Trades Union Congress at 150: How The Red Flag became the favourite anthem of the British left

Song expressing socialist solidarity has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity under Jeremy Corbyn

Joe Sommerlad
Wednesday 05 September 2018 16:20
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Jeremy Corbyn sings 'The Red Flag' in Wesminster pub

This weekend sees the Trades Union Congress (TUC) meet to mark its 150th anniversary.

The gathering was first held at the Manchester Mechanics’ Institute on 2 June 1868 and convened by the Manchester and Salford Trades Council to address the perceived dominance of the British Trade Union Movement by their London counterpart, the TUC has met every year since to discuss issues relating to workers’ rights.

The institutions and traditions of the British left have enjoyed a resurgence in recent years under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the proud singing of the “The Red Flag” at left-wing gatherings once more.

The official anthem of the Labour Party since its founding in 1900, the song was seldom heard under New Labour as leader Tony Blair regarded it as an outmoded relic of the party’s past and an embarrassment to the centrist reforming agenda that saw him drop Clause IV from its constitution – the commitment to “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”.

The lyrics to “The Red Flag” were written by Irish activist and journalist Jim Connell in December 1889, its six stanzas usually sung – perhaps due to the month of its composition – to the tune of the traditional German Christmas carol “O Tannenbaum”, despite its author’s preference for using the Robert Burns melody “The White Cockade” instead.

The colour of the banner alludes to the blood ties that unite the brotherhood of international socialists while the lyrics honour those who have fallen in the fight for social justice. “The Red Flag” is a passionate ode to defiance in the face of “the rich man’s frown” and an expression of faith in the power of collective action and “the hope of peace at last”.

It quickly proved popular with radical left-wing circles in Britain, the US and South Africa in the early 20th century and was sung by dockers, miners and industrial workers as a gesture of solidarity and demonstration of union might.

The party first sang it in the House of Commons on 1 August 1945 to cheer Clement Atlee’s defeat of Winston Churchill at the ballot box and it has remained a firm favourite among the party faithful.

You can read the song's lyrics in their entirety below.

The Red Flag (1889) by Jim Connell

The People’s Flag is deepest red,

It shrouded oft our martyred dead,

And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,

Their hearts’ blood dyed its every fold.

Chorus:

Then raise the scarlet standard high.

Beneath its shade we’ll live and die,

Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,

We’ll keep the red flag flying here.

Look round, the Frenchman loves its blaze,

The sturdy German chants its praise,

In Moscow’s vaults its hymns were sung

Chicago swells the surging throng.

(chorus)

It waved above our infant might,

When all ahead seemed dark as night;

It witnessed many a deed and vow,

We must not change its colour now.

(chorus)

It well recalls the triumphs past,

It gives the hope of peace at last;

The banner bright, the symbol plain,

Of human right and human gain.

(chorus)

It suits today the weak and base,

Whose minds are fixed on pelf and place

To cringe before the rich man’s frown,

And haul the sacred emblem down.

(chorus)

With head uncovered swear we all

To bear it onward till we fall;

Come dungeons dark or gallows grim,

This song shall be our parting hymn.

(chorus)

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