice. 

11. What difficulties did Red Wedge face?

Lack of funds, clash of schedules, lack of organization, competition in the music industry.

12. In what way(s) did Red Wedge have a hybrid status?

Both producing music and political purpose
Both supportive of the Labour Party and critical of it 
Bringing practices of musical genre (punk: do it yourself) withing the political arena
Not really a political organization

13. According to the author, what were the achievements and legacy of Red Wedge?

They did manage to work together for a while
Renewed political practices 
Raised the Labour party profile, but they still lost the election….

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