By Duncan Heining
The Barbican, London UK
Remember Red Wedge and how pop and rock stars threw their collective weight behind Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party in 1986? Well, on Friday 27 February a raft of British jazzers gave their artistic and cultural support to Ed Miliband’s new “New Labour” at a concert at London’s Barbican Theatre. It was quite an array of talent, going by reviews, with performances from Courtney Pine, Claire Martin, Ian Shaw, Gary Crosby, Arun Ghosh, Andy Sheppard, Christine Tobin, John Etheridge, Soweto Kinch and Darius Brubeck. According to Brian Blain’s London Jazz News’ review, Soweto Kinch even led the audience in a “rumbustious rap based on words shouted out by the crowd, beginning with the letters L-A-B-O-U-R.” Guess you had to be there.
I know I’m not alone in worrying at the speed at which our collective memory seems to forget even recent past events these days. Mystics talk of a “veil of forgetfulness” that separates our conscious selves from our higher selves. I’m a die-hard atheist but I wonder if they haven’t a point – whilst at the same time completely missing the target.
I’ve been writing about British jazz for nearly 20 years and I’m an admirer of many on that stage. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel deeply saddened to see so many fine British jazz artists taking to the Barbican stage under the “Jazz For Labour” banner. I have no problem with jazzers getting political. I want to see more of it. I want us to get critical and angry. But this is not “We Insist Freedom Now”, it’s “Please sir, I want some more”.
We live in very difficult times, far more so than we like to admit. One sympathises with those who make their living in marginal arts like jazz, particularly when the present regime has attacked all aspects of public funding so viciously – and if elected will do far worse. I don’t deny any of that. One can, however, sympathise but still question the decisions and actions that underpin this display of support for Labour.
I have spoken in the past with several of those musicians about their anger at New Labour’s decision to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq in support of a right-wing American government. I know also that several of those on that stage are only too aware of just how far the Blair government failed in terms of regulating the financial industry and in terms of their social policies on transport, welfare and poverty. Child poverty actually increased under Blair, whilst the rich got richer with the gap between the very wealthy and the very poor widening. Fairness and diversity?
Can we really believe that Labour under Milliband offers us a new “New Labour”? Labour has already committed itself to sticking within present government spending plans should they be elected. Far from being prepared to challenge the racism amongst their own supporters, the indications from Harriet Harman are that Labour under Milliband will once more be talking tough on immigration. Remember Jack Straw and all that rhetoric about “bogus asylum seekers”? That still sticks in my throat but that was nothing new. Labour under Hugh Gaitskell took a principled stand in opposing the Tories’ Nationality Act in 1958. Ten years later, facing possible defeat at the polls, Labour under Harold Wilson introduced their own Commonwealth Immigrants Act. Fairness and diversity? Plus ça change.
Worst of all for those who like to think that Labour under Milliband might be different, more recent history tells another story. Will Labour cancel the renewal of Trident at a cost of £100 billion? No. And when parliament debated air strikes against ISIS in September, Milliband led his party in voting “yes”. Only 23 Labour MPs voted against. One, Iain McKenzie, who voted “no” was a parliamentary aide to the Shadow Defence Secretary. He was sacked from his post. The savagery and barbarity of ISIS raises terribly difficult questions in terms of how this organisation might be confronted and stopped. But look at decades of interference in the Middle East by Western powers, acting always in their own interests. ISIS is a consequence of these interventions, interventions which have led to a huge loss of life, continuing policy failures and massive costs – money that might far better have gone to health, education, international development aid and the arts.
And look at the security state that we are now forced to inhabit. Now ask who has benefitted most from these wars? One answer to that question is the arms industry, an industry that found such a keen advocate in Tony Blair. Have things changed? To quote John Woodcock, Labour MP for Barrow, a town that relies on the local submarine business: “This is a sort of shark. It’s got to keep going forward.”
Whether in terms of foreign or domestic policy, there are no easy choices. We kid ourselves if we think otherwise. The hard choice is to build a genuine alternative in British politics, one that focuses on the culture of a common welfare, not on the culture of warfare.
Oscar Wilde, himself a socialist, once remarked that marriage is the triumph of imagination over intelligence, whilst second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience. Were he around today, I suspect he would change that definition to include voting Labour.
- Read more of Duncan Heining’s work at his site Jazzinternationale here.