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There is no cultural armada behind today’s left

Our artistic consumption has become divorced from our political imagination.

By Finn McRedmond

When Oasis accepted Best Group at the 1996 Brit Awards, Noel Gallagher made an era-defining statement: “There are seven people in this room who are giving a little bit of hope to young people in this country,” he said. That was him (obviously), his band, Alan McGee of Creation Records and Tony Blair. “If you’ve all got anything about you, you’ll go up there and you’ll shake Tony Blair’s hand,” he claimed. “Power to the people!”

A year later Labour would win a record-breaking landslide election, unseat John Major’s weary Conservatives and wrest back power after more than two decades in the shadows. Fast-forward to June 2024 and YouGov predicts a Labour majority even greater than Blair’s in 1997, after 14 years of Tory hegemony.

Unfortunately for Keir Starmer, at that point the parallels stop rather abruptly. As he sails towards No 10, there is no cultural armada behind him. And there is certainly no band that would be caught dead telling teenagers, middle England and the artistic establishment to shake Sir Keir’s hand. Blair had Blur and Oasis both behind him at different points in the Nineties; Neil Kinnock – hardly a galvanising figure – had the Red Wedge collective of musicians fronted by Billy Bragg in the Eighties; even Jeremy Corbyn had Stormzy in 2019.

Meanwhile, the New Statesman’s 2024 Left Power List (see page 26) is packed with soon-to-be frontbenchers who have been biding their time in the wings, policy wonks ready to take the leap into front-line politics, and strategists and advisers. This is the ambient temperature of the summer’s election: staid, serious, buttoned up, with scant cultural hinterland. A Labour victory might seem a foregone conclusion on 4 July, but the moment is aesthetically hollow.

Who are the cultural figures who made the cut? Among those who wield genuine influence on the left, there is JK Rowling – powerful, but hardly an ally of Starmer. Then there’s Gary Lineker, a bleeding-heart liberal who appeals to the centrist dad but is, ultimately, a podcasting baron. Consumer champion Martin Lewis scarcely qualifies as “cultural”: he is far more comfortable telling people how to save money on a toaster than energising crowds at Glastonbury. And the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby may be a theological moderniser, but he is no youth icon. Cool has abandoned Left Britannia.

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All of this speaks to a truth about Starmer. The former human rights lawyer owes his sensibilities to his early career, advising the police service of Northern Ireland in the comedown after the Good Friday Agreement. From 2003 to 2008 Starmer adopted a careful, managerial attitude to the place. It was necessary to navigate the difficulties of a region only recently at peace, and still far away from true reconciliation.

If there is an aesthetic vision emerging from the nascent days of the Starmer era it is informed by this. These are the politics, as Patrick Maguire of the Times puts it, “of windowless conference rooms and ringbinders… of bureaucratic fixes and committees and annual reports”. What does a rock star care for such centre-left wonkishness? For all his think-tanker influence, there will never be a Britpop anthem inspired by Torsten Bell.

Starmer, however, is not entirely to blame for this cultural vacuum. Cool Britannia may have been a moment of political and cultural alignment, but it was not achieved organically. Instead it was the product of cynical overture: Blur’s Damon Albarn met Blair, then leader of the opposition, for drinks in 1995; McGee of Creation Records attended 10 Downing Street in 1997; Blair attended the 1994 Brit Awards months before taking over the Labour Party. New Labour understood the adage that their politics existed downstream of culture.

But what is the point of courting culture when there is no decent culture to court? Britain’s superstars do not dominate the zeitgeist like Oasis once did. Adele is busy on residency in Las Vegas. Harry Styles’s conversion to an American idol is all but complete: the trace of a Midlands accent is the last vestige of a Britishness that has otherwise been ironed out of him by the celebrity-industrial complex. Ed Sheeran is anathema to cool. Starmer may inspire little in the culture, but the causes célèbres of the nation have equally little to provide Starmer.

The 2020s will be remembered as an era of the apolitical pop star. Even Taylor Swift’s so-called social justice activism consists of little more than bland “it’s OK to be gay” interventions (hardly radical in the year of 2024). Starmer may not be controversial, but the weather has shifted and the risk calculation for British artists is simple: there is plenty to lose and nothing to gain by rowing in behind a Labour Party that is going to sweep an election anyway.

In the short term none of this matters. Labour can take the youth vote for granted, and there’s little point pursuing the artistic elite when there is the median voter to be won over. Convincing lapsed Tories is a far better use of Morgan McSweeney’s time than seeking Dua Lipa’s endorsement of securonomics.

Perhaps James Graham, the playwright behind Dear England, is the closest thing we have to a laureate of Starmerism (it’s lonely up there). But beyond his attempts to codify Englishness there is little else. Our artistic consumption has become divorced from our political imagination. This might not keep Labour up at night for now, but soon it will learn that politics without a cultural hinterland isn’t worth much at all.

[See also: The Born in the USA fallacy]

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This article appears in the 05 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List 2024