In the 1980s, the British Labour Party was in crisis. Electoral defeats at the hands of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives had made Labour a spectator, watching as the welfare state the party had fought hard to create was dismantled. The Tories seemed unstoppable.
Red Wedge, a collective of musicians opposed to Tory rule, believed that music could help galvanize opposition to the government. They toured Britain in the lead-up to the 1987 general election, aiming to drum up youth support for Neil Kinnock’s Labour.
Red Wedge couldn’t defeat Thatcher, but it deserves to be remembered today. It was one of the first times that British musicians expressly lent their support to a political party. The achievements and limitations of Red Wedge have wider lessons for attempts by left activists to bring politics into culture and culture into politics.
Between Old Labour and New
Labour’s first defeat came in 1979, when Prime Minister James Callaghan proved unable to manage the crisis brought about by the end of the postwar boom and the strike wave of 1978–79. A bitter factional conflict between the party’s left and right wings soon followed. Michael Foot replaced Callaghan and the Labour conference adopted a left-wing manifesto for the 1983 election. But Thatcher’s victory in the Falklands War and Labour’s internal feuding hobbled the party, and the Tories won a landslide victory.
The party’s electoral college of MPs, trade unions, and ordinary members chose Neil Kinnock as Foot’s replacement. Much like Keir Starmer following Labour’s 2019 defeat, Kinnock campaigned from the left, then shifted right after becoming leader. He announced his plans to “modernize” Labour. In practice, this meant gradually abandoning key parts of the party’s policy and culture.
Kinnock refused to support the miners’ strike of 1984–85 and the resistance of Labour councils in London and Liverpool to Tory cuts. Over time, he dropped plans for the renationalization of industries that Thatcher had privatized and the scrapping of Britain’s nuclear arsenal. Kinnock didn’t go quite as far as Tony Blair in his acceptance of the Thatcherite legacy, but he certainly took several steps in that direction.
Red Wedge took shape during Kinnock’s reign over a party that was already trying to accommodate itself to the ongoing neoliberal turn. Thatcher’s wholesale attack on key tenets of Labourism, such as nationalization and redistribution, undermined the ideological basis of the party. This left Labour on the defensive. Unable or unwilling to defend the party’s traditional program, its leaders became increasingly preoccupied with questions of image.
Kinnock appointed Peter Mandelson as Labour’s director of communications in 1985. During Mandelson’s reign as communications czar, he put much effort into making Labour seem like the party of pop culture, good times, and youth, shaking off the fusty image associated with Michael Foot.
In 1984, Kinnock appeared prominently in the music video for Tracey Ullman’s cover of the Madness song “My Girl” (or “My Guy,” in Ullman’s rendition). For the 1987 party election broadcast, Mandelson hired Chariots of Fire director Hugh Hudson. This new strategy of showmanship and savvy media management did not lead to victory for Kinnock in 1987, or 1992, for that matter. Nevertheless, it became integral to the party’s public face, later reaching its zenith with Blair, New Labour, and so-called Cool Britannia.
Beat the Whites With the Red Wedge!
In 1985, an eclectic mix of left-leaning musicians got together to form Red Wedge. As Billy Bragg later recalled, “the same faces kept showing up” at benefit gigs, like the ones for striking miners, who lost their protracted battle with Thatcher in the spring of 1985. Bragg’s initiative seemed to mesh with Labour’s new stress on pop culture, but tensions between two contradictory visions would soon become apparent.
Red Wedge’s roots lay in benefit gigs, like the “Pits and Perverts” concert for Lesbians and Gays, Support the Miners, and the various Rock Against Racism events of the 1970s. In 1985, Billy Bragg did a short Jobs for Youth tour in support of Labour, which served as a prototype for Red Wedge.
Red Wedge was never formally part of the Labour Party, although the Labour MP Robin Cook helped launch it at a Westminster reception and it had some office space at Labour headquarters for a time. Its goal was to galvanize youth into organizing and voting against Thatcher, under the slogan “Don’t get mad, get organized.”
As the Style Council front man Paul Weller put it:
We were not saying that the Labour Party had all the answers, not by a long chalk, but if it was a choice between them and Thatcher’s gang, or the SDP, then there was no contest.
The project’s two principal artists, musically and organizationally, were Bragg and Weller. Other core members included the Communards, Tom Robinson, Jerry Dammers of the Specials, Lorna Gee, and Junior Giscombe.
