Blurring at Windmills
"I'm not a betting man, but if I was, even I wouldn't bet on me winning." So says Blur drummer Dave Rowntree about running for British Parliament. Rowntree is set to run in the upcoming 2010 elections as the Labour Party's candidate in the Cities of London and Westminster constituency. The skin-man's candid pessimism might stem from the fact that this particular seat has been a safe Conservative haven for almost six decades.
Far be it from me--a yank--to tell the British how to vote. It's simply not my place. I have, however, spent time living and working in London (not too far from Rowntree's constituency), as well as organizing on the far-left during my stint there. I am also, as luck would have it, a big fan of Blur, as I am for most of Britpop. But when I heard Rowntree was running, when the read the substance of his platform, even all the way on this side of the Atlantic, I scratched my head.
I'm still scratching. Why exactly would Rowntree, a self-professed "activist," a man nominally of the left, spend his time campaigning for a political party in deep crisis in an election even he is sure he'll lose? Though his face isn't exactly one of the most recognized in Britain, Blur remains one of the best-known acts in the UK. Typically running for an elected post isn't something a rock musician takes up save for the sake of publicity--be it for the group or a cause. But Rowntree's low-key earnestness is something to admire, which makes his choice of running all the more baffling.
Rowntree's platform revolves around housing--certainly a key issue as the economic crisis continues to wreak havoc on working Britons' lives. "It is a particular concern of mine" says Rowntree, "because it sits at the top of a pyramid of lots of other issues. If there is bad housing then you also get drug problems, mental health problems, unemployment, crime and anti-social behavior."
As a leading member of the recently formed Featured Artists Coalition, his record on defending the rights of artists and fans alike is also definitely admirable. And as news broke this past summer that Members of Parliament (MPs) had been using taxpayer pounds to pay for their own luxuries--houses, cars, vacations--Rowntree took the opportunity to call for "broad political reform" and holding MPs accountable.
Moments like these echo of the drummer's long-past youth as a squat-punk and Marxist whose nickname was "Shady Dave." There may even be some echoes here of what many of today's British voters consider a thing of the past: a Labour Party that actually fights for the rights of working people.
Still echoes can't be misconstrued for a real voice. Currently in the UK, and especially in London, these same workers are increasingly fighting for themselves as jobs are cut, wages gutted, and social services being privatized. While the upswing in strikes and other workplace actions in Britain over the past year can't be characterized as a full-on wave of revolt, the tension is palpable--along with the growing anger of Britain's working class.
But Rowntree has said nary a word supporting these strikes. His website mentions nothing about them, and no mention has been made of him walking the picket line with any one of them. Compare this to MP George Galloway--a former Labourite who after being expelled sought to build a left alternative in the Respect Coalition--who has spoken repeatedly in support of such actions and actively built solidarity with them.
Most troubling--and telling--is Rowntree's own views on the occupation of Iraq. In contrast to his bandmate, lead-singer Damon Albarn, an outspoken opponent of the invasion and prominent face on many an anti-war march, Rowntree was in full support! This, of course, puts him at odds with the majority of the population, who have always been vastly against Britain's involvement in the US-led slaughter.
Rowntree's imminent loss may best be foretold by his previous run last summer--when he sought a seat in the Westminster city council in a safe Labour district and was trounced by the Conservative candidate. It was the first time in recent memory that the seat went to a Tory! Still, this didn't stop Labour from selecting him to run for parliament. The saying tells us that if it ain't broke, don't fix it... but if it is in fact broke, aren't you supposed to at least tinker around with it a bit?
Rowntree's loss was part of a massive sweep in defeats for Labour in last summer's elections. Reduced to not just second but third place, the rejection of the once dominant party has been rightly blamed by many on the party's abandonment of the interests for which it used to stand. Those interests--in short--were, well, the kinds of things that working people care about (it is after all a party of labor): jobs, peace, equality, healthcare, schools, affordable housing, and a bevy of others that Labour appears to have left in the dust as it's revamped itself over the past two decades as "New Labour." Blair's hard support for invading Iraq was, for many, the last straw, and their tacit response to privatization in recent years has just been icing on the cake.
In contrast to the exodus of young people out of Labour, the fortysomething Rowntree opted in to the party. In this respect, the drummer may be the perfect New Labour candidate. Earnest and likeable, yet ultimately unwilling to go anywhere past mealy-mouthed half-measures, and, ultimately, unelectable.
Especially sad about all this is that Blur's music, during its height in the mid-90's--represented a vibrant outpouring of youth's voice in Britain. Just like grunge gave expression to the alienation and anger that seethed within "Generation X," so did much of Britpop represent the same for young folks in the UK--albeit with a great deal more optimism and verve than their stateside counterparts. Blur's continued legacy is one that placed a badly needed appendix to the Who's old quip: "the kids are all right... but they also know something's up." That's a legacy built upon today by countless British acts who bring a political and social urgency to their work.
Rowntree, of course, is free to make the political choices he wants. However, it's hard to not look at this run for parliament (seated as I am all the way across the pond) as an opportunity lost. In Britain and in the US, more and more artists are seeking to use their music and words in a way that can shake things up and speak truth to power. As today's youth are staring down a world that views them as disposable, these are the kinds of artists we really need. Rowntree could have thrown in his lot with them. Instead, in his age, he seems to be more under the allure of that battle call of the uninspired: "pragmatism!"
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com), and is a columnist for SleptOn Magazine and the Society of Cinema and Arts. His articles have also appeared in SocialistWorker.org, Z Magazine, PopMatters.com, CounterPunch, and Razorcake.org.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.