If 1997 was all about Oasis and D:Ream, Corbyn's cultural support is both more authentic and less po-facedby Richard Power Sayeed / October 16, 2017 / Leave a comment
Only four years after he had come off the dole, the young man pulled up to the gates of Downing Street in a brown and cream Rolls-Royce. Beyond the famous ironwork entrance, the Blairs were hosting a party and he, the occupant of the elegant sedan, was invited. On the other side of his car door window, someone in the crowd of craned necks and hands thrusting autograph books called out “Who’s this guy?,” but no one else needed to be told that Noel Gallagher had arrived.
Twenty years later, Stormzy was standing onstage at the Men of the Year awards, a ceremony hosted by GQ magazine. Moments before, the chart-topping rapper from Croydon had been introduced by Jeremy Corbyn as “one of London’s most inspiring young men.” Now, leaning his tall frame down towards the low mic, the MC laid into the establishment.
“Theresa May is a paigon,” he told the assembled journalists and celebrities, using a slang term meaning someone not to be trusted. A reporter for the Daily Telegraph demonstrated just how down with the kids they were by immediately expressing their astonishment that the country’s emphatically Church of England prime minister had been accused of idolatry. Social media users who were more in the know started posting about Stormzy’s speech, many labeling their posts with the hashtag #Grime4Corbyn.
These are the routes by which two Labour leaders became cool: Tony Blair’s star-studded bash in July 1997, on the one hand, and, on the other, the astonishing popularity of Jeremy Corbyn among artists who make grime music, a British genre that blends a raw electronic sound with broken beats—“London’s answer to hip-hop,” according to writer Dan Hancox. But what does the enormous difference between them tell us about how their party—and the world—have changed in the intervening two decades?
Even in the summer of 1997, at the height of his popularity, the UK’s new prime minister had a significant weakness: he was cut off from his base. Well-spoken and purposefully distant from the unions and nationalized industries that had long linked the left to working class life, Blair gained from his acquaintance with Gallagher an association with the earthy and macho identity that characterized the stereotypical image of the Labour movement. This polished prime minister was able to seem authentic: not radical but nonetheless sincerely egalitarian.
He was even willing to make risky jokes in order to cultivate such an aura of authenticity. In an interview that raised the hackles of the Tory right, the Oasis songwriter later revealed that at the Downing Street party he had asked the prime minister how he had managed to stay up on election night. “This is his exact words,” recounted Gallagher, who was at the time notorious for his use of cocaine. “He leant over and said, ‘Probably not by the same means as you did.’ And at that point I knew he was a geezer!”
Being a “geezer” was a cheap symbolic substitute for the party’s discarded left policy platform, but it suited the Blairite agenda twenty years ago. Today, by contrast, the link between both the party’s leadership and its members to collective ownership and organized labour is unquestioned.
The appearance of #Grime4Corbyn reflects another, perhaps less obvious change. New Labour rode on the coattails of the Stephen Lawrence campaign, with Home Secretary Jack Straw agreeing in 1997 to the group’s demand for a judicial inquiry into the failed police investigation of the young Londoner’s racist murder.
But Straw made that decision only after months of intensive lobbying by Doreen Lawrence and, indeed, by the editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre. By contrast, the personnel of the new leadership have long been allied to radical political figures in Britain’s working class and minority ethnic communities.
Thus, when rapper Akala insisted this summer, live on Channel 4 News, that the residents of Grenfell tower—most of whom were from ethnic minority communities—“died and lost their homes … because they are poor,” the Labour left’s agreement only repeated their long-standing critique of the Thatcherite-Blairite status quo.
Wherever Corbyn goes, they sing the same song: “Oooh! Je-re-my Cor-byn!”
It’s not just the Labour party that has changed since 1997; the way that we consume politics has transformed as well. Two decades ago, the spaced out drum beat of D:Ream’s painfully sincere club hit “Things Can Only Get Better” blasted from the amps at election parties. This year, it has been the crowd that has chosen the song at Labour events. They even did so at the Glastonbury Festival when Corbyn made an appearance at the Pyramid Stage. Indeed, wherever he goes, they sing the same song with cheeky grins on their faces: “Oooh! Je-re-my Cor-byn!”
Their tune is the lolloping low-pitched riff of the White Stripe’s “Seven Nation Army”, a favourite melody for football songs during the last decade. Thus, like the nickname that the gentlest and most unassuming political leader in living memory has been given by his Twitter fans—“the absolute boy”—the Corbynistas’ chant is so inappropriately macho that it can only be repeated with an ironic smile.
The man himself seems to be in on the joke. At a party hosted by the Corbyn-supporting campaign group Momentum marking the end of this year’s Labour conference, a senior editor at leftist online platform Novara media, Ash Sarkar, jokingly suggested to the Labour leader that he should take his jacket off (they were standing under strong stage lights). Repeating a relatively obscure social media meme, itself a quote from a parody grime song, he told her with exaggerated nonchalance: “Man’s not hot.” The crowd roared its approval. He went on to give an extended speech on the subject of political struggles during successive industrial revolutions, and his half-drunk audience rarely stopped cheering.
Both the spontaneity and the serious unseriousness of that Momentum party define today’s online political culture: it’s the sensibility of almost every meme. This is what sincerity often looks like in a “postmodern” culture characterized by self-conscious mash-ups and juxtaposition.
Mass culture in the late 1990s, however, was necessarily top-down (compared to social media, TV, radio and magazines provide few opportunities for participation) and often relatively po-faced. Now, even on the social media platforms of ruthless corporations there are spaces for grassroots creativity, which is variously silly, caustically partisan or both.
New Labour was mocked for its obsession with celebrity, its apparent belief in its own hype. This year, at Labour conference, socialist MPs who had spent decades in the wilderness, and who had clung on with little hope of the scales tipping in the left’s favour during their lifetime, found that their allies had won nearly every conference motion and that they themselves were venerated by crowds of fans, young and old. John McDonnell, Dianne Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn passed through it all with wry smiles on their faces. Two decades have passed since Labour was last in the ascendant. They know this is only the beginning.
1997: The Future That Never Happened is available now from Zed books.