Caring is Creepy: Tribes in Pop and Politics

July 23, 2010 at 5:26 pm | Posted in British Politics, Music, Art, Etcetera, New Labour | 1 Comment

(Image by missquitecontrary)

Does my right hon. Friend find it bizarre-as I do-that the yoghurt and muesli-eating, Guardian-reading fraternity are only too happy to protect the human rights of people engaged in terrorist acts, but never once do they talk about the human rights of those who are affected by them?
– Labour MP Kevin Hughes

“If you start to break it then people aren’t going to go. I’m sorry, but Jay-Z? No chance… I’m not having hip-hop at Glastonbury. It’s wrong.”
- Noel Gallagher

It’s the early noughties and we’re in the middle of a Great Rock Recession. After the Britpop days of plenty, indie fans are stuck on a stodgy gruel of Travis and Starsailor. ‘Quiet is the new Loud’ and that sound you don’t hear is the kids yawning themselves to death.

With such scant exciting, homemade music, the New Musical Express – that dogged tribune of indie culture – gazed across the Atlantic and started to embrace the explosion of R&B and hip hop. They wrote reverently about Timbaland & Missy Elliott, made The Neptunes the epitome of cool and even gave Destiny’s Child their front cover for a week.

Sadly, the NME’s experiment in open-minded eclecticism was short-lived; sales dwindled and the paper couldn’t afford to offend its musically conservative readership for any longer. It wasn’t long before the magazine reverted to type; excitedly announcing a ‘New Rock Revolution’ and chasing skinny trustafarians around the sidewalks of New York.

The mistake the NME made was in believing it could break the stubborn insularity of its audience. Pop tribes often seem sealed off from the rest of the cultural landscape; they talk only amongst themselves, in their own language, and define themselves as much by the inferiority of other genres as by the self-evident superiority of their own. In this environment, expecting that a Smiths fan who mocks rap ‘music’ with inverted commas will accept the value of Missy Elliott is about as fanciful as hoping that a blustering David Blunkett would accept a deal with the Liberal Democrats. Over their dead bodies.

In fact, political tribes operate in very similar ways. Each shares its own folk heroes and hate figures, writes in socially-accepted shorthand (NuLieBore! Tory Scum!) and generally accepts that any decision or utterance made by the other tribe is either misguided, deluded or malicious. The tribe is both a social circle and a comfort blanket of shared assumptions.

However, just as identifying with one pop tribe will give you a fairly shallow, one-dimensional music collection, political tribalism can be similarly self-defeating. Many of the defences of New Labour’s punitive populism were made as appeals to working class authenticity. On matters like crime, immigration, welfare, drugs and civil liberties, liberal criticisms were often dismissed as an indulgence of an out-of-touch middle class.

Whether it was Jack Straw slamming the ‘Hampstead liberals’ or Blunkett deriding ‘airy fairy libertarians’, the insinuation was clear; Labour’s liberal critics were unserious, self-serving, moneyed dilettantes with little connection to the ‘Real World’. As I wrote once before, it often felt like the party didn’t even want our votes; we just didn’t belong in the tribe.

None of this was an issue until Labour discovered that its tribe was no longer big enough to win elections. Throughout its thirteen years in government we heard various appeals from within the party to ‘reconnect’ with the middle or working classes, the unions or big business, but precious little about reconnecting with those social liberals who fled over its excessive anti-terror legislation, its treatment of asylum seekers, its abject prison system, its criminalisation of the young or its lie detectors for the jobless.

The question for whoever wins this turgid, listless leadership election is how far they are prepared to go to win these people back. Can the party’s rhetoric be shunted in a more pluralistic, inclusive and liberal direction? Will they support Ken Clarke as he tries to weed ‘prison works’ out of our political lexicon? Will they applaud Nick Clegg for securing a commitment on the detention of child asylum seekers? Will they revert back to a drugs policy based on evidence rather than fear? Or will the tribal instincts be so strong that they bark at and barrack the Liberal Democrats until any rapprochement is impossible?

But though the main responsibility for this rapprochement is necessarily Labour’s, there’s also a question to be raised of those who want the party to change but don’t want to get their hands dirty. Do we have any integrity to demand change of a party we didn’t exactly feel inspired to vote for, much less campaign for? Do we have any credibility in making those demands outside of – and often ignorant of – the local and national structures within the party? Why should our voices have prominence over tens of thousands of long-suffering, dues-paying members? It’s a centuries-old question of whether structure or agency best describes our social behaviour, and it’s not a question which will be resolved in a blogpost.

One theory about why the NME’s short-lived eclecticism failed to lift its circulation is that not enough people believed its change was real. Sure, they saw a more diverse range of artists on the cover, but maybe they suspected it was all artifice; that deep down it would remain the same stubborn tribune of indie fandom that it has always been. Perhaps the tribe’s reputation preceded it.

That’s not something the Labour Party can allow to happen. There are now millions of us for whom the only experience of democratic socialist government was the administrations of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. They both fell short of adequate. The task of the next Labour leader is to imagine and articulate a political culture which is better than the one we have lived through, and which their predecessors bequeathed. They need to prove that their tribe (their tent, their church) can be larger, broader, more open, responsive and diverse than anything we’ve seen to date.

This isn’t about changing to win; it’s about changing what it means to win. That’s the difference between being the leader of a political movement and merely settling for manager of a political tribe.

(Image via YoungFabians)

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  1. ‘But though the main responsibility for this rapprochement is necessarily Labour’s, there’s also a question to be raised of those who want the party to change but don’t want to get their hands dirty. Do we have any integrity to demand change of a party we didn’t exactly feel inspired to vote for, much less campaign for?’

    Do you really want me to answer that? It’ll take me 2,500 words, but the answer is ‘yes, if you promise to behave this time and don’t bugger up the Labour Party like you did last time.


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