Political Symbols & Colours – Part 2 The Labour Party

By far and away the most commonly associated symbol with the Labour Party is the good ol’ Red Flag which literally was used to represent the ‘blood of angry workers’. Although its use was popularised by events in France and its use there by insurrectionary movements especially in the rebellions of 1848 but also by the Jacobins it has documented usage several times before that on these shores.  British sailors mutinied near the mouth of the River Thames in 1797 and hoisted a red flag on several ships. Two red flags were flown by marchers during the Merthyr riots of 1831 in South Wales which were soaked in calf’s blood.

As the Second (social democrat) and Third (communist) Internationals went their separate ways both laid claim to the Red Flag although it seems that Labour was inventive with using other colours including early combinations with gold and yellow (a combination that was much later to reappear in ‘Blajr’s Oblong’) and appeals to Catholic communities using green. Although modernisation has seen attempts to marginalise the Red Flag as an emblem and red in general as a colour it is perhaps living proof that no party can totally escape its past that the ditty that accompanies the flag follows Labour around with 2006 seeing the somewhat unusual (for an insurrectionary song) sound of the Red Flag resonating in Parliament to mark the centenary of Labour’s foundation.

The start of the modernisation process really began in 1986, when Neil Kinnock’s Labour changed their logo from the red flag to the red rose. However, many associate the process with the Blair era because of the momentum Blair brought for change (which many forget needs to be rightly accredited to Smith too). The Blair era however was distinct to that before, in how it affiliated more with the colour purple (his infamous purple ties). Many see this as a sign of arrogance, probably not surprising given it was the colour of Roman emperors. Thus, whilst there are still signs of the old labour ties to the red flag, Blair tried his utmost to downplay this and try and demonstrate the ‘new’ aspects that he wanted the Labour party to advocate.

Interestingly, in little time after Blair had left office, Brown and his allies removed the “New Labour, New Britain” slogan, and changed the rose to purple. Even though the New Labour government have always dabbled with the colour purple, this was seen by many as Brown seeking to establish his leadership as he formally attached the colour purple to a significant symbol of the party. But as has often happened under Brown’s tenure, he went back on his plans as we now have seen the a return to a familiar combination of white and red. Maybe he backed down due to pressures over the Brownite/Blairte struggles, hiring strong allies of Blair such as Mandelson, or maybe it was just another one of those Brown experiments, but it was probably a combination with Brown saying “purple is the colour of passion”.

By Darrell Goodliffe & Jane Watkinson


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