Red Wedge brought both music and the most cutting edge designs to Labour politics in the mid 1980s. Mark Crail looks at the badges coveted by a generation – and at the organisation that produced them.
The platform was too small for the numerous politicians and musicians intent on making their presence felt in front of a battery of press cameras. But despite the crush, the launch of Red Wedge, in a drafty marquee on the terrace of the House of Commons, was a good humoured if boisterous and slightly chaotic affair.
Centre stage that day (it was late morning on 21 November 1985) was the Labour Party leader, Neil Kinnock; Greater London Council leader Ken Livingstone stood alongside him in front of the Red Wedge banner. Meanwhile, Labour MPs including Robin Cook, the nominal host of the event, Norman Buchan, the party’s arts spokesperson, and Clare Short, elected just two years earlier as MP for Birmingham Ladywood, mingled with a crowd of music industry faces not quite well connected enough to join the likes of Paul Weller, Billy Bragg and Kirsty MacColl in the platform party as Kinnock joked his way through the event.
Political parties love a little showbiz glitter, and Labour has sought to connect with generation after generation of young voters, so Red Wedge falls into a long if sporadic tradition of pop and politics initiatives. In many ways, this was the most wholehearted and successful of the many attempts to bring the two cultures together – and unlike most such initiatives before and afterwards, this one originated on the pop side of the divide, not from within the party. Its instigator was Billy Bragg, already well known by the time he got Red Wedge off the ground both for his politics and his music.
If Red Wedge is remembered for anything other than the musically diverse performers it mobilised, it is for the striking image it adopted as its logo, a look created by Neville Brody, the influential graphic designer and art director for The Face magazine. That iconic logo, seen in the three badges pictured above was based on a poster created by the Constructivist artist El Lissitzky in 1919 called ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ – an overtly pro-Bolshevik propaganda piece since used repeatedly over the past century in both political and apolitical contexts. Even in a 1980s golden era for political and band badges, the Red Wedge designs stood out among the millions that must have been given away or sold at gigs, on marches, through the back-page adverts of the New Musical Express and other music papers, and in the alternative bookshops that were then rather more numerous and widespread than they are today.
The motivation for Red Wedge, of course, was unapologetically political, and firmly pro-Labour – albeit critically and at arm’s length. And while there were echoes of the Rock Against Racism of late 1970s punk, the organisation’s genesis was in the numerous benefit gigs at which the same bands often found themselves performing – for striking miners and printworkers, against the abolition of the GLC, and for an end to apartheid.
Perhaps surprisingly, Red Wedge was not simply a one-off launch event to grab a little media attention. Many of those who had crowded into the marquee on the day became a regular or occasional part of the Red Wedge tours that took place in 1986 and again in 1987 – among them Bragg and Weller, the Communards, Madness, Jerry Dammers of the Specials, Strawberry Switchblade, Lorna Gee, Tom Robinson, Frank Chickens, D.C. Lee and Lloyd Cole.
As the tour made its way round the country, local Labour MPs were invited to come along, but were strictly banned from appearing on stage or making speeches. Meanwhile, other musicians joined for one or more shows, including Junior Giscombe, Prefab Sprout and some unlikely figures including Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet and even The Smiths. A separate comedy tour featured big names including Lenny Henry, Ben Elton, Craig Charles, Phill Jupitus and Harry Enfield.
There were meetings, too. For a time, Red Wedge had an office in the Labour Party’s Walworth Road headquarters, and Billy Bragg and others wanted the organisation to be as much about getting young people’s perspectives taken into account in party policy-making as it was about taking Labour’s message to new voters. Bragg had been the driving force in getting Red Wedge together, ensuring the Labour Party was on board, and keeping it going. Without him there would have been no Red Wedge. But few musicians were inclined to take part in the bureaucratic or policy-making side of the organisation; Weller, whose Style Council road crew and management team had been key to a successful tour, later claimed to have become alienated from party politics as a result. It was not what he had signed up for, and he was uncomfortable dealing with journalists’ questions about politics when he wanted to talk about his music.
Red Wedge had its critics. From the left, bands such as Easterhouse and the Redskins, whose politics had been closer to the Socialist Workers Party, were unimpressed. And there were tensions with the Militant-dominated Labour Party Young Socialists, who saw in Red Wedge an attempt by the party leadership to circumvent it as a path to young voters. In return, some in Red Wedge were annoyed that local LPYS activists would commit big name musicians to personal appearances when the tour arrived in town, often without their knowledge – seeing this as an attempt to undermine Red Wedge’s credibility if they failed to turn up.
In the end, of course, despite the musical credibility of the artists taking part and the cutting-edge cool of its imagery, Red Wedge failed to help Labour to a general election victory in 1987, and by 1990 it had been wound up. A decade later, when the party next ran a successful bid for power, a new generation of bands was in the charts, and Tony Blair took office to a backdrop of Things Can Only Get Better and the very different vibe of Cool Britannia.
Mark Crail is web and social media editor for the Society for the Study of Labour History. He was at the launch of Red Wedge in 1985 as a reporter for Tribune.
- Jeremy Tranmer, Political Commitment of a New Type? Red Wedge and the Labour Party in the 1980s, Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique [Online], XXII-3 | 2017
- Liam Devitt, How Britain’s Red Wedge tried to bring pop into politics and politics into pop, Jacobin, 26 June 2021
- It’s the Party I love Photographs and comments by musicians and others involved in Red Wedge from Daniel Rachel, Walls Come Tumbling Down Daniel Rachel (London: Picador, 2016), pp. 593, ISBN 1447272684
- Party Music by Simon Frith and John Street, Marxism Today, June 1986