The Red Flag

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The Red Flag
Madrid may day375.jpg
A red flag being waved on International Workers' Day in Madrid
LyricsJim Connell, 1889
MusicMelchior Franck, 16th century
Audio sample
The Red Flag

"The Red Flag" (Roud V45381) is a socialist song, emphasising the sacrifices and solidarity of the international labour movement. It is the anthem of the British Labour Party,[1][2] Irish nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, and Irish Labour Party.[3] The song is traditionally sung at the close of each party's national conference.[4]

Though this song is not commonly associated with organisations aligned to the principles of Marxism-Leninism and its derivatives[citation needed], translated versions of it are sung by the Japanese Communist Party and Korean People's Army.[5]


Irishman Jim Connell wrote the song's lyrics in 1889 in Nicholas Donovan's house.[6] There are six stanzas, each followed by the chorus. It is normally sung to the tune of "Lauriger Horatius", better known as the German carol "O Tannenbaum" ("O Christmas Tree"), though Connell had wanted it sung to the tune of a pro-Jacobite Robert Burns anthem, "The White Cockade".[7] When Billy Bragg recorded the song in 1990 with Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan, he sang it to this original "White Cockade" melody. The lyrics of the first verse and the chorus, which are the most well-known parts of the song, are as follows:

The people's flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts' blood dyed its every fold.
So raise the scarlet standard high,
Beneath its shade we'll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We'll keep the red flag flying here.[8]

"The Red Flag" resonated with the early radical workers' movement in the United States, and it appeared as the first song in the first edition of the Little Red Songbook of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1909. Only five of the six stanzas were printed, omitting the fourth stanza that begins, "It well recalls the triumphs past."[9] In a 1913 article for the Industrial Worker, the celebrated IWW bard Joe Hill rejected the category of "the people" as middle class, and suggested a further change to the song. Referring to his experiences in the Magonista rebellion of 1911,[10] he wrote:

When the Red Flag was flying in Lower California there were not any of "the people" in the ranks of the rebels. Common working stiffs and cow-punchers were in the majority, with a little sprinkling of "outlaws," whatever that is. [...] Well, it is about time that every rebel wakes up to the fact that "the people" and the workingclass [sic] have nothing in common. Let us sing after this "The Workers' flag is deepest red" and to hell with "the people."[11]

"The Red Flag" has been the British Labour Party's official anthem from its founding; its annual party conference closes with the song. "The Red Flag" was first sung in the House of Commons on 1 August 1945, when Parliament convened after Clement Attlee's Labour defeat of Winston Churchill's Conservatives.[12] Dockers in London were regarded as militant socialists ever since their strike in 1889 for the "dockers' tanner." In the 1950s, at the end of public meetings with management, dockers filling the main floor of the hall sang "The Red Flag" while superintendents and managers (usually segregated in the gallery) simultaneously sang "God Save the Queen". "The Red Flag" was sung by Labour MPs on 27 May 1976, allegedly prompting Michael Heseltine to swing the mace above his head.[13]

It was also sung on the evening of 28 March 1979 when a motion of no confidence brought down the Labour Government.[14] It was sung again in Parliament in February 2006 to mark the centenary of the Labour Party's founding. It was sung again in the House of Commons in September 2019 to protest the prorogation of parliament.[15] During the Tony Blair government it was claimed the leadership sought to downplay its role,[1][16] however, it is often sung at the end of party conferences alongside Jerusalem.[17][18] Following the 2015 election of veteran socialist Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition, "The Red Flag" was sung as he and his supporters celebrated in The Sanctuary, a public house in London.[19]

It was also sung by South African mineworkers during the bloody miners' strike on the Rand in 1922.[citation needed]

In 1982, Shakin Stevens recorded a rock & roll cover of the song known as "Red Flag Rock".


The People's Flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead,
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts' blood dyed its every fold.
Then raise the scarlet standard high.
Beneath its shade we'll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We'll keep the red flag flying here.
Look round, the Frenchman loves its blaze,
The sturdy German chants its praise,
In Moscow's vaults its hymns were sung
Chicago swells the surging throng.
It waved above our infant might,
When all ahead seemed dark as night;
It witnessed many a deed and vow,
We must not change its colour now.
It well recalls the triumphs past,
It gives the hope of peace at last;
The banner bright, the symbol plain,
Of human right and human gain.
It suits today the weak and base,
Whose minds are fixed on pelf and place
To cringe before the rich man's frown,
And haul the sacred emblem down.
With head uncovered swear we all
To bear it onward till we fall;
Come dungeons dark or gallows grim,
This song shall be our parting hymn.

