The greatest political songs of all time

Do you agree with the Political Studies Association's list?

To mark its 60th birthday, the Political Studies Association is compiling a list of the greatest ever political songs.

As you can see below, its longlist is a varied beast, ranging from Verdi's opera Aida, to the righteous Afrobeat of Fela Kuti, to Woody Guthrie's folky "This Land is Your Land" -- the latter a favourite of US progressives in the 1950s and 1960s that had a brief resurgence in 2009 when it was performed (including the "communist" verses) at Barack Obama's inauguration ceremony.

But what to make of the choices? You'll notice that the politics of these songs are overwhelmingly right-on -- the Italian anti-Fascist staple "Bella Ciao", the utopian "Imagine" -- or infused with a campaigning spirit -- the Special AKA's "Free Nelson Mandela", Public Enemy's "Fight the Power".

But are these the only kind of political songs? How about a song that actively supports the status quo, for example?

Here's the blogger Tom Ewing on Chris de Burgh's "The Lady in Red", not only one of the most cringeworthy number-one singles of all time, but also, according to Ewing, an encapsulation of market values: "the actual identity of the Lady In Red is quite irrelevant: what matters is her value, not her self".

Or, further still, perhaps the politics of a song are not only carried in its lyrics. J S Bach allegedy wrote a coded attack on his patron Frederick the Great into one of his final works, "The Musical Offering", but how about the tinny, repetitive beats carried over the PA of a high-street chain store? Is their insistence on shopping as a mechanical, compulsive activity a political message, too?

We'll be podcasting the PSA's top 20 on 25 March, but for now tell us what you think. What songs would make your top ten? Which ones have been missed?

Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin: "Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves"

Anon: "Bella Ciao"

Barry McGuire: "Eve of Destruction"

Billie Holiday: "Strange Fruit"

Billy Bragg: "Which Side Are You On?"

Bob Dylan: "The Times They Are a-Changin'"

Bob Marley: "Redemption Song"

Bruce Springsteen: "Born in the USA"

Carl Bean: "I Was Born This Way"

Cecil A Spring-Rice: "I vow to thee my country"

Charles A Tindley: "We Shall Overcome"

Charly García: "Nos siguen pegando abajo"

Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle: "La Marseillaise"

Donovan: "Universal Soldier"

Edwin Starr: "War"

Elvis Costello: "Tramp the Dirt Down"

Enoch Sontonga: "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika"

Eugène Pottier: "The Internationale"

Fela Kuti: "Zombie"

Gil Scott Heron: "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"

Horst Wessel: "Die Fahne hoch"

Jim Connell: "The Red Flag"

John Lennon: "Imagine"

Joni Mitchell: "Big Yellow Taxi"

Leonard Cohen: "The Partisan"

Li Youyuan: "The East is Red (东方红)"

Marvin Gaye: "What's Going on?"

Midnight Oil: "Beds Are Burning"

Nena: "99 Luftballons"

Nina Simone: "Mississippi Goddam"

Pete Seeger: "Where have all the flowers gone?"

Peter Gabriel: "Biko"

Plastic Ono Band: "Give Peace a Chance"

Public Enemy: "Fight the Power"

Randy Newman: "Political Science"

Rage Against the Machine: "Killing in the Name"

Robert Wyatt: "Shipbuilding"

Rolling Stones: "Gimme Shelter"

Sex Pistols: "God Save the Queen"

The Beatles: "Revolution"

The Clash: "Know Your Rights"

The Cranberries: "Zombie"

The Jam: "Eton Rifles"

The Police: "Invisible Sun"

The Special AKA: "Free Nelson Mandela"

The Strawbs: "Part of the Union"

Tracy Chapman: "Talkin' 'bout a Revolution"

U2: "Sunday Bloody Sunday"

UB40: "1 in 10"

Verdi: "Chorus of Hebrew Slaves"

Victor Jara: "Te Recuerdo Amanda"

William Blake: "Jerusalem"

Woody Guthrie: "This Land Is Your Land"

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Cameron in Nuneaton. Photo: Getty
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Why fewer of us want a long-term relationship ... with a political party

In 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010. So what does the rise of swing voters mean for British politics?

