Everyone knows I am a lefty and a bit of an old-Labour type, and as such I enjoy a bit of Billy Bragg every now and then. A lot of my student days were passed to the sounds of the Bard of Barking, especially Brewing Up With Billy Bragg. It was the time in my life where I discovered the most about my musical and political opinions and Billy Bragg spanned them both. Other artists were important, from Phill Ochs to Anti-Flagg, but among my friends Billy Bragg way always the favourite. Not just the political songs, although To Have And To Have Not is a stirring tune, my favourite songs were Levi Stubb’s Tears and From A Vauxhall Velox.
Like any good fan, I saw him in concert. The first time was on the night when Boris Johnson was originally elected mayor of London and the tide started to turn in favour of the Conservatives. Throughout the evening Billy Bragg had kind words of encouragement and hope. He reassured us that all was not lost and that a better world could be won through action locally and nationally. It was exactly what we needed to hear. At times he was emotional and at times logical about the state of the left today. As well as a concert and a political talk, the man gave us hope and solidarity. I would urge any lefty to go and see Billy Bragg in concert as what he has to say today is as relevant as it was in 1984 when Brewing Up was first released.
But therein lies a problem. I said I would urge any lefty to go and see Billy Bragg in concert. I doubt there was anyone in the audience who was not already sympathetic to the values Billy Bragg stands for. There might have been a few music journalists or fans of the singer-songwriter genre there who were not lefties, but by and large I think everyone there broadly identified as left wing either then or at that time or at some point in their lives. No one’s opinion was changed that night. No one started to support left wing principles who did not believe in those principles already. Some people who were armchair lefties might have been galvanised into action, but no sweeping changes in views were made.
This is a problem with the left in general. A lot of events organised with the best intentions end up preaching to the choir. Arguments beautifully laid out and thoughtfully composed fall on the ears of those who already agree with what is being passionately argued for. The support base is not expanding through readings at a Marxist book group. The masses are not being converted through a night of protest music attended only by fans of protest music.
Billy Bragg’s message did reach a wider audience when he was more popular in the 1980s. It is slightly unfair to focus solely on Billy Bragg as it is difficult to stay consistently popular for such a long time as well as staying relevant and keeping to the ideals one originally set out with. Billy Bragg has balanced all this very well but the underlying point remains that there is a strong tendency on the left to preach to the converted.
Events such as the aforementioned night of protest music do not convert the undecided to the cause. They create a safe space for likeminded individuals to express themselves in the knowledge that they are among their peers. Bold expressions of left wing values can be met with ridicule in the public sphere and it is important to create spaces where people can be themselves. The same is true of gay or trans-gender events which also create a safe refuge for those in a minority against the harshness of the outside world. This work is very important but it should not be confused with activism.
Activism is something different. It involves talking to people who may not necessary agree with everything you have to say. It involves going out and finding these people to engage with. Not in an aggressive way but it does involve stepping outside of your comfort zone. Activism is a painful and at times boring process which takes up a lot of time, produces little visible results and receives little praise. At times it is even met with brutal repression and the costs can be dear. All this is less than appealing to a lot people and so there is a tendency not to want to leave the safe space or worse, to rebrand the safe space as activism. Gathering a lot of likeminded people together in one location who all generally agree with each other can look a lot like activism but that can be misleading. Unless there is an engagement with the opposite opinion or the establishment then an event or piece of art is not activism.
Organising safe spaces for likeminded people to express themselves is important. It is the necessary flip side to activism. Where activism breaks down resolve due to the slow pace of progress, the safe space steps in to remind people what we are fighting for and why our work is important - however creating a safe space must not be confused with activism.
Different causes require different mixes of safe spaces to activism. LFBT causes require more safe spaces to be established because the harsher responses society has to identifying as gay compared to identifying as broadly left wing. Similarly traditional left wing causes would benefit from more activism and less of an emphasis on safe spaces because of the privilege most white, middle class, straight lefties have. From a traditional left wing point of view more direction action would be better for two reasons, firstly to counter the general culture of self-congratulation around organising events which only create safe spaces. Secondly to break down the bubble that some lefties live in where they believe everyone agrees with their values.
I left the Billy Bragg concert with a renewed sense of purpose which the best safe spaces bring to activists. It encouraged me to keep fighting the good fight and not to lose faith through lack of success or the election of Boris Johnson. This is something I clung to even when Boris was elected a second time.
Reaching to the Converted is an album Billy Bragg released in 1999 and it is my preferred expression to describe the left wing tendency to create safe spaces which at its worse can be preaching to the choir masquerading as genuine activism. Safe spaces have an important part to play in being a modern lefty but let us not forget the need for direct action to defend left wing values and to grow the movement.