Alternative versions[edit]

"The Red Flag" was parodied by singer-songwriter Leon Rosselson as the "Battle Hymn of the New Socialist Party," also known as "The Red Flag Once a Year" or "The People's Flag Is Palest Pink." It is intended to satirise the perceived lack of socialist principles in the Labour Party. The initial parody was widely known in the 1960s, sometimes sung during late night parties at student conferences. It was revived in the early 2000s in response to the centrist reforms associated with Tony Blair.[20] A version which began "The people's flag is palest pink, mum washed it in the kitchen sink" was popular among schoolchildren in the 1950s, which may have inspired Rosselson's version. A version can be found as far back as 1920 in Through Bolshevik Russia by Ethel Snowden.

A version of the lyrics sung regularly at the Liberal Democrats' Glee Club, also dated to the mid-1960s, is:

The people's flag is palest pink,
It's not as red as most think.
We must not let the people know
What socialists thought long ago.
Don't let the scarlet banner float;
We want the middle classes' vote.
Let our old fashioned comrades sneer,
We'll stay in power for many a year.[21]

A number of versions exist which parody the way New Labour shifted the party away from traditional socialist positions:

The People's Flag Is Palest Pink
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 woollen 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


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
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 version of "The Red Flag" with similar lyrics entitled "We'll Never Die" is the official anthem of Manchester United F.C. A similar version is also sung regularly by supporters of Sunderland AFC:

Flying high up in the sky,
We'll keep the red flag flying high,
Wherever you go you're sure to know,
We'll keep the red flag flying high.

Supporters of Bristol City F.C. (also known as ciderheads) sing their own adaptation of the chorus:

Flying high up in the sky,
We'll keep the red flag flying high,
Ciderheads until we die,
We'll keep the red flag flying high.

Meanwhile, supporters of AFC Bournemouth sing their adaptation of the chorus as:

Flying high up in the sky,
We'll keep the red flag flying high,
Dean Court to Wembley,
We'll keep the red flag flying high.

Wrexham A.F.C. supporters’ version includes the following refrain with a nod to a socialist Wales:

Flying high up in the sky,
We'll keep the red flag flying high,
On the road to victory,
We'll keep the Welsh flag flying high.

Chelsea F.C. fans sing a version of the song called The Blue Flag:

From Stamford Bridge to Wembley
We'll Keep the blue flag flying high
Flying high up in the sky
We'll keep the Blue flag flying high
From Stamford Bridge to Wembley
We'll keep the blue flag flying high

Northampton Town F.C. supporters have their own adaptation "The Fields Are Green":

The fields are green, the sky is blue
The River Nene goes winding through
The Market Square is cobblestoned
It shakes the old dears to the bones
No finer town you'll ever see
No finer town they'll ever be
Big city lights don't bother me
Northampton Town, I'm proud to be!

The melody is used in Harold Baum's "The Michaelis Anthem" in The Biochemists' Songbook.[22]

A famous song of the Italian labour movement has the same title (though in Italian): Bandiera Rossa, but different lyrics and tune, as does the French song Le drapeau rouge, known in English as The Standard of Revolt.

A parody of unknown origin is known as The Foreman's Job,[23] and this is sometimes considered a rugby song.[24] This has many variants but usually begins:

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

A parody, "The Orkney Flag", by resident Dr Stephen Clackson was published in Orkney [25] following the approval of an official Flag of Orkney:

The Orkney flag is deepest red
With Nordic cross fim-bri-atèd.
Azure long cross edged in gold,
It will, for sure, in Kemps be sold.
So raise the scarlet standard high!
Beneath its folds we'll live and die.
Though critics flinch and sceptics sneer,
We'll keep the red flag flying here.
Look 'round, the Frenchman loves its blaze,
The sturdy German chants its praise,
In Moscow's vaults its hymns are sung,
But in Norway hands are wrung.
Shall we still raise this standard high?
Beneath its folds to live and die?
If Norwegians flinch and fear,
This flag should not be flying here.
Designed with peedie children’s pens,
Coloured in all innocence.
Who could have known the truth so grim?
It was the flag of Quis-a-ling.
So let the scarlet standard lie;
Maybe best to let it die.
Because Norwegians flinch and frown,
Let’s haul this dubious emblem down.
What waved above our infant might,
When red on yellow seemed alright,
Lord Lyon said he’d disallow
And made us change its colour now.
Let’s hoist again this old flag high!
Within its shade to live and die.
Though Lyon ban and interfere,
Let’s have the gold flag flying here.
That flag recalled the triumphs past,
The Kalmar Union on the mast.
The banner bright, the symbol plain;
When will we see your like again?
So raise the yellow standard high!
Within its shade we'll live and die.
Let Lyon ban and interfere,
We'll keep the gold flag flying here!
Perplexed, the question’s asked by all:
Which flag to bear until we fall?
Be it the new flag or the old,
It will, for sure, in Kemps be sold.
So which standard raise we high?
Beneath which flag to live and die?
Whatever happens one thing’s clear,
An Orkney flag-’ll be flying here!

