Who raved about feminist punk legends X-Ray Spex? Who used to be a UK garage DJ? Who goes to heavy metal festivals?
Politicians aren’t cool, and once upon a time, that was fine. At the 1990 Brit Awards, Margaret Thatcher revealed in a video message that her favourite song was Patti Page’s novelty single “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?” It’s naff, of course, but nobody was actually expecting the Iron Lady to declare her love for, say, the emerging rave scene, or Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet. Just a few years later, however, it was a very different story. When Tony Blair sailed through the doors of Number 10 in May 1997, he was buoyed by the sound of D:Ream’s “Things Can Only Get Better”, and a couple of months later he infamously invited celebrities from the ‘Cool Britannia’ movement to Downing Street to celebrate. It was the end of a long campaign he’d been waging in the media to rebrand the Labour Party as hip, young, and trendy, an image he’d been cultivating by doing things like visiting hyped restaurants and presenting David Bowie with awards.
Blair really set the blueprint for how a contemporary political leader was supposed to look, sound, and behave in the media – and as a political figure, he’s been responsible for spawning a legion of copycats, as indistinguishable as they are numerous. It’s why David Cameron would write weird op-eds about The Ramones and awkwardly feign interest in Radiohead and Lana Del Rey. It’s why Ed Balls would cringingly tweet about Carly Rae Jepsen. And it’s why Andy Burnham would make his Manchester credentials very clear by talking about The Smiths, The Courteeners, and The Stone Roses in interviews.
What the politicians didn’t realise is that voters aren’t idiots, and they prefer it when you’re on their side politically, not pandering to them culturally. When your career trajectory takes you from a private school to a PPE at Oxford to a special advisor job to a safe seat, you’re never gonna be able to convince anyone you’re cool – Jeremy Corbyn, a man whose hobbies include jam-making and manhole covers, has racked up endorsements from musicians like grime MCs JME and AJ Tracey and indie group Wolf Alice precisely because he’s not pretending to like their music.
All of this makes the politician who actually likes good things – who genuinely has an interest in culture, whose tastes haven’t been focus-grouped and fine-tuned to satisfy some mythical portion of the electorate – a very rare breed. But there are some out there, and their tastes run from jungle and UK garage to punk and heavy metal. Here’s a guide to some of the MPs seeking re-election today (June 8) whose musical interests are legitimately on-point. If nothing else, it proves the theory that no Tory has ever liked good art.
KERRY MCCARTHY (BRISTOL EAST)
The Labour MP for Bristol East is punk as fuck. Back in 2011 she shared some of her favourite dance songs from the weirder end of the post-punk, industrial, and electronic spectrums for Louder Than War, a list that contained tracks by Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire, D.A.F., and early Simple Minds alongside new cuts from bands like Factory Floor. It’s maybe no surprise that her favourite era happened to be a time where musicians were at their most politically engaged.
“I remember walking through the streets of Luton with our ghetto blasters playing (Tom Robinson’s debut album) Power in the Darkness and listening to Gang of Four and A Certain Ratio,” McCarthy told The Guardian. “In sixth form some friends were into Crass, although I preferred the sleeve notes to the music. ‘Good Technology’ by Red Guitars was a song I loved, it was about the decline of the industrial north. With punk, it wasn’t so much that the lyrics were that political, it was more the stance. There was nothing overtly political about Joy Division, but that bleakness very much chimed with what Britain was like in the 1970s and the early 80s.”
CHUKA UMUNNA (STREATHAM)
While I’m personally not a fan of Chuka Umunna’s politics, there’s no denying that the guy knows his stuff when it comes to UK garage. Yes, the Labour MP for Streatham used to actually be a garage DJ, as he told us in a pretty excellent and wide-ranging interview conducted in the wake of the London riots. “I was really into reggae,” he said. “Then I went through a phase when I was into jungle… we didn’t call it drum and bass back then. Then I discovered house and garage, but UK garage – the 90s underground scene. And when it went mainstream in the late 90s, it was exciting because there was something very essentially ‘London’ about it – this fusion of cultures from the English part of our society but also Jamaican, Latin and everything fused into one.”
