Changing the record on politics: Peter Jenner talks sex and drugs and rock and roll

 Labour was not too bad on sex. Gay rights, single parents, sex education, civil unions, AIDS treatments, STD education, general openness of discussion of sex issues, problems and possibilities. These all added up to a pretty positive development in the social environment. Chronic British uptight-ness, prejudice and repression were dealt with in social life and interaction, the arts and education. It made a Britain a better place to live in. 

In contrast, the treatment of drugs was a classic opportunity lost; fear of every hysterical headline demanded a conservative response. Drug czars, the war on drugs and experts on the misuse of drugs sacked or resigned all played to the worst of Labour’s populism and PR directed policy responses. Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson orchestrated a mindless response to the drug problem, despite all the evidence that repression and prohibition was having little if any positive effect, and that the most dangerous thing about drugs were that they were illegal.  

The folly of this approach was, ironically, highlighted by the dubious licensing act and the fear of doing anything about the growing alcohol problem that might upset the nation’s drinkers. The message seemed to be ‘drugs bad, booze good’. This was just like the initial reluctance to do anything about smoking or school dinners, junk food or global warming. Finally something was done about smoking, but hesitantly and grudgingly, and only in the face of overwhelming evidence of its social and economic costs.  

On the other hand, rock and roll was treated as part of cool Britannia. But before too long it became clear that too close an association with it might tarnish the image of a responsible god-fearing government who sponsored faith schools and charities. 

The advantage of ‘red wedge’ in helping to make Labour cool and youth friendly was forgotten in government, though not by many of those who rocked out with us back then. What happened to the youth service and the possibility of opening up opportunities for young musicians not signed to major labels and without the qualifications to go to university? What happened to the protests over the appalling licensing act that made it even harder for musicians to perform in pubs and restaurants? What happened to opening up the schools and youth clubs to young people so that they could have somewhere to call their own for culture, creativity and social interaction? We heard about ASBOs and CCTV, but what happened to opportunities for young people to have their own environment in which they could ‘misbehave’ in a positive manner? 

There were big hopes for the department of culture, media and sport. But then we had Chris Smith who was good on ‘culture’ but had little interest in rock and roll. Good news for high art and culture, and a refreshing change from the Tory philistines, but not much good for unemployed bands in pit villages.

Next came Tessa Jowell, whose interests seemed to be focused on Tony Blair and PR. She demonstrated little if any interest in anything cultural, either popular or serious. Then there was James Purnell, who hardly had time to assess the scene before moving on.  Andy Burnham succeeded him, and he had the possibility of being fantastic, as he was both a genuine football and music fan, but he was also moved on far too soon. Finally there was Ben Bradshaw who failed to make any impact on my consciousness. Siôn Simon showed curiosity and interest but was too far down the ladder to have much effect.   

More crucial is what happened in responding to the possibilities of the internet and the digital explosion as an outlet for creativity. The internet was a golden opportunity to explore new ways for music and film to get to the public and to be used as a basis for building career opportunities for those who were not just providing the latest round of pap for the masses. It has the possibility of exposing and developing new talent in both creating, discovering and building new businesses around music and other creative areas, games, films, magazines and the rest.  

But the response to the internet was the hysterical attack on piracy led by the major record and other media companies who rightly saw this new distribution system as a threat. This was finally manifested in the digital economy act, an unexciting and disappointing piece of legislation. The great opportunity to open up the creative economy of the UK was sacrificed on the altar of Mandy’s conversion, at the feet of the great god Geffen on a Russian oligarch’s enormous yacht in the Med. It was done to stamp out the possibility of the public getting any advantage from the possibility of slashing the price of content, whilst maintaining the revenue of the creators. Setting out a bold strategy for the use of the internet to the advantage of the creators and the public would have required serious thought and radical change, and would have threatened the major content companies’ control of distribution and the media. But fear and conservatism overrode imagination and courage.

This is a sad tale of missed opportunities, much of it down to the dead hand of the bureaucracy and the failure to recognise opportunities to build on the cultural exports and tourism offered by our creative community. They are unique and provide economic and social possibilities that should never have been ignored. Britain’s two great comparative advantages in the international economy are our language and our creative people. Fostering them could not have been as expensive as fostering the financial services.

In all my 40 years in the music business, I have realized that record companies run by people who have an instinct for music succeed far more often than record companies run by marketing men, accountants and lawyers. I suspect the same applies to many businesses, and it certainly applies to government. The late, lamented Labour government was dominated by marketing people. The people with instinct and understanding were too often treated as impractical eccentrics. Politicians need to remember that it is the job of the marketing people to market their policies, and no more. 

The Labour government was a tribute to timidity and lack of imagination, combined with an obsession for short term political point scoring. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll are not all that my soul and body need, but they are popular and could have been great for the economy. But no one was willing to risk it. If we had, we might have realized that there were more important things than tomorrow’s headlines and cosying up to powerful people in politics and finance.

Peter Jenner has managed Pink Floyd, The Clash, Ian Drury, T Rex and Roy Harper, to name a few. He currently manages Billy Bragg on his record label Sincere Management.

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