In the 1980s, Billy Bragg was Labour's light in the darkness, pop's champion of the Left. But now the polls predict a Labour victory, it seems that Bragg has turned his back on the party. Why?
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Our first scene from the class war features a young man in jeans and a checked shirt, with a battered guitar and a busker's amplifier, standing alone on stage in the Top of the Pops studio. The year is 1984. Margaret Thatcher has entered her second term of office with a huge Parliamentary majority. The miners are on strike. Dallas is on the television. Synthesisers, glamour and greed are good, and those young pop tarts Wham! have been thrusting shuttlecocks down their shorts to titillate teenage fans. So who is this East End lad with the flat-top haircut and the big nose, singing, in a booming voice, a song that the show's presenter can only describe as "really evocative"? It is Billy Bragg, nervous and incongruous.

"I was a miner, I was a docker, I was a railwayman, between the wars," he sings, as bemused members of the studio audience wonder whether to sway in time or wave their arms in the air. The song is a historical one, about how the ordinary people of Britain were betrayed by their government between the wars. How quaint. How folky. How unfashionable, in 1984. But when the last verse arrives, nobody is left in any doubt as to why Bragg is singing it now: "Sweet moderation, heart of this nation, desert us not, we are between the wars."

Twelve years later, and Bragg is alone on stage again. This time he is among friends, headlining the May Day celebrations on Clapham Common organised by the GMB union earlier this month. The huge tent is packed - its sides have been let down, and hundreds more people are crowding in around the edges. Many of those present at this second scene were angry young men and women during the Thatcher years, just like Bragg. They have grown older and had babies, who hang around their necks in the early-May sun. Many have mellowed, grown disillusioned with the politics of their youth, and despaired of ever seeing change. Some feel hopeful, because of that nice Mr Blair. Others think Labour has sold out.

Billy Bragg has never sold out, and this crowd knows it. He is in playful mood, teasing the audience for accepting, at face value, the opening line of his most famous song, "New England": "I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song, I'm twenty-two now, but I won't be for long ..." "That's bollocks," jokes Bragg, who is now 38. "I don't want a labour movement that doesn't question what the platform says!" Oh, how they laugh - good old Bill is up to his tricks again.

Then, as he leaves the stage and we go in search of a tofu burger, I hear the thirtysomething fellow to my right express amazement that his companion does not like Bragg's music. "How can you say that? He's such a good bloke ..."

What else is Billy Bragg? Not a pop star - not with that face and those Barking vowels. He calls himself a protest singer (despite also having written some beautiful, bittersweet love songs), if such a thing is possible any more. It was possible a decade or so ago, when politics was personal, and those in charge could be accused of malicious intent rather than just incompetence. But these are more muddled times.

He is a socialist, certainly, although no longer a member of the Labour Party with which he was once so closely identified. He writes for newspapers and magazines, and presented a series about Englishness and nationality on Radio 4. He is a funny, fast-witted, ordinary sort of bloke, greying at the temples.

Some people - many of whom were at Clapham - feel a lot of loyalty towards Bragg. They reckon he's earnt it, that he was a keeper of the flame during the dark days of Thatcherism; when they suffered, he suffered too. While others were popping champagne corks in the City and singing about "Gold", he and they were at benefit gigs for the miners, for the GLC, against health-service cuts, rising unemployment, Cruise missiles ... If there was a cause, there was a concert. He posed for photographs with Neil Kinnock, and organised the Red Wedge package tour on which popsters sang, MPs talked and young people talked back.

A cynic might say he rode this perverse political horse all the way to the bank, using protest to boost his career in much the same way that others were accused of using Live Aid. True, he did force record shops to keep the cost of his albums down by printing their true prices on the sleeves, but everyone needs a gimmick. Then, just when he looked to have hit paydirt, when collaborations with Johnny Marr (the former Smiths' guitarist) and REM in 1991 resulted in the hit singles "Sexuality" and "You Woke Up My Neighbourhood", he stopped making records.

Pop is fickle. Nobody much seemed to notice his absence until last year, when the Rock the Vote campaign was launched. This attempt to get young people to register their vote prompted memories of Red Wedge, and the question not of what, but where was Billy Bragg?

The answer was: in a south-London recording studio, preparing a new album for launch later this year. Abandoning the mixing desk for an afternoon, he told me how a bout of appendicitis cut short his touring plans in the early Nineties, and forced him to rest and take stock of his career. His partner, Juliet, had given birth to their son, Jack, in 1993. Time had slipped by. He had written, lectured, gone to football matches and travelled with his friend Andy Kershaw, but there were no new songs. Why was that? It was noticeable that he had dropped out of sight soon after Baroness Thatcher, a woman he described as his main political inspiration. Had her fall from power left him without a muse? Did he (whisper it) miss her?

