Labour to keep the Red Flag flying

John Rentoul
Tuesday 24 September 1996 23:02

"The Red Flag", the musical equivalent of the old Clause IV, has been reprieved and will go ahead in curtailed form at the end of the Labour Party conference after party leaders considered a break with yet another hallowed Labour tradition.

Plans for next week's Blackpool conference, to be discussed at today's meeting of the party's National Executive, are expected to include a low-key rendition of a single verse of the anthem of socialism, as last year.

Tony Blair has discussed with his advisers whether or not to drop what one insider called the "depressing dirge". But a party spokeswoman said yesterday: "It will be sung at the end of the conference on Friday, as usual." The song is believed to be regarded by Mr Blair as an embarrassment, with its archaic reference to a flag dyed in the blood of "our martyred dead", and the raising of clenched fists during the singing.

Last year this presentational problem was "minimised" by having a single verse sung by a choir, giving delegates little chance to join in. But ditching the ritual altogether would produce an outcry from many party members. One of the Labour leader's advisers argued that that there "are no votes in [dropping] it".

At last year's Brighton conference, Mr Blair and his wife Cherie Booth caused a stir when they walked off the stage before the singing of "Auld Lang Syne", the other part of the ritual which some party managers regard as evoking uncomfortable images of the past.

Strenuous efforts were made by Neil Kinnock as party leader to shift attention away from the two songs. Peter Mandelson, Labour's media chief and now the MP for Hartlepool, introduced - unannounced - the singing of the more upbeat "Jerusalem" in 1988.

But this process was considered to have gone too far at the 1991 pre- election conference, which ended with a medley including Queen's "We Are The Champions". The blame for sounding a triumphalist note fell on Jim Parish, the former Labour official who also organised the disastrous Sheffield rally in the 1992 election campaign - although in that he was simply carrying out instructions from Jack Cunningham, Labour's campaigns co-ordinator.

"The Red Flag", to the tune of "O Tannenbaum", has been sung at the end of Labour conferences since the party's foundation at the turn of the century.

Jack O'Sullivan, page 15

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