Letter: ‘Red Wedge’
With reference to your article Rock Bottom (March) I should like to make the following comments. I attended two Red Wedge concerts and was also present at a "Day of Action" in which Billy Bragg and the "Wedgies" were questioned about their motives for the tour and I feel that your article gives the wrong impression.
The tour was not thought up or arranged by the Labour Party but by Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and other left-wing artists; in fact, your first line is incorrect as Red Wedge is not just a campaign by rock musicians but also by comedians, cabaret artists, actors and writers who have been or will be on the road with their own tours.
Propaganda did not come from the stage but MPs—and a certain (ex) GLC leader—were in the foyer to be approached only if so desired. The theme of the tour was to make young people aware that politics is something that affects everyone, and also to get young people to register to vote—whatever party they may vote for, as many young votes had been lost in the 1979 election due to "punk" apathy.
In all, socialism was more the issue than the Labour Party, and at one concert Joolz stated that "no mighty thing" called the Labour Party would change anything—only the people can do that.
Amongst the leaflets on chairs were ones on behalf of CND and the Anti-Apartheid Movement, Socialist Worker and Militant papers were for sale (where was the Socialist Standard?) and even the slogan on the official T-shirts, like the songs of the artists involved, advocated socialism, and I don't think that is a thing to be knocked.
It was an omission on our part to refer to Red Wedge as including only musicians; it does also include comedians and actors. It is, however, definitely a pro-Labour movement, even though it is officially independent of the Labour Party. During 1985, Billy Bragg performed some fifty concerts as part of the "Jobs For Youth" campaign in conjunction with the Labour Party. That tour led directly to the founding of Red Wedge which declared itself, from the start, "committed to a Labour victory at the next election". Needless to say, the "Jobs For Youth" campaign had not made great play of the fact that Labour policies have proved as hopeless as those of the Tories in trying to control capitalism: every Labour government since the 'thirties has left office with unemployment higher than when they were elected.
It may be true that Labour Party propaganda has not been featured on stage, but the performers would not have to tolerate the politicians "in the wings" if they did not wish to. It would be rather surprising if, come the next election, Red Wedge performers such as Robbie Coltrane, Paul Weller and Billy Bragg were to withhold their votes from the nationalist and fundamentally pro-capitalist Labour Party, and, of course, they make no secret of this. Indeed, Billy Bragg tried to defend his active canvassing for Kinnock in a Sunday Times article of 26 January 1986. "Anybody who cares about politics has their part to play, and that's best done as a local party member". He went on to say of earlier protest singers, "All that generation came to nought. They thought if they joined hands and sang Imagine the world would change". Of course, it is essential for people to think critically and to organise politically; but when John Lennon asked people to "imagine . . . no possessions", was that not more challenging than Bragg's sad badge of slavery in Between The Wars: "I'll give my consent, To any government, That does not deny a man, A living wage"?
Meanwhile, the political hacks were gloating. In the Sunday Times article referred to above, Andy McSmith, co-ordinator of the Labour Party's Jobs and Industry campaign, was quoted as saying "Billy is worth his weight in gold to us", and Eric Heffer comments: "It is a good thing that an ordinary working-class lad like Billy should identify himself with the Labour movement".
It is fair to conclude that Red Wedge does not exist purely to encourage young people to vote and to think in any way they might feel like, but to vote and think Labour. The T-shirts might refer to "socialism", but this would not be the first time this term has been used for its popular appeal. Perhaps some performers are being "used" by the politicians to some extent, and any comments they might make about young people thinking for themselves can only be supported by socialists. But it is contemptible for artistic popularity to be prostituted to the sale of stale and second-hand ideas for an alternative brand of "people's capitalism".
The Socialist Party did produce a leaflet which has been distributed at Red Wedge events, which we quote from here:
"Enjoy the music, but do your own thinking. Beware of the smooth talking leaders who are waiting in the wings to sell you their sterile ideas. Workers are capable of building a future which might now seem like a dream. That future has nothing to do with swapping the inhabitants of Ten Downing Street. It is about establishing a society of common ownership, democratic control and production for use—a genuine socialist society. You owe it to yourselves to consider the case not for the Labour Party but for socialism."