A Symphony for the Labour Party (Vaughan Williams’ 6th)

Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote his 6th Symphony partly in reaction to the land mine that fell on the Café de Paris in London during the Second World War, a bomb which killed Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson and members of his West Indian Dance Band Orchestra who were performing there.

Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 6, played by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Roger Norrington
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In a reference to the victims of that tragedy of war we hear in the symphony’s third movement the snaky, sinuous but ethereal sound of a saxophone backed up with a pulsing jazz beat. But it is framed by a piece which is tumultuous and angry, broken with a few moments of introspection and a short window of radiant beauty towards the end of the first movement. The fourth and final movement rounds the symphony off with a feeling of drifting and desolation, the strings evoking a gasping, uneven breath dying out to nothingness.

For me, it is a symphony for the Labour Party right now.

The piece, played with marvellous visceral energy in this version by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Roger Norrington, starts off furiously with great forces crashing and banging against one another. The way I am hearing it now referring to Labour, this first movement depicts the hard left busting in, bringing irresistible hard-driving momentum and completely overwhelming the Blairite New Labour and Brownite tendencies in the leadership race. A beautiful melancholic melody briefly pulls us away, offering a pause for breath and some clarity. But it soon resigns itself to defeat, submitting to the more powerful forces.

The second movement (starting at 8.10) seems to be where we are now: adjusting and adapting to the new reality: a place full of edginess and foreboding but still ticking along with a repeated rat-a-tat to keep us grounded. This ebbs and flows until coming to a head with a great collision (perhaps with the electorate next year?), marked by a fusillade of noise which then declines into quiet distress.

The third movement (starting at 17.18) sees a new push with renewed fury and energy, but offering little joy or solace except for the ethereal saxophone solos suggesting a different and better world that could have been. After a brief lull it breaks out into a relentless, crashing, compulsive tumult of noise. But this soon breaks down, giving way to the final movement, the Epilogue.

At the time when the symphony was released to the world in 1948 (and it was played live more than a hundred times within two years), some critics interpreted this eerie finale as like wandering in the ruins of a nuclear holocaust. Vaughan Williams himself rejected these interpretations, quoting Prospero’s words from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep”.

In those terms it evokes what some Labour people were saying about party unity during the Ed Miliband years: ‘the quietness of the grave’.

I’m not one for making prophecies, but the symphony seems to have a particular resonance at the moment.

It's like the first movement has happened, the second is happening now and the angry clashes of the third will follow sooner or later when the resurgent hard left finds its way blocked and lashes out in a final confrontation against challengers and critics.

The challenge for those who see disaster ahead is to get into a position where they can win that confrontation and prevent this symphony’s bleak final movement coming to pass.  Without some sort of major change and intervention, it surely will though. The old ways do not work anymore, if they ever did indeed without the charisma and flawed vision of Tony Blair.

From the ‘Blue Labour’ or ‘One Nation Labour’ tendency, Jon Cruddas has been busy producing some fascinating analysis on the last election and what it means for Labour. Frank Field has also been getting out there, pushing his prescient but unpopular messages (with the Labour tribe) about the importance of national borders in the ultra-globalised environment in which we find ourselves (and also latterly on tax credits).

From the more mainstream centrist wing of Labour, Luke Akehurst has been doing sterling work promoting the ‘Labour First’ grouping as a countervailing force to the Corbynistas, with new deputy leader Tom Watson and leadership candidate Yvette Cooper notable attendees at its meeting during the Brighton conference.

We shall see what happens. Jeremy Corbyn has a huge mandate from members and supporters that should be respected. It could easily break down though, especially if and when election results go against Labour next May and the unions decide it’s time to be more realistic. Whether a reversion to a new version of the old status quo will prove to be the way forward remains to be seen.

Personally, I have serious doubts and am more interested in what the likes of Cruddas and Field have to say. However, as we can hear in the 6th Symphony featured here, a nice tune counts for little against brute political force.

For more on Vaughan Williams and his music, have a look at the companion piece to this article: ‘Vaughan Williams: a British music for the world’.


  1. Good post but what Labour most reminds me of is Book 2 of Paradise Lost, the debate the fallen angels have about what we do now the other side have won is one I've heard many times. See Moloch's reaction to defeat:

    .....we feel
    Our power sufficient to disturb his Heav'n,
    And with perpetual inrodes to Allarme,
    Though inaccessible, his fatal Throne:
    Which if not Victory is yet Revenge.

    The last line is Corbynism distilled to its essence

  2. Always read this blog as I largely agree with the political stance (and conformation bias is comforting) but, on a more serious note, I wonder why you persist with the Labour Party. I first campaigned for Labour in 74 when I was too young to vote and campaigned/voted for them in every subsequent election up to last May. I'm one of the people who will get hammered by the tax credit cuts and i knew if the Tories got back in, I would lose out, I still couldn't bring myself to vote Labour (I spoiled my vote). Rotherham and Milliband's 'outlaw Islamophobia' pledge were the final straws. The leadership election was particularly depressing not only because Corbyn won but because none of the other candidates would, I think, have been much better. With the Tories about to do immense damage to the infrastructure and stamp even harder on the poor we need a credible left wing opposition more than ever but even if the party ousted Corbyn tomorrow, it’s doubtful whether a new leadership election would resolve anything. Would a Burnham or Cooper led Labour Party be much better? My political stance is best described as Blue Labour, but I can’t see that the Labour Party will ever be brought round to that way of thinking, even though it would have a good deal of voter appeal. Labour, as a party, remains fully signed up to the lunacy of multiculturalism and seems to have nothing useful to say about the EU except ‘Whatever you say Jean Claud’. And a party in which Keith Vaz (who wants to reintroduce blasphemy laws) is a respected figure has something very rotten at its heart. While I know that there is a long tradition in the Labour Party of looking to the long term and rebuilding, I can’t see it happening and I’m not even sure I want it to happen. It seems to me that the coalition within the party is no longer viable, the hatred is too deep and, frankly, I’m not voting for any party that contains the likes of Vaz, McDonnell and Livingstone. There is an argument that Labour is the only game in town and our only hope for 2020, but I’m less and less convinced that this I true. My belief is that we need a new party of the left, committed to economic and social justice, patriotic though not nationalist, tough on monopolies and corporatism, mildly Eurosceptic (reformist rather than isolationist), integrationist rather than multi-culturalist, strongly secularist, absolutely committed to a defence of enlightenment values and firm but fair on immigration. You could argue that Labour might be persuaded to become that party but I can’t ever see it happening. Therefore, in my view, the sooner we start on building a new party, the better, but I’d be very interested to hear a counter argument – why we should stick with Labour

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Captain. I'm afraid I haven't got time right now to read all of them, but the reasons why I'm still in Labour are: 1) I don't see what leaving would achieve; 2) There is nowhere to go politically; 3) I know from many years experience that being completely on the outside makes you more or less completely irrelevant; and last but not least, 4) connections, friendships and relationships.

  3. OK, fair enough, I wish I could be optimistic about getting the party back, but in the city where I live I see a lot of the old stalwarts leaving and a number of the most prominent headbangers rejoining..I can't see any way of retrieving the situation before the next election. I guess the other reason for my pessimism is that I'm a university lecturer and I have become very weary of constantly having to defend free speech against the new left totalitarians - staff and students. Given that most of the Stasi appreciation society are also stalwart Labour members (and big Corbybn fans) I fear that any future Labour Government will be even more illiberal than the last. The ideological rot has gone so far that I think it's probably terminal and I think it hard to think of any likely electoral scenario in which I would vote Labour - I would be supporting people like Keith Vaz


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