Billy Bragg out of tune with New Labour

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The Independent Online
Billy Bragg, the socialist singer who once championed Labour's cause in the pop charts, has turned his back on the party.

In an interview with the Independent on Sunday Review published today, he tells of his disenchantment with Tony Blair's New Labour, suggesting its vision of Britain's future "looks like part of the Eighties".

He has left the party, and says he would be able to see "very good reasons" to vote for Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party if proportional representation were introduced.

While recognising that Labour offers the best chance of ending Conservative rule, he is scathing about members of Mr Blair's team. "I certainly wouldn't vote for Harriet Harman. If we're going to commit ourselves to a society that 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."

Mr Bragg began having hit singles during the miners' strike in 1984, and was the darling of the left through its darkest days. Encouraged by the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, he formed Red Wedge, a package tour in which Bragg and fellow performers like Paul Weller shared the stage with MPs and shadow ministers. The idea was to encourage young people to talk to Labour in the run up to the 1987 election. "We had our own manifesto that Kinnock wrote the introduction to," says Mr Bragg. "We were very close to the Labour leader's office, although there was resistance at other levels."

He would not re-form Red Wedge to help out New Labour now, even if he were asked. "It's all so stage-managed now." No such invitation is likely to come, however, as Mr Bragg allowed his membership of the party to lapse over its conduct during the Gulf War. "I just thought there was a better way of expressing support for our troops out there than just toeing the government and American line."

He has yet to be won over by 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. 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 part of the Eighties."

Mr Bragg is the last of the big names in Red Wedge to express disappointment with New Labour. "I don't really want to be involved with it or have my face used by them for their own purposes," Jimmy Somerville told Gay Times last year. While he would vote for Tony Blair, he said: "I really can't stand the man. He gives me the creeps."

The most famous member of Red Wedge, Paul Weller, told the Independent on Sunday in 1993 that the campaign's collapse after the 1987 election was a major factor in his political disillusionment. "The main thing I regret is becoming tied to the Labour Party. There are some good individuals but they always get pushed to the back. I began to wonder what I was doing, these people weren't the type I would normally hang out with, so what was I doing smiling and shaking hands with them?'

But the loss of such celebrity endorsement does not seem to bother Labour. A spokeswoman said Mr Bragg's decision was "obviously a matter for himself". "More than 100,000 members have joined since Tony Blair became leader and there has been a big increase in the number of young members, so he is obviously not reflecting any trends."