A flagging identity
What's behind Labour's cosmetic attachment to flat caps and old songs?
‘We’ve made far too much of a rupture with the past’, says Jon Cruddas, Labour MP for Dagenham, ‘and we should be proud of what is, after all, a rich history’ (1). At the Labour Party conference in October 2003, singing ‘The Red Flag’ was back. After years of carefully off-loading Old Labour’s policies and totems, the old song is suddenly an important part of the party’s ‘rich history’.
Tony Blair must have thought so too. Despite ditching Clause Four, Old Labour’s article of faith, in 1995, Blair had no qualms about bellowing out the dirge either (although thankfully without an electric guitar). In his conference speech, Gordon Brown made misty-eyed references to the Labour Party’s ‘traditional values’.
But it’s not just in Bournemouth conference halls where it’s de rigeur to strike Old Labour poses. For the past two or three years, the young-ish militants in the RMT (Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers) union often appear like they are in a Sleaze Nation fashion shoot: flat caps, football scarves and the kind of weather-resistant jackets worn by leather-faced hotdog sellers. If the get-up sounds like a clanking search for working-class ‘identity’, so is their industrial action (which comes in the form of token one-day strikes). After all, the RMT’s irresolvable grievances with London Underground often seem to be a matter of childish attention-seeking – as is the case with many disputes about cultural identity.
All this, however, is a far cry from the positive role that class identity once played. In the past, the working class developed distinctive traditions and defined itself as a collective group on the basis of its experience in society. A basic ‘us and them’ antagonism towards the powers that be prevailed, and so too did expressing solidarity with each other during times of trouble. Today couldn’t be more different.
At a time when most people are suspicious of even family and friends, let alone complete strangers, there is little potential for a real class identity to emerge. Yet it is precisely because class has lost its purchase that such ‘identities’ can be so widely appropriated. The Guardian gloated that Blair singing ‘The Red Flag’ would repulse the party’s ‘middle England mindset’ and, by implication, Britain’s too. But nothing could be further from the truth. After all, it was a ‘middle England mindset’ that first sought comfort in an imaginary working-class identity.
When Yorkshire Miners protested against pit closures in 1992, many people from the Tory shires, who had actively opposed the miners in the 1984 strike, came out in full support. No longer a threat to respectable society, the miners became recipients of middle-class pity. There was also a palpable fear of what working people would turn into without the stoic influence of Old Labour.
Horror stories of an inner-city ‘underclass’ gripped broadsheet newspapers and the public imagination alike. Tony Parsons coined the phrase ‘the tattoo jungle’ to paint a lurid picture of shell-suited trolls belching and farting their way through life. And whatever the issue that worried the middle classes -joyriders, the Jamie Bulger murderers, Pit Bull dog owners – the conclusions were always the same: working-class people just ain’t what they used to be. They’ve let us down.
In 1995 this was explored in the BBC drama Our Friends In The North, when veteran Trade Unionist Felix is confronted by a feckless underclass thug. In the same year Pulp released two singles that also set up the new noble savage (‘Common People’) against the new underclass (‘Miss-shapes’). But while public discussion and popular culture pondered about a vulgar class, there was also a broader concern about a vulgar society.
Read any of the recent reappraisals of the mid-1990s Britpop years and the assessment is always the same: too brash, too arrogant and above all too materialistic. Not surprisingly, many of the conclusions have a familiar ring to them: a yearning for ‘traditional’ values and some down-to-earth integrity. With Old Tory Britain was exposed for its corruption and brutality, the only real candidate for such a role is the working-class identities of Old Labour.
Of course, as is argued elsewhere on spiked, a return to Old Labour’s policies is as likely as Iain Duncan Smith winning an electoral landslide (2). But in some ways Old Labour seems perfectly suited for these times – as it can act as a moral bulwark against working-class consumerism.
From the late 1970s up to the early 1990s, Old Labour couldn’t relate to even the most modest aspirations of the working class. In fact, material advancement was often seen as the antithesis of virtuous Old Labour and ‘class identity’. This a theme that comes to life in the 1970s sit-com, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?. Many of the best scenarios revolve around Terry Collier’s alarm and disgust at Bob Ferris’ new house, new car and new lifestyles. When the pair are trying on expensive suits for Bob’s wedding, Terry accuses him of being ‘a traitor to your entire class’. Bob, however, sees straight through Terry’s sentimental, salt-of-the-earth rhetoric. ‘What? Since when have you ever taken sides?’, says Bob. ‘You’ve always been a dyed-in-the-wool, honest-to-goodness don’t know‘.
Which, come to think of it, is a pretty good description of the recent Labour conference. Singing ‘The Red Flag’ could put a bit of cosmetic distance from the New Labour project, without any real consequences. More worryingly, the moral consciousness associated with Old Labour and class identity becomes recast as being above politics and political responsibility. No wonder they want to keep the red flag flying.
(1) Guardian, 2 October 2003
(2) Bournemouth dreaming, by Josie Appleton
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