FROM Red Wedge, by way of Ugly Rumours, to #JC4PM is a dangerous, if at times tuneful, path, writes Aidan Smith
On the Today programme the day David Bowie died, Jeremy Corbyn was one of the first to be asked for his reaction but not quite the first. The Archbishop of Canterbury claimed that distinction, while David Cameron’s office had been quick off the mark, phoning in the Prime Minister’s vote for the Hunky Dory album being Bowie’s greatest. These tributes were mentioned by the presenter as he sought one from Corbyn and the Labour leader harrumphed. This could have been interpreted as: “So the great Cameron hath spoken – that makes the death Very Significant, right? And you’d like me to speak … now?”
Pop competitiveness among politicians? That’s what it seemed like. They can’t help themselves. Nominating a favourite band or record, and trying to outdo the opposition with your choice, has always been viewed as a quick, easy way to indicate that even if you’re not wholly “down with the kids” – because you’re a square, otherwise why would you be in politics? – then at least you can vaguely relate to the yoof.
Cameron may have been the Homo Superior of the soundbite eulogy that morning, while Corbyn must have felt like the drummer in the Spiders from Mars: required to be unspectacular and plodding at the back of the stage while out front this David pranced and wiggled his bottom. But at least Corbyn can look forward to #JC4PM.
This is his very own entertainment package-tour. Pop acts and comedians will serve as cheerleaders and fluffers, doing a turn to rally support, and there’s to be an Edinburgh show on 9 March at the Festival Theatre headlined by Charlotte Church. Does this sound like Red Wedge Revisted? The organisers say the similarities are entirely intentional.
Thirty years ago this Saturday, the original skits, songs and Socialism roadshow trundled into the capital. Back then, the gig was at the Playhouse and the PM-in-waiting was Neil Kinnock. I reported on the show for the Edinburgh Evening News, also the press conference which preceded it. Politicos getting into bed with showbizzers needed some explaining and the offices of a trade union (remember them?) were chosen for the launch, with Robin Cook sat alongside Billy Bragg and members of the Specials.
It’s so long ago now but I remember Cooky being pretty uncomfortable; hanging out with groovy tykes wasn’t his thing. There was none of the epoch-making malarkey of Harold Wilson and the Beatles, where you thought that any minute Ringo was going to jam a drumstick into the Prime Ministerial pipe and Wilson would have been entirely relaxed about it.
In a dry dock somewhere, the classical snob Edward Heath must have seethed at his rival’s populist triumph. But at least in ’86, if memory serves, poor Robin didn’t try to claim he listened to this trendy music on repeat. He was too smart for a ploy which would trip up Gordon Brown years later (“There’s nothing I like better in the morning, uhuh, after a cold shower and some congealed porridge, uhuh, than a quick three-chord blast of the Arctic Monkeys”).
Come the gig, I have a horrible feeling Kinnock tried to jiggle about. Indeed, self-styled body-language experts – all political parties employ them these days, along with self-styled pop tastemakers – might have been able to detect in his little dance the seeds of the “We’re all right!” delirium which came over him mere days before the 1992 election. “This roar hit me and I responded to it,” Kinnock said of the chant which he reckoned cost him victory. “All of the years in which I’d attempted to build a fairly reserved, starchy persona … in a few seconds they slipped away.”
An experienced pop performer wouldn’t make such a mistake. Still, Red Wedge was a new experience for the acts, after having to check their egos at the bus depot. Jimmy Sommerville of the Communards “bus-surfed” up the motorways and sidekick Richard Coles surprised everyone by casting aside his studious air for some card tricks.
Just as surprised were Labour’s cloth-cap traditionalists. According to Neil Spencer, Red Wedge’s press officer, they expected much compliant banging of the drum for the party. Instead they got demands from the performers that gay rights and environmental issues be added to the political agenda. Tom Robinson, he of Glad to be Gay, recalled: “The artists got along very well but these hardline party guys wanted to go on stage and rant about the evils of capitalism – and that’s not how you change the minds of rock fans. We were always having to find new ways of keeping them off it.”
Of course, Kinnock, Cook and Co themselves were to be mere fluffers for a Labour politician who would be far from reserved and completely non-starchy, re pop.
Tony Blair was in a band at uni with the rock writer Mark Ellen who remembered the Ugly Rumours vocalist for his “courageous hoop-necked top”, the many sentences which began with “Guys … ” and this big entrance: “We cranked up the riff and gave Tony the nod and he burst from behind a hedge doing his now fairly polished Jagger impression – low-slung flares, bare midriff, hand on one hip, the other wagging a cautionary finger, elbows flapping like a chicken.” We all know what happened when Blair won power: he embraced Britpop, killing it.
Labour have always had the best tunes. The Tories could only ever count on Lynsey de Paul’s vote, and Cameron, in revealing how he and his wife like to cuddle up to The xx, has almost certainly stripped that band of all their cool.
But Labour had better watch out. They’ve mucked up so much that their showbiz chums may fancy they could do a better job. Eddie Izzard is being urged to stand for the party’s national executive to challenge Corbyn. Maybe Charlotte Church will announce in Edinburgh that she wants to become leader.