Not only that, he used to write about garage for Touch magazine and even run clubnights up in Manchester while he was at university. “My favourite DJ was probably Karl ‘Tuff Enuff’ Brown, I never heard a bad set from him in those days,” he told DJ Mag. “Producer-wise, I liked a lot of MJ Cole’s stuff, Todd Edwards, Grant Nelson... The record labels I used to get a lot of my stuff from included Talkin Loud, Subliminal Soul – Erick Morillo’s outfit but the more soulful end of that – Defected, Soulfuric, which was probably my favourite record label. The record shops I used to go to included Release the Groove, which doesn’t exist anymore – that was just off Shaftesbury Avenue; Uptown Records on D’Arblay Street in Soho; Black Market, which is just still going... and it was strictly vinyl.”
TIM FARRON (WESTMORLAND & LONSDALE)
Liberal Democrat dweeb and generally soggy human being Tim Farron has proven himself to be one of the more inept party leaders this election campaign thanks to his consistent slipperiness on homosexuality, his flip-flopping on Brexit, and his refusal to rule out another coalition with the Tories. At the same time, he’s got one of the sharpest music tastes of any MP seeking re-election.
Farron has a soft spot for the sort of ultra-inventive pop music that sprung up during the 1980s – galvanised by the punk scene, these artists approached pop with an open mind and willingness to experiment, writing some of the best music to ever hit the UK charts. His top 40 songs include tracks by feminist punk pioneers X-Ray Spex, dream pop trio the Cocteau Twins, and pop subversives The KLF. He was once in a new wave band that he described as “a fourth rate New Order”, and when Labour deputy leader Tom Watson described the Lib Dems as a “Bananarama tribute band”, he replied that there’s “nothing wrong with Bananarama”. (He’s right, though there’s still plenty wrong with the Lib Dems.)
But one of the most painful things to admit is that me and Farron both share a favourite band – cult sophisti-pop group Prefab Sprout. He’s tweeted about them loads, talked them up in major interviews, and was once surprised by the group’s Wendy Smith, his teen pin-up, during a Radio 4 broadcast. The kicker here is that Smith has been voicing her support for Labour this election – absolutely bodied.
RUPA HUQ (EALING CENTRAL & ACTON)
Rupa Huq – sister of former Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq – was only elected to parliament in 2015, and is defending a very slim majority in today’s election. If her constituency does go blue, she still has music to fall back on. Huq used to DJ under the (admittedly quite amazing) name ‘Dr. Huq’, with her sets circa 2004 featuring “everything from Asian underground music to Justin Timberlake.”
She’s not just a fan of pop music but a scholar of it too, having penned the books Beyond Subculture: youth, pop and identity in a post-colonial world and Making Sense of Suburbia through Popular Culture as well as essays on topics like the rave scene’s response to the Criminal Justice Act, the contribution of television to UK indie music, and the ‘Asian kool’ movement of the 1990s.
RICHARD BURGON (LEEDS EAST)
Richard Burgon is one of the more talented new MPs in the Labour Party – he grew up in Leeds and actually represents his own constituency, he’s a committed socialist, and he’s one of the best orators in British politics. He’s also a metalhead. ‘Is this man the most metal politician on the planet?’ read a headline in Metal Hammer last year. In the interview he talks about who he’s been listening to most recently, naming Vallenfyre, My Dying Bride, Amon Amarth, and Woods Of Ypres. Not only that, he used to play in a band who “sounded a bit like Electric Wizard but not as good” and used to put on gigs at legendary local venue the Brudenell Social Club. “I very rarely get recognised unless I’m in my suit,” he said. “People don’t expect to see an MP in a Maiden shirt or a Slayer shirt and jeans, so when you’re not dressed in the ‘uniform’ of your job you can enjoy yourself and get truly immersed in it.”
More bizarrely, Burgon was recently caught in a scandal when The Sun wrongly accused a metal band that he collaborated with as using Nazi iconography. “The real story is, they made a spoof/parody of the cover of a famous Black Sabbath record from the 1970s,” he said. “They are fans of Black Sabbath, not neo-Nazis.”
TOM WATSON (WEST BROMWICH EAST)
Labour’s deputy leader and West Bromwich East’s local MP’s taste is quite eclectic, in a ‘dad who listens to 6 Music’ kind of way. He famously talked up Midlands guitar group Drenge in an open letter to Ed Miliband when he resigned as his election co-ordinator, he was too busy getting on it at Glastonbury to see there was a leadership coup going on in his party, and he’s also a fan of everyone from AC/DC to Public Enemy to Dean Martin to hardcore punks Goldblade. He also has a habit of using musical metaphors to describe political situations: saying that Labour MPs won’t defect to the Lib Dems because that’s “like quitting the Beatles for a Bananarama tribute band”, or that healing the divided party would be to “put the band back together”.