"No," he says, with feeling. "I'd much rather there hadn't been a Margaret Thatcher and I could have just written love songs. The price in suffering and frustration that she caused isn't worth a dozen Billy Bragg albums, no." But after a moment's reflection, he smiles, and adds: "Where there is something [sic] like Margaret Thatcher around, you can make messages that are clear, that everybody understands. When that's taken away, you have to work harder to identify your targets. Things become more ambiguous."

Ambiguity is anathema to the protest singer. It helps for the enemy to be big and obvious: that way more people will identify with your cause (and you will sell more records). Wars are good (Vietnam being the obvious example), as are social injustices experienced by a sizeable number of people, such as those that led to the American civil-rights movement. A protest singer will, by definition, be swimming against the cultural tide, so it's best to choose a target that provokes strong emotions. This will enable you to keep your recommendations for change broad and safely non- specific. Above all, it is easier to sing "I hate you" than "Your actions leave me confused and I'm not sure about your motives".

All of which may go some way towards explaining why new protest singers are not queueing up to take a shot at John Major's government. It's hard to rage against mediocrity, agrees Bragg, although he cautions: "John Major may be a very mediocre person, but there are forces at work behind him that are malign: Thatcherites who remain ardent, who are force-feeding British beef to us in a nationalist fervour. Those people still haven't gone away. They never go away."

Besides fatherhood and the loss of his nemesis, there were two further reasons for Billy Bragg's confusion, and his silence. One was the Conservative victory in the 1992 General Election. "That had a real salutary effect on me and a lot of my friends, after going through all that in the Eighties and then thinking, 'This is it, we're really gonna get some change now she's gone.' That not happening really knocked the wind out of our sails. I had friends who decided that instead of being politically active in the Labour Party, they were going to go off and train as teachers and nurses, and that was how they were going to express their communal humanitarian ideals."

At the same time, Europe was adjusting to the collapse of the Soviet empire. Bragg had sung "Help Save the Youth of America" in Moscow, and been thrown out of East Germany for telling an audience on live television that the Berlin Wall must fall. He knew people who lived on the other side, who were experiencing the new uncertainties first-hand. "Nobody on the Left could carry on regardless after the Berlin Wall had come down and the 1992 election had been lost," he says. "The whole ideological structure of the Left was, and still is to an extent, in a state of flux. The Marxist certainties are no longer as valid as they were. The interesting things that I feel drawn to now are not necessarily encapsulated in left- wing ideology - the anti-road movement, protests against veal crates, constitutional change and devolution ... you can't plug into a tradition of that in the way that Red Wedge could plug into Rock Against Racism and the protest movement of the Sixties.

"Also, there suddenly wasn't much to push against. Because the differences between the two main political parties have become so grey, as they've shot towards the centre ground, so it has become a grey area for people like me, who are operating strongly from an ideological basis, whether it is writing songs or as an activist."

Rough mixes of the new album, his seventh, indicate that it will be more mature, more personal, and better sung than any of its predecessors. As he has done since the beginning, Bragg paid for the recording himself and will arrange distribution through a record company when it is ready, thereby retaining artistic control.

When his debut album Life's a Riot With Spy vs Spy was released in 1983, it was 17 minutes long and had a marketing budget of pounds 100. It sold extraordinarily well, thanks largely to the patronage of Radio 1's alternative-music guru John Peel. Like thousands of other pale teenagers, I was listening to the Peel show in bed with my hand poised over the record button on my stereo when I first heard Bragg performing, late that year. He came through the medium-wave haze as a shock - a brash, discordant thrash on the guitar and a raw untutored voice that sounded like mine, and the people I knew. That was no surprise, as it turned out, because he came from a few miles down the road.

Born and raised in Barking, where his father worked in a warehouse, Bragg was described in a school report at Barking Abbey Comprehensive as a pupil who "uses his obvious intelligence as a disruptive influence". He left school at 16 to form a band with the boy next door, his life-long friend Wiggy. They played endless covers of songs by Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones until punk came along, and their hearts were lost to The Clash and The Jam. The band, Riff Raff, never made it, despite spending a year living at a recording studio in Northamptonshire, where Bragg kept goats for the owners.