The lyrics of Red Wedge members were openly left wing, not mincing words when it came to Margaret Thatcher and class struggle. “Ghost Town” by the Specials had depicted the impacts of the recession of the early 1980s through the eyes of a young club-goer. “Walls Come Tumbling Down!” by the Style Council was a bona fide socialist anthem: “Governments crack and systems fall / ‘Cause unity is powerful / Lights go out, walls come tumbling down!”
Tying these anthems of recession and revolution together was a certain nostalgia for the social-democratic postwar compromise. This was a recurring theme across Bragg’s folk-rock oeuvre, given its most succinct articulation in his song, “Between the Wars.”
Red Wedge took its name from Soviet constructivist artist El Lissitzky’s Russian civil war propaganda poster “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge.” Despite its use of Soviet iconography, the group was certainly not communist. Indeed, some left-wing musicians accused it of being too moderate. In a 2012 interview with The Point, Paul Heaton, lead singer of the Housemartins, recalls being asked to join Red Wedge:
I asked, “do you want to nationalize the music industry?” and to a man — and I won’t name the names, but they were famous Red Wedge people — every one of them said no. I just said, “right, you’ve not got our support” and walked out.
Some Labour activists criticized the use of Westminster for the group’s launch, suggesting that a Brixton council estate would have been more appropriate. Robert Elms, Labour adviser and “style consultant” for Kinnock countered in the Times: “You can’t expect people like George Michael and Sade to turn up to something like that.”
Wedge on the Road
There was constant tension between the Labour leadership’s purely instrumental interest in Red Wedge and the aspirations of its members. Labour wanted the musicians’ tour to be — in the words of Red Wedge press officer Neil Spencer — “a gong-banging exercise for the Labour Party.” It hoped to shuttle the participants from meetings with Labour members and trade unionists to press conferences with candidates.
But Red Wedge members just wanted to do their jobs and play good music. Most were not enthusiastic about the glad-handing they were expected to do. They simply wanted to concentrate on the music and connecting young people and politics.
The cleavage between Red Wedge and Labour was particularly wide when it came to their respective views on race and sexuality. As Jimmy Somerville, lead singer of the Communards, recalled in 1997: “Labour in those days still had a very cloth-cap mentality and we wanted to help change that.” One of Kinnock’s allies, Patricia Hewitt, infamously wrote in a 1987 letter that “the gays and lesbians issue is costing us dear amongst the pensioners.”
In a 1986 interview, Junior Giscombe voiced a typical concern with Labour’s unwillingness to take racism seriously: “If you asked me to get up on a stage and recruit for [Labour], I would say no, because I still don’t believe in a lot of the things that the Labour party are doing, especially for black kids.”
Red Wedge was as much about kicking Thatcher out of office — by trying to get young people to vote Labour — as it was about changing the Labour Party itself. The group prohibited politicians from going on stage during performances to give a stump speech. Politicians would instead be available in the venue’s foyer if concertgoers wanted to chat. As singer Tom Robinson put it: “The last thing we wanted was hardline party blokes going out there and lecturing the crowd on the evils of capitalism. That’s not how you change the minds of rock fans.”
A recurring refrain from Red Wedge concertgoers was that the music rocked, but they could care less about the politics. Simon Frith and John Street, writing in Marxism Today in 1986, argued that Red Wedge’s dual commitment to both representing and educating youth may have resulted in nothing more than a muddle. People turned up for Red Wedge gigs for the usual reason that people go to concerts — for fun.
Some of the YouTube comments on old Red Wedge concert films left by veterans of the gigs do indeed reveal a sense of hope that the tours provided. Others, however, are rather less idealistic: “Couldn’t have cared less at the time what it was promoting . . . Housemartins were class.”
Will Walls Come Tumbling Down?
Labour lost the 1987 election and Red Wedge officially disbanded in 1990. Billy Bragg remained happy with the work of the project, saying that it did manage to bring youth and the Labour Party together. However, the experience of Red Wedge turned Weller off party politics entirely. As he remarked in 1996:
It was an eye-opener; it brought me full circle in how I feel about politics. It’s a game. I’ve very little interest in it.
For Labour apparatchiks, Red Wedge was a way of making the party’s image seem more hip in the minds of young voters. Red Wedge members, on the other hand, felt that they were changing the party into something for and by young people. Neither of these conceptions lent themselves to the formulation of policy positions. Ultimately, Labour was not actually offering young people what they wanted and needed — the convergence was more about aesthetics than politics.
To be sure, culture has to be an integral part of left politics. How can we paint a picture of a just future if we have no style or shared cultural grammar with which to do it? But the rise and fall of Red Wedge reminds us that there are no short cuts. Aesthetic radicalism is no substitute for the hard work of building a mass political project.