Please explain your role in Red Wedge. I was chair of the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) 1984-1986 and Editor of Socialist Youth (LP Monthly Youth Paper) The LPYS was led by the Militant and had over 600 branches and was an overwhelmingly working class organisation. During the Miner’s strike we were doing mass work in support of the strike. Young people brought their musical tastes into the LPYS and we promoted bands at locals and national level. For example we worked with Billy Bragg and Paul Weller. Both participated in and played at a lobby of Parliament we held against compulsory Youth Training Schemes (YTS) We were also involving a wider layer of artists and groups in our campaigns such as the Housemartins and the Communards. Neil Kinnock, the leader of the LP at the time was engaged in a political witch-hunt against the Militant who were leading mass struggles against Thatcher in Liverpool. Kinnock and the LP right wing wanted to move against the LPYS but it was difficult because of our support in the wider movement because of our campaigning work on behalf of young people.
In 1985 Peter Mandelson was appointed Director of Communications at the LP and with Labour Students, who supported Kinnock, started to work on strategies to undermine the LPYS. One of those strategies was Red Wedge. If Mandelson did not exactly come up with the idea of Red Wedge he certainly used it to attempt to sideline the LPYS. At the first Red Wedge meetings LP officials and Billy Bragg took the lead. As the official youth wing of the LP we attended meetings and argued we should be allowed to speak at meetings and have stalls where we could distribute political materials and recruit young people to the LPYS. In general the artists were genuinely sympathetic to us and Paul Weller supported our right to be involved as he knew us and what we stood for. At a particular meeting one of the LP officials said that there should not be ‘political’ speakers at the Red Wedge gigs as ‘young people were not party political.’ They were playing on the fact that traditional pro-capitalist and pro-system politicians would come across badly. This was also an attempt to stop the LPYS from having any influence and a platform to get across our socialist ideas to a wide mass audience. Craig Charles (Red Dwarf), the Liverpool poet, suggested that Derek Hatton, the Militant leader of Liverpool City Council should speak at the gigs as ‘he was dead popular’ in Liverpool.’ This was met by nervous shuffling of feet by the LP officials and staring at the floor! In the end, although the LPYS were officially excluded from speaking at the gigs, through our contacts and relationships with their artists we managed to distribute our materials at the gigs and we recruited many young people to the LPYS and the Militant.
What were your personal reasons for involving yourself? It was part of my political work at the time.
Why do you think that Red Wedge emerged at the time that it did? It was a time of great movements. Thatcherism had declared war on the working class. I had been a Punk in the 1970s and had attended Rock Against Racism / ANL gigs. When I joined the Militant and LPYS in 1979 I naturally took my music into the movement as did my contemporaries. There was a red radical line from Punk to Red Wedge. Young people suffered greatly under Thatcher and became radical, even revolutionary in the case of the youth around the LPYS and Militant. The artists involved in Red Wedge were young people too and could not fail to be affected by the prevailing mood amongst their fans.
What do you feel the aims of Red Wedge were? For the LPYS, Red Wedge was a continuation of our solidarity work with the miners and our campaigns against compulsory YTS. In a way I saw it as our revolutionary soundtrack. The songs mostly coincided with the way young people were feeling. However, Mandelson and Kinnock and the LP bureaucracy had a much more limited view of Red Wedge. They saw it as an electoral tool to get Kinnock into Nº10. They limited the radical message of the youth and turned it into a bland electioneering exercise.
Many of those in the Labour party at the time feel that Red Wedge was a failure as they didn’t win the 1987 election. To what extent do you feel it had a wider impact on involving young people in politics and why? Nothing is wasted in nature. Red Wedge ‘failed’ in one way because it was expropriated by the bureaucratic LP machine which had limited electoral and ‘moderate’ aims. They blunted the radical feelings of young people and their aspirations. However, the ‘failure’ of Red Wedge was part of the wider political process. Kinnock had sold out the miner’s strike and the Liverpool Council battle and refused to back the LPYS School Student’s strikes in 1985/86 against compulsory YTS. Kinnock had alienated himself from the revolutionary youth and sections of the working class. He went on the expel many Militant activists and eventually closed down the LPYS. Red Wedge ‘failed’ because it was highjacked by the LP right wing.
The real failure, from the point of view of the Labour and trade union movement and the youth, who desperately needed radical change was Kinnock. He used his quasi-left credentials to make the LP entirely safe for capitalism by expelling socialists, closing down the magnificent LPYS which was connecting with masses of young people. As a young man I considered Kinnock to be a vain clown who was too stupid to realise he was being played by the ruling class. He lost TWO general elections when the Tories were absolutely hated in working class communities. A complete failure for the movement but on a personal level he was rewarded by the ruling class with cushy well paid jobs in the EU and a seat in the House of Lords. I have not changed my opinion about Kinnock.
As the youth vote is incredibly low at the moment, do you feel something like Red Wedge could possibly enthral young people in this day and age and why? I am in favour of the youth today using their music and culture to further their political aims but THEY NEED TO BE IN CONTROL. The main lesson of the Red Wedge experience is for young people to hold onto their political and cultural independence. Young people are becoming radicalised again around the world and their music is playing a part. Look at Grime. We will have revolutionary music again which will inspire the movement and act as its soundtrack. My advice to the new generation is that the youth need to be autonomous and not allow ‘official’ political parties and careerist politicians and artists to expropriate their music and culture for reformist political aims.
Please feel free to share any other reflections you have on Red Wedge:
I consider Billy Bragg has the same relationship to genuine socialism as Bono and Geldof have to fighting world poverty. They have generated a lot of self publicity and promoted themselves and little else. The real fight to end poverty and in favour of socialism goes on…..
A couple of Facebook messages on Billy Bragg’s page:
“As I’ve mentioned previously Billy Bragg did the dirty on us over Red Wedge. The LPYS had promoted him during the miner’s strike and he did the YTURC lobby of parliament with Paul Weller.
Mandelson was appointed Director of Communications in 1985 and was a lot cleverer than Kinnock. They came up with the idea of RED WEDGE to sideline the LPYS but we fought it all the way.
I remember at a meeting with loads of celebs they pushed the idea that there should be no speeches at the gigs as young people ‘weren’t political.’ They also said the LPYS couldn’t be too prominent at the gigs.
Craig Charles (Red Dwarf) piped up: “Why don’t we get that Derek Hatton to speak? He’s dead popular in Liverpool.’ Shuffling of feet and looking at the floor…..
Paul Heaton of the Housemartins said he would participate in Red Wedge but only if they put ‘nationalisation of the music industry’ in the programme.
Bragg backed Kinnock on the issue and the rest was sell-out history……
Did you think at that time of youthful revolt you would soon be calling salt of the earth working class Socialists ‘extremists’ and suck up to Neil Kinnock and end up asking people to vote for the Lib Dems……? Asking for a friend Billy.”
Bragg: “Newcastle was heaven and hell. The best gig but the worst day. Right through the tour we had constant problems with the extremists, like our friends in the Young Socialists.”
Billy Bragg, the singer, has pledged to back the Liberal Democrats as they have the ”best manifesto”.