In popular culture[edit]

"The Red Flag" was sung in the 2018 film Red Joan at a Cambridge University socialist meeting circa 1938 attended by the young protagonist (portrayed by Sophie Cookson) and her romantic interest Leo (portrayed by Tom Hughes).



  1. ^ a b "The Red Flag ends Labour rally". BBC News. 1 October 1999. Retrieved 21 December 2011.
  2. ^ "Labour Party Anthems – Top 10 songs the Labour Party has used over the years". Daily Mirror. 7 April 2010. Retrieved 21 December 2011.
  3. ^ Hennessy, Mark (19 November 2007). "Party delegates adopt Red Flag as anthem". The Irish Times. Retrieved 30 September 2019.
  4. ^ Alwyn W. Turner (5 September 2013). A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s. Aurum Press. pp. 258–9. ISBN 978-1-78131-142-4.
  5. ^ Lee, Jae-won (17 February 2014). "법원 "'적기가' 부른 이석기 국보법 위반"…'적기가' 뭔지 보니" [Court rules 'The Red Flag' song a violation of the Korean National Security Law...I see what 'The Red Flag' song is] (in Korean). Money Today. Archived from the original on 27 February 2018. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  6. ^ It first appeared in print in the paper Justice, 21 December 1889, under the heading "A Christmas Carol", with subheadings, "The Red Flag", "Air – 'The White Cockade'", and was signed "J. Connell".
  7. ^ Jim Connell, "How I Wrote the "Red Flag," The Call, May 6, 1920, p. 5; reprinted in Archie Green, David Roediger, Franklin Rosemont, and Salvatore Salerno, editors, The Big Red Songbook (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 2007), pp. 367–369.
  8. ^ Dr Helena Sheehan. "The Red Flag (sound files)". Retrieved 2 June 2012.
  9. ^ Archie Green et al., eds., The Big Red Songbook, pp. 37–39.
  10. ^ Rosemont, Franklin (2015). Joe Hill: The IWW & the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture, Second Edition. Oakland, CA: PM Press. p. 87. ISBN 978-1-62963-119-6.
  11. ^ Kornbluh, Joyce L. Thompson, Fred, 1900–1987. Rosemont, Franklin. (2011). Rebel voices : an IWW anthology. PM Press. p. 137. ISBN 978-1-60486-846-3. OCLC 829171847.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  12. ^ Glazer, Joe (2001). Labor's Troubadour. University of Illinois Press. p. 183. ISBN 9780252026126.
  13. ^ "UK | UK Politics | Mace – Commons". BBC News. 9 October 2008. Retrieved 28 September 2013.
  14. ^ "BBC ON THIS DAY | 28 | 1979: Early election as Callaghan defeated". BBC News. 28 March 1979. Retrieved 28 September 2013.
  15. ^ "Chaotic scenes in the Commons as parliament is suspended". The Guardian.
  16. ^ Hoggart, Simon (28 September 2007). "Red Flag rises above a dodgy future". The Guardian. Retrieved 21 December 2011.
  17. ^ "Labour conference closes with Red Flag and Jerusalem". BBC News Online. British Broadcasting Corporation. 30 September 2015. Retrieved 14 November 2015.
  18. ^ Peter Hitchens (26 March 2010). The Cameron Delusion. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 181. ISBN 978-1-4411-2390-9.
  19. ^ Dearden, Lizzie (12 September 2015). "Jeremy Corbyn celebrates election as Labour leader by singing The Red Flag at victory party". The Independent. Retrieved 25 March 2016.
  20. ^ The Socialist Party – songs Archived 28 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  21. ^ Liberator Collective (2013). The Liberator Songbook (24 ed.). Liberator. p. 12.
  22. ^ "The Biochemists' Songbook MP3 Files". California State University, Long Beach. Retrieved 2 June 2012.
  23. ^ Joe Glazer (2002). Labor's Troubadour. University of Chicago Press. p. 184.
  24. ^ Bob Liftig (2008). The Baby Bomber Chronicles. AuthorHouse. p. 149.
  25. ^ Orkney Today 19 July 2007
  26. ^ a b "Red Flag, Green Roots".

External links[edit]