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Rockin’ the vote: Billy Bragg for Blair?

'Culture,' Norman Mailer once said, 'is worth huge, huge risks.' Billy Bragg seems prepared to take those risks, and his rhymes of resistance and years of political campaigning have established him as the doyen of British protest music. But now that the rock star and songwriter is lending his talents to a string of pro-war New Labour candidates in their election bids, he has fallen foul of several of his fans and fellow campaigners. I also reached out in search of explanation. Fearing there would be no straight answer, I wanted to hear the crooked answer.

April 30, 2005
9 min read

You woke up this morning

To the fact we’ve lost the things

We took for granted between u
s

Billy Bragg, The Myth of Trust

‘Culture,’ Norman Mailer once said, ‘is worth huge, huge risks.’ Billy Bragg seems prepared to take those risks, and his rhymes of resistance and years of political campaigning have established him as the doyen of British protest music. But now that the rock star and songwriter is lending his talents to a string of pro-war New Labour candidates in their election bids, he has fallen foul of several of his fans and fellow campaigners. I also reached out in search of explanation. Fearing there would be no straight answer, I wanted to hear the crooked answer.

‘Listening to The Clash,’ Bragg says, ‘had a huge influence on me musically.’ Not only had Joe Strummer and his band politicized the punk scene, but they knew how to ‘walk it like you talk it.’ Bob Dylan, and Woody Guthrie also figure in his pantheon of lyrical legends.

When it came to politics, however, it was Margaret Thatcher who propelled the bard of Barking into action. The defining political moment for Bragg came with the miners’ strike of 1984-5, when the Conservative government set out to lay waste to Britain’s industrial heartlands, crippling communities and livelihoods in the process. The depredations of the Tory years weigh heavily on Billy’s mind, and he exhibits an especial relish for punishing Thatcher’s party.

‘I vote how I always vote,’ Bragg stresses, ‘against the Tory. Whoever can beat the Tory, I’ll vote for ’em.’ Much to his displeasure, Billy’s local MP is a Conservative. And not just any Conservative, but the insufferable Oliver Letwin, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer (and, amusingly, first cousin of Michael Letwin, convenor of New York Labor Against War). ‘Yeah, so you see it’s a big deal for us to beat him where I live, in Dorset.’

The denizens of Dorset are dear to Bragg and most of his exertions are focused on local, grassroots campaigns. He’s been involved with ‘surfers against sewage, working to preserve the environment of the area, and getting more local produce into our supermarkets.’ Now, through a brand new website, he’s exhorting the electorate there to rid themselves of the Conservatives and vote ‘tactically’: getting traditional Lib-Dem voters to vote Labour in constituencies where it can count, and vice-versa. ‘It’s a big ask, I know. But we have to keep the Tories out.’

Though it is almost certain that Labour will clinch a third term in power, it is the Tories that have Bragg rattled. ‘Since they are in second place in most Labour seats,’ he portends, ‘I think that the Tories are a big threat. I’m very concerned that, even if they don’t win the election, they will come back resurgent and feel rewarded for the kind of racist, xenophobic campaign they’ve run.’

New Labour’s own record on race relations is pretty dismal. The most cursory of glances at the legacy of former Home Secretary, David Blunkett, makes plain how matters have regressed in this country. Earlier in the day, Tony Blair was at a press conference doing his utmost to assuage fears that he has been ‘too soft’ on immigration and asylum. It was not an edifying anti-racist speech. ‘No it wasn’t’ Bragg concedes. ‘But he did make a mainstream case for a multicultural society. He had a fair stab at it. You don’t get the sense with him that we were back in the old days; the sort of sense you get from the Tories.’

A visceral anti-Toryism underscores all of Bragg’s politics-even when they are a frail opposition party. . I probably would have nodded vigorously in approval if it was 1997 and the Conservatives had just been in power for 18 years. But can we turn a blind-eye to Labour’s last eight years and vote for supine Blairites simply because they are not Conservatives?

‘Yeah. That’s it, that’s what’s on offer. You either get that or the Tories. You think the Tories won’t privatize, etc.? These are the choices you have to make. They are the only parties that can win the election. I think you have to, unfortunately, hold your nose and do what you can to stop things sliding back.’

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? This is the classic, plaintive ‘lesser-evil’ argument, also known as ‘Forward not Back-ism’ in the New Labour vernacular. On war though, Blair has distinguished himself and out-bombed the combined efforts of Thatcher and Major.

