Going underground

Questionable pop ballads and Deptford's very own subterranean feel

'A song from the darkest hour': Brown's party playlist

All poets want to be rock stars, and all rock stars want to be poets. Which is fine. There will always be a place in the world for ageing poets in leather jackets, and no-one would begrudge a rock star a few too many bad metaphors. It’s more perilous by far, however, when it’s not poets but politicians who decide they need more of the guitar hero about them. They should be wary of such urges, as Gordon Brown’s choice of walk-on music for his speech on Wednesday shows.

The Prime Minister’s arrival onstage was heralded by Manchester folk-rockers James’ ‘Sit Down’ – which begins by announcing itself as ‘a song from the darkest hour’. It continues as bleakly: ‘Its hard to carry on when you feel all alone, / Now I’ve swung back down again, its worse than it was before’ – an odd choice for his make-or-break ‘Obama moment’.

James frontman Tim Booth links the lyrics to Brown in a way that the Prime Minister might not have intended. ‘The song was written as an expression and call for unity in a lonely and frightening world. Personally the lyrics were written during a 4am bout of insomnia when the world looked bleak,’ he told us. ‘Here, it's being used by a desperate politician trying to hang on.’
Booth isn’t keen for the song to be a regular on the conference playlist. ‘If the Labour party use it more than once we might have something to say about it,’ he warns.

Labour are no strangers to misguided musical choices. At the 1995 Labour Conference, Tony Blair bounded onstage to ‘If the Kids Are United’ by 70s punks Sham 69, in defiance (very punk) of the fact that the current Labour front bench were neither kids nor, at that point, particularly united. It could have been worse, however – other Sham 69 possibilities include songs about breaking out of jail, getting drunk, and throwing up in toilets. Two years later, Dream’s ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ voiced the optimism of the 1997 conference. It didn’t seem quite as optimistic, however, when it was still being played in 2004.

Not that the Tories can feel superior. Boris Johnson's campaign to become Mayor took place to the apocalyptic sounds of The Clash’s ‘London Calling’. With lyrics like ‘We ain't got no swing / 'Cept for the ring of that truncheon thing,’ quite why that ever seemed like a good idea remains unclear.

Knife crime and talking dogs

The winner of this year’s Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize was announced on Wednesday. The award goes to Patrick Ness' novel, The Knife of Never Letting Go, which combines talking dogs and mysterious pools of silence with the topical concerns the title implies. Todd, the novel’s protagonist, has to decide whether he can kill people with his knife, a ‘big ratchety one with the bone handle and the serrated edge that cuts practically everything in the world’.

‘I really wanted to show what it is like having a knife in your hand’, Ness said. ‘It's power. Power has terrifying consequences even if you think it's quote unquote “just”. Once used it changes you, and in ways you may not want and can't change back.’ Two weeks after Carol Ann Duffy’s poem about knife crime (and a murdered goldfish) was removed from the curriculum, it’s nice to see that not everyone thinks we should be covering teenagers’ ears to keep the world out.

From tavern brawls to grass roots art

Marlowe was stabbed there and Francis Drake was knighted there, but since the Renaissance, Deptford’s kept a bit of a low profile. This is changing, however – a new influx of cafes, galleries and studios are transforming the area into a hotspot for up-and-coming artists. Now the area's Deptford X, holding its tenth annual arts festival. Subtitled Ghost Trade and the Spectre of Change, the festival will include installations, film screenings and Cy Twombly-esque asemic carvings on the windows of the train station. “There’s a real buzz down here, but it’s not just an overspill of trendy east London,” says curator Julia Alvarez, who graduated from the nearby Goldsmith’s College. “Deptford’s got its own flavour, there’s an underground feel.”

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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