If anyone is "unelectable" it's Billy Bragg

The left needs to develop a culture that looks like the future.

Gabriel Bristow
14 September 2015


Dear Solidarity with Refugees march organisers,

Saturday’s Solidarity with Refugees march was one of the most moving, and politically significant demonstrations of my life. My sincere thanks to you for organising such a historic event – the perfect setting for Jeremy Corbyn to launch his new leadership of the Labour party. Your political astuteness and passion is no doubt what laid the ground for such a heartening day.

However, while I hold nothing against Billy Bragg (his political commitment and artistic integrity are beyond question), now is the time to swap the old LP for an MP3. Few people stood at the rally outside parliament knew the words to the old standard 'The Red Flag' wheeled out by Bragg, and fewer still felt like singing along. If anyone is “unelectable”, it's Billy Bragg. And yet, on the march itself, there was some of the best, most widespread singing I have heard on any demonstration in recent years. “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here” rang through the streets of Westminster. More than an angry chant that never quite catches on or a feeble rendition of Kumbaya, this simple refrain swelled through the crowd, forming a spontaneous musical canon adequate to the unity and difference of the bodies that made up the whole. 

Responding to this energy, myself and a few friends tried to get one particularly lively singer (who had been leading the song from behind) onto the stage for one more rousing chorus. Our offer was declined by the organisers – the programme was full (including the lengthy set from Billy Bragg) and there was no time for such an unruly popular intervention. The stage could not accommodate the spontaneity of the crowd.

The health of a movement is generally reflected in its cultural output. On Saturday, what little culture that took place on stage could not keep pace with what looked like the beginning of a movement. New movements need new cultures. As Stuart Hall put it, ‘what is required is a renewed sense of being on the side of the future, not stuck in the dugouts of the past’. While we shouldn’t erase the cultural history of the Left, a bearded man with a guitar just won’t cut it in 2015. 

This is a call to the heads of the institutional left: you have the power to reach out to the best young musicians, artists, and designers and give this movement the culture it deserves. Inviting Skepta to play a song at the end of a march would not be enough put off any diehard Billy-Bragg-loving activist that has been on every march since 1983 . But it would be enough to get many young people - who may not see themselves as ‘left-wing’ - to come along. 

And don’t take my musical preferences as a guide – employ a diverse range of young club promoters to do the work of curating the finale of a march for you. If the left can afford to commission academic reports quantifying precisely how exploited we already knew we were, it can afford to pay decent artists that can reflect and help shape the times we live in. At the very least, those who kindly volunteered their time to organise the line up for the Solidarity with Refugees march should encourage young people to take over the reins.

Would Skepta even agree to play at a Jeremy Corbyn election victory party in 2020? Well, you would to actually have to ask him to find out.

In solidarity,

Gabriel Bristow


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