For decades political parties have competed furiously for one of the great prizes of British politics: the affections of the swing voter. It wasn’t that long ago that there were relatively few political swingers: until the 1990s, fewer than a quarter of voters would switch parties from one election to the next.

Yet that once relatively rare breed is becoming increasingly common, which means party campaigners are going to have to come up with new tactical thinking. The British Election Study survey panels, conducted episodically over the last fifty years, are unique in that they are able to track the same voters from one election to the next, unlike more conventional opinion polls that only look at a snapshot of voters at a given time. Using these studies, you can identify the percentage of voters who switch their vote from one party to another between each pair of elections since 1966 when such data was first collected.

In 1966 only around 13 per cent of voters had changed their minds since the previous election in 1964. Since then, the proportion of swingers has been steadily increasing, and by 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010.

The increase in swing voters is pretty consistent. The only exceptions are between February and October 1974, when (understandably) fewer voters changed their minds in eight months than switched in the preceding four years, and between 1997 and 2001, when the electoral dominance of New Labour under Tony Blair held back the tide for a time. These two exceptions aside, the increase has been constant election-on-election.

A lot of vote shifting can go on even between elections where the overall result remains stable. In 2001, for example, more people switched votes than in any election before 1997, with a surprising level of turmoil beneath the surface stability. While these largely cancelled out on that occasion, it set the stage for more dramatic changes in the parties’ votes later on.

So British voters now seem more likely than ever to jump from party to party. But who exactly are these swingers? Are they disillusioned former party loyalists? Or have British voters simply stopped getting into a serious relationship with the parties in the first place? We can get some insight into this using data from the yearly British Social Attitudes Survey, looking at the number of respondents who say that they do not identify with any of the political parties (party identifiers tend to switch much less often) when they are asked ‘Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?’ and then ‘Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?’ if they say no to the first question. The graph below combines data from 1984 to 2013. Each line represents people who were born in a different year. Higher lines mean that there are more people who do not identify with a political party. So, for instance, voters born in 1955 started with very low levels of non-identification (22 per cent), which have gradually risen to 44 per cent in the latest survey. Most of the lines on the graph go up over time, which shows that almost all generations are falling out of love with the parties.

However, an acquired taste in swinging among the older generations is dwarfed by the promiscuous younger generations – shown by the dashed lines – most of whom never form an attachment to a party at all. Each generation in the data has been less committed to the parties than the previous generation was at the same age, with around 60 per cent of the youngest generation – those born since 1985 – expressing no attachment to any political party.

Since most of this change has been a generational shift, it may be a long road back for the parties. Loyalty to parties is often handed down in families, with children inheriting their parents’ commitment to a party. Now that this process has broken down, and younger generations have lost their attachment to parties, they may in turn pass on this political detachment to their children.

The majority of younger voters have simply never grown up with the idea of getting into a long-term relationship with a political party, so they may never settle down. Many Labour MPs were outraged when it turned out that lots of the new members who joined up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn had voted for the Green Party just a few months before, but this may simply reflect the political approach of a generation who see parties as needing to earn their vote each time rather than commanding lasting, even unconditional loyalty.

If Britain’s newfound taste for swinging isn’t going to disappear any time soon, what does it mean for party competition? In the past most people had settled partisan views, which seldom changed. General elections could be won by attracting the relatively small group of voters who hadn’t made up their minds and could very easily vote for either of the two main parties, so political parties based their strategies around mobilising their core voters and targeting the few waverers. While they worried about traditional loyalists not turning up to the polls, the parties could be assured of their supporters’ votes as long as they got them to the voting booth.

Nowadays, swing voters are no longer a small section of the electorate who are being pulled back and forth by the parties, but a substantial chunk of all voters. This helps to explain why politicians have been so surprised by the sudden rise of new parties competing for groups previously thought to be reliable supporters. The new parties that have entered British politics have also allowed voters to express their views on issues that don’t fall neatly into traditional left– right politics such as immigration (UKIP) or Scottish independence (the SNP). This in turn has posed a dilemma for the traditional parties, who are pulled in multiple directions trying to stop their voters being tempted away.

This may just be the start. If the number of swing voters stays this high, the parties will have to get used to defending themselves on multiple fronts.

This is an extract from More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford.