Together now: the people's flag is . . . rhubarb, rhubarb

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The Independent Online
ALL EYES will be on Tony Blair at the end of his first conference as leader of the Labour Party. Not, you understand, to measure how well he has performed but to discover if he knows the words of Labour's anthem, The Red Flag.

As one delegate in Blackpool put it yesterday: 'The people's flag is deepest red, but are the words in Tony's head?'

Some years ago, party officials printed the text of The Red Flag and left a copy on every seat - including the platform, where ignorance was feared to be greatest. Too often, television viewers were treated to the sight of Labour's high and mighty mouthing noiselessly when the anthem was played.

That idea was dropped when it was realised the admission of ignorance implied by the hymn sheet was even more embarrassing than the silent platform singers. With publication of the full text today in the Independent on Sunday, there will be no excuse this year.

The annual ritual of celebrating 'our martyred dead' focuses attention on Labour's symbolism: the red flag, the red rose and the insistence that Clause Four is printed on every membership card.

Of course, there have been some subtle changes over the years, though often only after a row that has highlighted the deeply conservative feelings of many Labour activists towards their symbols.

Members believe that tampering with these is a sign of tampering with the party's socialist soul. A great fuss attended the appearance of the red rose in Neil Kinnock's heyday. Now, even that is being played down. There will be no giant rose on the platform backdrop this year, just a small red rose on the rostrum. It still appears on the cover of all policy documents, but for how long? 'For the foreseeable future,' is the official line. 'There are no plans to drop the red rose or the singing of The Red Flag.'

The Labour Party's Blackpool gift stall has a red rose lapel pin for pounds 1.80, a leather rose bookmark for pounds 1.25 and a red rose mug for pounds 3.50. For the party member who has everything there is a nine-carat gold badge - a snip at pounds 95.

But this last has a different symbol. It recreates the old party emblem of a crossed shovel and quill, bisected by a torch of liberty. This traditional Labour Party symbol still adorns the metal railings outside John Smith House, just as Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution still adorns the back of every membership card.

While Peter Mandelson MP was the media guru at Labour HQ, however, tens of thousands of membership cards were about to be dispatched when it was discovered that Clause Four's promise 'to secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry' was missing. Take that away, and hark what discord follows.

The cards were recalled and pulped and Clause Four, with its pledge to introduce the common ownership and means of production, still survives.

What will be the new symbols? A random sample gathered from observations in Blackpool yesterday: portable telephones, electronic pagers, pounds 500-a-head dinners with the leadership, sharp suits, bright silk ties and serious expressions.

But The Red Flag will stay and, apparently, the leader knows the words. 'He spent most of last week learning them,' an aide confided.

THE WORDS of 'The Red Flag' were written in 1889 by Jim Connell (1853-1929), a sheep-farmer and early Irish socialist, and sung to the tune of the German carol 'Tannenbaum' or alternatively the traditional Irish air 'The White Cockade'.

Last week the Independent on Sunday commissioned William Scammell, the English poet (1942-), to devise an anthem more fitting to a modernised Labour party. The result, below, should be sung to Bob Dylan's 'Mr Tambourine Man', which Mr Blair may be just old enough to remember.

(Words of Red Flad and Mister Moderation omitted)

(Photograph omitted)