That socialist anthem, The Red Flag, was written by an Irishman named Jim Connell in 1889. Inspired by the London dock strike of that year, Connell intended that his lyrics should be sung to the tune of an old Jacobite anthem, the White Cockade, although in Britain they are generally sung to the tune of O Tannenbaum, otherwise known to the rest of the English speaking world as O Christmas Tree. Nevertheless, with its references to our "martyred dead" whose "life-blood" were providing the necessary colour, the Red Flag soon became a favourite of what is often termed the international labour movement, and was later adopted by the British Labour Party as its theme song in 1925; at least to the extent that it was sung at the conclusion of each annual party conference in the days before New Labour, and generally followed by a rendition of Auld Lang Syne.

Of course there was always something slightly incongruous about a parliamentary party loudly proclaiming its determination not to be deflected by "dungeons dark or gallows grim", whilst it was always considered politic to omit the verse with the reference to "Moscow's vaults". All of which might explain the motivation for the satiric version of the song that questioned the Labour Party's commitment to the path of revolutionary change, the basic, or at least the most common version of which goes:-

The people's flag is palest pink
It's not the colour you might think
White collar workers stand and cheer
The Labour government is here

We'll change the country bit by bit
So nobody will notice it
And just to show that we're sincere
We'll sing The Red Flag once a year

The cloth cap and the woolen scarf
Are images outdated
For we're the party's avant garde
And we are educated

So raise the rolled umbrella high
The college scarf, the old school tie
And just to show that we're sincere
We'll sing The Red Flag once a year

However as with most 'traditional' songs there are a multitude of variants which often include additional verses that seek to establish a certain contemporary relevance, such as;

The workers' flag is palest pink
Since Gaitskell dipped it in the sink
Now Harold's done the same as Hugh
The workers' flag is brightest blue.

Of course, since both Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson are now dead, that verse would likely not be sung these days, although an ensemble known as the Red Notes Choir apparently includes the verse;

New Labour's flag is palest pink
It's not as red as you might think
And Tony's added shades of blue
He does not care for me and you

And back in 2007 an individual known only as Mac posted the following version as a comment on the Daily Telegraph's website

The people's flag is palest pink
Best drop it now before we stink
I rather like the Tory Blue
And Cam'ron's policies - I'll have them too
.
Now ditch we all that old red flower
Anything to cling to power
The working class can kiss my arse
It's Gord I worship, first and last.

A clear case of plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, although it isn't clear exactly how long things have stayed the same. The earliest reference this author can trace is from Jessica Mitford's autobiographical work Hons and Rebels, in which she recalls how she took part in the May Day rally of 1938, and how Philip Toynbee and Roger Roughton taught her the words to various "parodies of Communist songs" as well a "sarcastic version of The Red Flag" which began with the words, 'The people's flag is palest pink'.

Naturally making fun of the Labour Party would not be of any relevance on the other side of the Atlantic, although as it turns out the Americans have their own parody of The Red Flag which is generally known as The Foreman's Job, as in;

The working class can kiss my ass
I've got the foreman's job at last
The system I'll no more resist
I'm going to be a capitalist

Now you can raise the standard high
Beneath its shade to fight and die
But brother, please don't count on me
I've up and joined the bourgeoisie

Or alternatively;

The working class can kiss my ass
I got the foreman's job at last
You can tell old Joe I'm off the dole
He can stick the Red Flag up his 'ole

Better still however is the anarchist parody;

The workers' flag is blackest black
The red one's just for bureaucrats
We'll organise to smash the state
And shoot the vanguard while we wait

Then raise your blackest banners high
Workers win while fascists die
The workers' flag is blackest black
The red one's just for bureaucrats.

If only because it is guaranteed to annoy the heck out of everybody on the political left, and not just Labour supporters.

A folk singer named Leon Rosselson has recorded his own satiric version of The Red Flag under the title the Battle Hymn Of The New Socialist Party. It appeared as a track on his (now unavailable) Palaces of Gold (1975), with a re-recorded version also appearing on the currently available Guess What They're Selling at the Happiness Counter (1992), although it was first performed on That Was the Week That Was in 1963. Leon Rosselson's version has many similarities with versions of The People's Flag is Palest Pink, although to what extent the one has borrowed from the other is difficult to say.


SOURCES

  • Redmond Proposes New Labour Party Song For Conference at http://politicsuk.net/smf/index.php?topic=1032.0
    which appears to reproduce something that once appeared in Private Eye
  • Red Flag Parodies at http://www.objectretrieval.com/node/285
  • Red Notes Choir at http://www.rednoteschoir.org.uk/our_cd.htm
  • Leon Rosselson at http://www.leonrosselson.co.uk/index.php
  • Mac, October 10, 2007 from The Daily Telegraph - Whose Pre-Budget Report was it anyway?
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/yourview/1565657/Whose-Pre-Budget-Report-was-it-anyway.html
  • Iain Aitch, A very modest provocateur, The Guardian, Friday 5 June 2009 http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/jun/05/folk

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