This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
As next year's election approaches, the major political parties will be scrambling to capture the youth vote. MPs will grapple with selfies, pose uncomfortably next to rappers and pretend to have watched Eastenders to people who are actually in Eastenders, and all for the precious fresh meat of first-time voters. While politicians repeatedly fail to learn from their predecessors' errors, they'd be wise to avoid the campaign tactics of the Labour Party in the run up to the 1987 election.
As Thatcher ruled in the 1980s, the Labour Party was having an identity crisis. Internal struggles within the party and repeated public blunders destroyed its revolutionary image, making it a laughing stock among the left at the time. Michael Foot, the aged leader of the party, disillusioned the socialist youth, while bad blood with the trade unions in the late 70s led to the party losing control of its base voters. The disposal of Foot in 1983 lead way for hip, young 41-year-old Neil Kinnock to guide the party in a new direction.
I think we've all watched enough Brit flicks set in cold mining towns to establish that British youth didn't have it great in the 80s. The late 70s had seen the explosion that was punk; angry, accessible, hated by "adults." The latter half of the decade brought an IMF bailout for the failing economy, union strikes and energy shortages, all culminating in the infamous three-day week, an attempt to cut costs in a period of crisis.
The poor quality of life continued into the reign of Thatcher, but punk did not. The death of Sid Vicious in 1979 served as a symbol for the death of the youth movement; the scene scattered into various incarnations that failed to unite people the way punk had.
But that's not to say that British music had entirely detached itself from politics. "Rock Against Racism" formed in 1976 after Eric Clapton drunkenly endorsing the ideas of Enoch Powell. Among other things, its legacy was a bunch of copycat campaigns, with young musicians at the time using music to raise awareness of the evils of everything from sexism to communism. Young people were angry and left-wing musicians and politicians were both worried about what this would make them do—whether it be riot or vote for Thatcher.
No one feared this more so than Billy Bragg. Bragg was already known as a left-wing activist around the the 1983 election and his benefit concerts for those affected by the 1984 miners' strike caught the eye of Kinnock, who saw young people angered at Thatcher's brutality as his prime base. Together, they formed a socialist double act bent on soft guitar rock domination: the 1985 Jobs For Youth tour.
Problem was, being a leftie was no longer an attraction to most mainstream musicians; Thatcherism had brought with it New Romantics and their desire for material excess. While no musical acts (except maybe Gary Numan) would come out in support of Thatcher, the likes of Duran Duran and the popularity of publications like The Face signalled a new youth consciousness, one less mindful of politics than the cut of their white, shoulder-padded suits. Although Bragg had met like-minded musicians such as Paul Weller while performing his benefit concerts, getting performers together was like the BBC trying to make a music promo. And thus, the men gathered together entertainers from across the boundaries of taste, united in their goal to topple Thatcher.
The collective was called the Red Wedge, and it launched in November 1985 in the lead up to the general election. The promotional poster looks like a nostalgic TV Panel show title card; Paul Weller stares awkwardly into the distance, surrounded by members of Heaven 17, while Kinnock embraces a member of Strawberry Switchblade. The gigs were even stranger; members of the Specials played alongside Bananarama, a young Harry Enfield and that guy who played Hagrid did stand up routines, all the while flagged by well dressed Labour MPs, ready to take the questions from the gathered masses. The tour visited towns across the country.NME—who, since the death of punk had been grabbing any youth movement that was flung at them—fully backed the campaign, demonizing Thatcher and putting Neil Kinnock on the front cover… twice. Think about NME putting Ed Miliband on the cover and you begin to understand how weird that is.
There was a genuine feeling among those taking part that they were participating in a revolution. Junior Giscombe, a fixture on the Wedge tour, saw the musical excursion as a chance to highlight the struggles of black British youth: "We were being persecuted in the same way as those in the North, not seen as much worth to the nation. Those involved from the beginning where very passionate in getting across the notion of change from the bottom up, locally then nationally."
While theoretically admirable, the concerts themselves were more Trotsky than Lenin. Steve Boon attended the Wedge's Manchester Apollo show on the 25th January, 1986 on a last minute whim. "I heard the Smiths were playing so decided to buy a last-minute ticket," said Boon. "If I'm honest, I don't remember much of the political aspect of it; there was a bloke in a suit but I assumed he was some sort of mod."
Here lies the central problem of all charity concerts; while big names like The Smiths could draw crowds, were the punters really taking in the message of the event? Bragg now laments, "The reality is that pop musicians can't change the world, only the audience can do that. It was true then and is true now. The most we could do with Red Wedge was to offer people a different perspective on the 1987 election from that of the mainstream media."
It is a testament to the power of Thatcher that she caused the British left to assemble such a hodgepodge of anti-Tory wandering minstrels. Kinnock lost the election. Despite this, the Red Wedge continued to survive in various forms until the end of the decade, disbanding in 1990. It would be seven years before Labour managed to regain power, bringing with it a new optimism and culture revival. Both look hackneyed now, but at the time, while Kinnock's Wedge was a forced, unnatural union, Blair's Cool Britannia touched the zeitgeist.
The existence of the Red Wedge says more about the state of the Labour Party in the 80s than the political motivations of musicians; Labour needed a new image and not much was going to make musicians more popular than rallying against Thatcher. With the Labour party heading into another election with a young socialist leader, I am giddy with excitement at the thought of Ed Miliband curating a week-long residency at XOYO with Stella Creasy and Jake Bugg joining forces for the 2AM guest slot.
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