So, does it behove an antiwar artist and activist to demand that voters simply ignore the travesties of the war in Iraq and bolt over to Blair’s side? In the latest issue of the New Statesman, John Pilger tersely argues that, ‘By voting for Blair, you will walk over the corpses of at least 100,000 people, most of them innocent, slaughtered in defiance of international law.’ Now Billy is not the sort of person to casually traipse past tragedy on his way to the polling booth, but he is adept at shunting a question. ‘I attended the antiwar demonstrations, and yes, the war was a total waste of money. But do you think the Tories would do any different? Do you think the Tories would spend that money on the public the next time? Do you think the Tories won’t pal up with George Bush and the neocons?’

Sure, they might. It remains worthy of note, however, that even Margaret Thatcher had blanched at the invasion of Grenada. The Bush-Blair nexus, on the other hand, has been likened by John Lanchester, in the London Review of Books, to ‘the coital lock’ – a position which ‘makes it impossible to separate dogs during sex.’ Blair’s loyal lieutenants have been party to this liaison too and stand culpable.

On foundation hospitals, student top-up fees, Kafkaesque ‘anti-terror’ legislation, Afghanistan and Iraq, Margaret Hodge and Oona King stood shoulder-to-shoulder’ with Blair. You will never catch Billy Bragg lauding the stances that this brace of east London MPs has taken, but he has campaigned and played gigs for them.

‘Margaret Hodge,’ Billy explains, ‘is the Labour MP for my home town of Barking. The BNP (British National Party) recently won a seat on the local council and is targeting the area. Hodge is an ulta-Blairite who voted for the war. Should I stand back and say well, she is culpable, and let the BNP take over my home town, or should I get stuck in against the fascists? No contest.’

Perhaps, but I hasten to add that in the past anti-fascist organisations have found it possible to confront the BNP without necessarily endorsing candidates whose voting records leave a great deal to be desired. And what about Oona King, whose cushy majority faces no threat from the far-right. Is she not ripe for eviction?

‘I went to support Oona King because I genuinely believe that there is a strong chance that, due to Respect and, more significantly, Labour voters refusing to vote, she will lose her seat to the Tories who are well placed there to benefit from a split between the progressive vote.’

The Battle for Brick Lane has elicited more attention than any other constituency in this election. While Britain’s national papers are providing almost daily coverage, the Washington Post, Al-Jazeera, The Bangladesh Independent and a slew of other foreign media outlets have also descended on the East End constituency of Bethnal Green & Bow, where Oona King is being taken on by former Labour MP George Galloway and his Respect Party. Psephologists and bookmakers are declaring that the skirmish is a two-horse race between King and Galloway, with the Conservatives trailing far behind. It is set to deliver a nail-biting finish.

‘The media have been trying to get me to badmouth Galloway, and I won’t.’ In the past Bragg has described the antiwar rebel as ‘a good man, fallen among trots.’ ‘I still stand by that,’ Billy says, ‘but I don’t see how ousting Oona would help the people of Basra, never mind the people of Bethnal Green.’

Billy Bragg has not been the only high-profile figure to support King. Three senior cabinet ministers have canvassed for her, Cherie Blair has issued clarion calls for Galloway to be given ‘a bloody nose’, and the broadsheet bombardiers, Nick Cohen, Johann Hari and Christopher Hitchens, have scribbled furiously in Oona’s favour. How does the musician feel about such unlovely company? ‘What about Ken Livingstone?’ he keenly counters.

Livingstone, the mayor formerly known as Red Ken, has an odd relationship with the Labour Party. He first signed up to the party when Harold Wilson, the Labour Prime Minister, was backing the Vietnam war, was expelled in 2000 for standing against the official Labour candidate for Mayor of London, and then scurried back into its fold when another Labour Prime Minister was backing another outrageous war. Recently in the press he has chastised the Liberal Democrat leadership for wanting to dispatch more troops to Iraq and artfully left out any mention of what his party leadership had done over the matter.

Like Livingstone, Billy Bragg does not wish to see Labour lose any seats on 5 May. But he is keen to ‘move the centre of British politics to left’ and, unlike Livingstone, sees increasing Liberal Democrat representation in parliament as a means to achieve that.

‘Wherever you are, you have to vote against a Conservative candidate. That will stop the Tories taking seats off Labour. That’ll increase the Lib-Dems’ seats. The Tories will come out of this election with fewer seats than they had before, and they’ll split. They’ll divide and break-up. And the end result is that the Lib-Dems will be in a much better position to be the official opposition and then New Labour will have to deal with them.’

It sounds like a grim struggle, and I do wish him the best with it. However, I still retain little sympathy for an argument that expects voters incensed by this war to simply surrender this election and seethe in silence.

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