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Billy Bragg's Diary: would Harry Potter have voted for Brexit?

He just looks like a Tory.

Fort Adams is a former US army outpost, built in the mid-19th century to defend the approaches to Narragansett Bay and the strategic city of Newport, which was established on the isle from which the state of Rhode Island takes its name. For one weekend in July, the fort – now a state park – functions as the setting for the Newport Folk Festival. Joe Henry and I are here to perform material from our album of railroad songs, recorded on a train journey from Chicago to Los Angeles last year.

Browsing through a photo gallery of artists who appeared at the festival over breakfast the next morning, it occurs to me that I may have been the oldest performer on Saturday’s bill. While this might give cause for concern at Reading/Leeds or V Festival, it’s not something to worry about at Newport. One of the nice things about folk music audiences is that they actively encourage you to grow old. If I’m still doing this job in 15 years’ time and have grown to look like Burl Ives – imagine Falstaff with a Spanish guitar – they’ll still book me for the Cambridge Folk Festival. Sadly, for many of my contemporaries, rock audiences are not so forgiving. If Morrissey goes the same way – portly, bewhiskered and bald – he’s finished.

A skiffler’s trip to the library

I’m in Washington, DC, to deliver a talk at the Library of Congress on skiffle, the 1950s roots music craze that introduced the guitar to UK pop music and acted as a nursery for the British invasion of the US charts. The movement began in January 1956, when Lonnie Donegan scored his first hit single with a cover of Lead Belly’s classic railroad song “Rock Island Line”.

I’ve been invited to speak at this august institution because many of the skifflers were sourcing their material from the Library of Congress recordings, which were available to borrow from the United States Information Service at the embassy in Grosvenor Square, London. The library archivists have a special treat for me: the brown paper sleeve of the original recording of “Rock Island Line” made by John A Lomax, assisted by Lead Belly, at Cummins prison farm near Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in 1934. The ten-inch shellac disc they cut that day is stored elsewhere, but the sleeve, bearing Lomax’s handwritten notes, is removed from its protective folder and passed to me. I become acutely aware that I’m holding in my hands an artefact from the earliest moments of the genesis of British pop music.

The boy wizard’s Govian sheen

Recent changes in US work-permit rules necessitate an early-morning trip to a federal building in lower Manhattan. On seeing my passport, the woman behind the glass starts chatting about Doctor Who, Harry Potter and Brexit as she processes my application. We ponder whether these two quintessential representatives of modern Britain would have voted Leave. I point out that the Time Lord (or should that be Lady?) is an alien, so we assume she would have voted Remain. But the boy wizard? Given that he went to private school, I’d expect him to have a Govian enthusiasm for all things Brexit. He just looks like a Tory.

Corbyn’s Brexit waiting game

The anger among some hard Remainers at Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to come out in total opposition to Brexit is audible from across the Atlantic. Yet if we really want to salvage our membership of the European Union, it just doesn’t make tactical sense for Labour to start campaigning for Remain at the moment. To do so would risk uniting the Tories and reviving Ukip. Better to wait until negotiations reveal the true cost of Brexit and public opinion starts to shift.

I realise that this flies in the face of commentariat orthodoxy, which paints the Labour leadership as ideologically pro-Brexit, and is heresy for those Corbyn supporters who believe pragmatism was one of the sins of New Labour. Yet while the party’s ambiguous stance on Brexit may be frustrating for some, don’t be too surprised if, a year or so from now, Corbyn declares himself to be in favour of Remain and reform – especially if that position appears to offer a path to Downing Street.

Zero-carbon tunes

Home from America just long enough to wash my smalls and boil my hankies, I’m off again to play a string of dates in Italy, Croatia and Austria. The morning before I go, I have to launch my new single, “King Tide and the Sunny Day Flood”, three minutes of reflection on the perils of global warming. In the old days, this would have involved weighty pressings of vinyl being distributed around the country by heavy vehicles, creating a cloud of emissions. Today, all I have to do is post a link to the video clip and head off to the airport, leaving the internet to take care of distribution while I fly to Milan for the first show.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: what’s the point of making a zero-carbon release of a new single if you then jet off to Europe, creating polluting emissions in the process? However, research has revealed that it is not we performers who are responsible for the carbon footprint of touring – that is almost wholly created by the audience. The emissions given off by those attending the gig can be considerable, especially in a place like America, where people think nothing of driving for hours to watch their favourite band.

Naturally, those artists who travel with a huge entourage and staging will have a greater responsibility for emissions, but for a solo performer such as myself, the implication is that I should be doing more touring, not less, seeking out venues that are more easily accessible to my fans in order to discourage them from travelling vast distances to see me perform. After all, it would only require two of them to fly to Britain from New York with the intention of catching a date on my November tour to match all of my personal carbon footprint from my recent US trip. 

Billy Bragg’s UK tour starts on 5 November

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.