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Things can only get better? Rishi Sunak’s election chant reckoning was perfection

Countless politicians have tried to co-opt pop hits as campaign anthems

UK prime minister Rishi Sunak announced a surprise election last week on a drizzling Wednesday morning. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/AFP via Getty Images

Blame Steve Bray for the latest resuscitation of D: Ream’s 1990s dance-pop hit Things Can Only Get Better, which re-entered the iTunes top 10 last week. For the last five years the anti-Brexit campaigner has parked himself around central London and blasted out random chants and tunes in a one-man psyop on successive Conservative administrations. It’s a tribute to the robustness of the United Kingdom’s freedom of speech protections that they trumped any noise pollution regulations that Bray was breaching and permitted him to keep driving all of Whitehall around the twist.

But his long struggle reached its apotheosis on Wednesday, May 22nd, when Rishi Sunak emerged from No 10 Downing Street into the teeming rain to inform a surprised nation that he had called an election. The visuals were memorable enough, with the likely soon-to-be-ex-prime minister turning into a puddle in human form on live television as he waded grimly through his script.

But it was Bray’s very loud playing of the song associated with Labour’s 1997 landslide victory that elevated the scene to levels of perfection not seen since the letters started falling off the wall behind Theresa May at the 2017 Conservative party conference. “I thought about what would be the best trolling tune if [Sunak] announced the election,” he said afterwards. “And of course, it had to be Things Can Only Get Better. Because everybody can relate to that and the 1997 election.”

Bray has now, finally, been banned from every street around Whitehall and Westminster. One suspects it was worth it.


Over the years, countless politicians have tried to co-opt pop hits as campaign anthems. Some have been appalling (at least Joe Strummer was dead by the time Rudy Giuliani appropriated The Clash’s Rudie Can’t Fail for his 2008 presidential run). Many have been unimaginative (U2′s Beautiful Day is a repeat offender). But few have been as successful as New Labour and TCOGB. When the party asked D: Ream’s singer, Derry-born Peter Cunnah, for permission to use the song, it was an inspired choice. First released as an instrumental club track in early 1993, it had brushed the lower reaches of the Top 30 when such things still mattered. The following year a reboot with soaring vocals spent four weeks at Number 1. A little bit football anthem, a little bit Elton John, its breezy optimism sold well across the world.

Things Can Only Get Better is little bit football anthem, a little bit Elton John, its breezy optimism sold well across the world

And there the matter might have rested, were it not for some bright spark in Tony Blair’s team identifying TCOGB as the perfect soundtrack – upbeat, future-facing, modern but not too modern, popular but not ubiquitous – to represent the Blairite vision.

To some extent, Labour was just taking a leaf out of Bill Clinton’s playbook. The Democratic presidential candidate had cruised to victory in the 1992 US election to the glossy soft-rock accompaniment of Fleetwood Mac’s baby boomer anthem Don’t Stop. Both Don’t Stop and Things Can Only Get Better follow the ideal template for a centre-left party intent on getting back into power after a long period in the wilderness. Their message is simple. Things have been a bit grim but you’ll be on the right side of history with our lot.

It might seem foolhardy to parse D: Ream’s or Fleetwood Mac’s lyrics too deeply. But the injunction not to stop thinking about tomorrow or the assertion that things can only get better are each in their own ways, paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr’s progressive dictum that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”.

At the other end of the spectrum, the most promiscuous user of popular hits is the current Republican candidate for the White House. The Trump campaign is permanently surrounded by a confetti of cease and desist letters from some of the most famous names in the music business, from the Rolling Stones to Rihanna to REM (and that’s just the Rs) demanding he stop playing their songs at his rallies. His campaign roundly ignores them all.

Blairism and Clintonism have been tainted political brands for more than 20 years now. But the growing market for 1990s nostalgia, the sense that things have got the opposite of better in many ways since then, coupled with the very New Labour-ish feel of much of Keir Starmer’s pitch to the British electorate, may be changing that.

Reports this week suggest Starmer’s campaign has taken to repeat-playing Better Times, an optimistic 2023 house banger from Låpsley & KC Light. “Wave the year goodbye,” goes the chorus. “Movin’ on, to better times.” We can all get on board with that, although we won’t find out what it actually means for a troubled UK until after July 4th.