Ten top political songs for Labour


1) Things Can Only Get Better
2) Ghost Town
3) Liar Liar
4) Eton Rifles
5) Shipbuilding
6) There is Power in a Union
7) My Guy
8) Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika
9) A Man’s a Man for A’ That
10) Jerusalem

Since the General Election Labour has recruited thousands of new members. A massive and heartfelt welcome to the Labour tribe. Like any family, we have our in-jokes and our folk memory, codes it has been difficult for newcomers to crack quickly.
Until now.

This series of Political Top 10s is designed to encourage debate amongst LabourList readers about Labour’s heritage in a way that will help induct new members and possibly infuriate older ones. It will almost certainly get up your nose with omissions and bewilder you with inclusions you disagree with. Let me know which in comments or on twitter (@kirstyjmcneill).

If you have just got back from #Lab13 I hope you saw the amazing Richard Curtis film, Protest to Progress which was played on conference floor on Sunday. It was made as part of One’s Agit8 initiative to chart the history of protest songs. There’s a wealth of great content there, but I wanted to do a Labour special, the top 10 songs every Labour member should have on their party playlist.

The week we’ve been told that Britain Can Do Better Than This is a good time to remember we’ve been here before. Labour’s 1997 election anthem Things Can Only Get Better was the opening salvo in 13 years of changing Britain for the better and forever. And never ever doubt that we did – just look at the Britain we built together.

And just look at what the coalition have done to destroy it in only three years. With nearly a million young people unemployed and working people queuing for charity food in one of the richest countries in the world Ghost Town feels like it could have been written yesterday.

Meanwhile Captain Ska’s Liar Liar is the only song on this list I’m not confident will still be on it ten years from now, but I’ve included it because of the overlay of helicopters. Whenever people have asked me to describe how, in the months after the general election, I knew everything was going to be different under this miserable shower I have responded with three words: horses and helicopters. In the more than a decade I’ve lived in London, I have never seen the state police its citizenry so heavily around the time of budgets and political statements as it does now as a matter of routine.

If listening to that leaves you feeling sad, have a think about the chumocracy meeting at Tory conference next week and get angry instead. Not content with trying to ruin the Smiths for us, the Prime Minister has got a little confused about whether the Jam’s Eton Rifles is a furious tirade about the British Establishment or ‘a jolly drinking song for the cadet corps’. For the avoidance of doubt, read the history of Red Wedge.

One of the most passionate moments in Ed Miliband’s conference speech was his barnstorming defence of the people of North East, a direct response to Lord Howell’s remarks about the region’s ‘desolation’ but also a guaranteed crowd pleaser for everybody from communities destroyed by Thatcher’s policy of deindustrialisation.  Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding describes the choices left to those who remain.

But while much of the political music of the 80’s was concerned with charting decline and dislocation, some of the best was about how we were going to fight back. If you ever needed a reason to believe that ‘money speaks for money’ then witnessing the response of the vested interests to Ed’s energy plan was surely it. In the face of concentrations of wealth and power, ordinary people need organisations to defend our interests. Step forward the real Big Society and its soundtrack There is Power in a Union.

Like Billy’s, much of the music put out by Labour supporters throughout the 80’s was avowedly political. But some, like Tracey Ullman’s My Guy, earned their place in the annals for other services to social democracy. A word to the wise for anybody in the leader’s office thinking it’s time to put Ed in a music video. No.

That isn’t to say he should steer clear of music. I’ve written elsewhere about the power of pop culture: it is what meant that polling at the time of the Free Nelson Mandela concerts showed that the majority of Britons couldn’t name their MP but a staggering 92% knew the name of an activist imprisoned 6,000 miles away in Robben Island. That eternal fraternal friend of UK Labour is why Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika is number seven. The ANC didn’t just ask for our outrage, but for our solidarity and the Labour movement delivered in abundance. On a side note, if you want to make sure Labour keeps up that level of internationalism, now would be a good time to join the Labour Campaign for International Development.

The same sentiment is expressed in a song much older than anything else on this list – but provided here in a very modern version. A Man’s a Man for A’ That is a poem by Robert Burns (translated here) which should be close to every Labour member’s heart not only for its fierce internationalism but its ferocious egalitarianism.

The final entry is, of course, Jerusalem. However you feel about the Labour Party’s Christian Socialist roots (and if you want to know about them I’d heartily recommend God’s Politicians by Graham Dale as a primer), the imperative to build a new Jerusalem has long been with us, even serving as our slogan for the 1945 election. And we know how that turned out.

Kirsty McNeill is a former Downing Street adviser and a strategy consultant for campaigning organisations. She tweets @kirstyjmcneill.

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