He worked as a painter and decorator, then one day went out and joined the Army, almost on a whim. "That seemed to be the only alternative to being a punk," he remembers, laughing. "At school the options were, 'Would you like to go and work for Ford Motors at Dagenham? No? Well, then, will it be the Army, the Navy or the Air Force?' The Army was still the great sop of working- class youth: if you had nowhere to go, you went there."

It was a terrible mistake. After three months of basic training, and in disgust at the extreme class prejudice he found, he bought himself out. He went home to mum, knowing that he wanted to sing. Solo. With an electric guitar. In those days (this was the early Eighties) of synth bands and New Romantics, that was extraordinary. And very unpopular. But he entered talent contests, supported bands for a fiver a night, and learnt how to hold an audience, until the right people saw him perform. They saw his refusal to be fashionable as something marketable in itself.

Thereafter, Bragg's rise was rapid. In December 1983, shortly after his debut album came out on Go! Discs, around 50 of us saw him at the 100 Club in London, supporting a band called The Opposition. I wrote a review for my local paper, the Waltham Forest Guardian, and he asked me to send a copy to his mum. Less than two years later, I was among 50,000 or so people at the Milton Keynes Bowl, watching him support U2. The crowd was hostile, but he defended himself with a humour honed in rowdy East End pubs. As hundreds of bottles - some containing unsavoury bodily fluids - were thrown towards him, he stepped back and said something like: "I'll dedicate this next one to the man who invented plastic bottles. He has just saved my life."

By then the miners' strike had changed his life. "It politicised me," says Bragg. "It forced me to focus my humanitarian ideas around an ideology. Every time I did a gig in the north of England or south Wales, left-wing people wanted to know what my politics were. Was I just coming along to exploit this? I needed to defend myself, and argue my corner in ideological terms."

The first fruit of this was the "Between the Wars" EP (in 1985), which also featured versions of songs by the folk singers Pete Seeger and Leon Rosselson. Through this and his later recording of "The Internationale" he aligned himself with a British tradition of dissent through song maintained by the likes of Ewan MacColl, father of Bragg's collaborator Kirsty MacColl. Whereas folk music was still deeply unfashionable in the mid-Eighties, Bragg's electric guitar and streetwise image meant he could get away with the association.

His credibility also earnt him an invitation from the Labour leader Neil Kinnock to help form Red Wedge, along with other pop notables including Paul Weller and Lloyd Cole. "We had a very clear agenda," he says. Some of those involved had been very sceptical about Labour, and the idea was to stimulate political debate among the young, but he adds: "We had our own manifesto that Kinnock wrote the introduction to. We were very close to the Labour leader's office, although there was resistance at other levels."

The 1987 election was duly lost, and Red Wedge became yesterday's idea. "That's the price you pay for getting your ideas on the front page of the NME." He would not now reform Red Wedge for New Labour even if he were asked, although he did perform in 1992 to help the election campaigns of Clare Short and Bruce Kent, two individuals he respects. "It's all so stage-managed now. Arts for Labour is a different animal. It's less about coming up with your own ideas and initiatives and more about appearing with members of the cast of EastEnders or London's Burning. Which is fine, and I'm glad people do that, but I'd be more for taking the people from London's Burning and chaining ourselves to some bulldozers at Newbury. That seems to be one of the front lines."

Bragg left the Labour Party during the Gulf War - "I thought there was a better way of expressing support for our troops out there than just toeing the government and American line" - and remains unconvinced about the Blair Revolution. "New Labour won't come out of the closet and tell us what they are: a democratic socialist party, a social democrat party, a Christian democrat party - they don't seem to have decided."

The day before we met, Arthur Scargill relaunched his Socialist Labour Party. Presumably it was Bragg's instinctive longing for certainties that made him say he could see "very good reason" for voting for it if proportional representation were introduced. In the meantime, pragmatism will win his vote for Labour, despite obvious reservations: "There's no point in me climbing up to the top of the hill above the clouds and saying, 'Oh yeah, I can see the New Jerusalem', when from what New Labour is saying the New Jerusalem is something like parts of the Eighties ... I certainly wouldn't vote for Harriet Harman. If we're going to commit ourselves to a society which has equality in it, then the leaders of the party that bases its ideology on equality have to experience it. It's the limo syndrome."

It's in the nature of protest singers to protest, even when their former allies achieve power. We can take it, then, that Billy Bragg, pop champion of Labour during its wilderness years and spokesman for a generation of battered socialists, will not be Minister for Music in a Blair government? "No, I don't think so. I'm not much of a line-toer."

Billy Bragg's new album will be out later this year.