I’m back from Labour Live - the Party of Labour’s new music festival.

The main theme in the press leading up to it was the size of the festival. It was too big, they hadn’t sold enough tickets, and this created a media impression that the event was a failure before it had even started.

For what it’s worth, by the end of the day the supplementary tents were packed out, and there was a large crowd in front of the main stage. While it clearly wasn’t at absolute full capacity, it’s undeniable that people did show up in substantial numbers. Most of the disparaging photos were taken at mid-day when the festival had only just started and people were slowly trickling in. That said, I don’t think it’s helpful at this stage to obsess over attendance figures. Just compare the response to last year’s ‘Tory Glastonbury’; trying to prove success to hostile journalists is a fairly futile effort.

labour live sign

Personally, I don’t mind that it wasn’t sold-out. I won’t complain if the entrance queues aren’t too long, the portable toilets aren’t overflowing, and the trample of a thousand feet hasn’t churned the grass to a muddy mire. I didn’t stay late into the evening but saw no drunkenness, no fighting, and no more than a reasonable amount of drugs and nudity. If the worst conclusions you can draw are that about 13,000 people had a fun time listening to music in a field then I can’t really see anything wrong with it.

It wasn’t a half-hearted event either, the lineup included Declan McKenna, Rae Morris, Clean Bandit, they’re not minor bands.

Here’s a recording of part of McKenna’s set:

EDIT: I now realise this is the ending to the song ‘Paracetemol’, here’s the beginning part (from the music video):

The main stage was accompanied by three other large tents, stalls, pop-up street food vans, and a creche for children. Plus, there was noticeable attention paid to accessibility - most comedians/poets/spoken word acts were accompanied by sign-language interpreters. There was a portable toilet for disabled people.

It was planned and well organised, not just a bunch of people turning up in a field. And yet, one of the main criticisms within the party before the festival was that it wasn’t committed enough. This was a first run, and it felt like a first run, perhaps playing it a little too safe. Some people wanted to see the party really go for it, make it the biggest festival you can.

lit tent

John McDonnell was asked about the ticket price at the festival, and he said it should be free for all to attend. Why not? To some extent it can be considered a campaigning expense. Tickets were initially £30, and it’s true that that’s not much compared to other festivals, but it’s a high enough cost to cause people to hesitate. I didn’t buy a ticket until the price dropped to £10. The lesson here is that if you want to attract huge crowds, don’t start off by charging £30 a head. Maybe this is actually where the festival could have benefited from a little less professionalism.

take back control banners

My second suggestion is that holding it in some way-off part of north London was a bad idea. I saw a friend at the festival, he lives in London and he applauded me for making the journey to get there. Did the organisers expect huge numbers of people to travel in from the rest of the country? If so, why not at least hold the festival in proximity to a large train station? The party is solidly on record that the gravitational power of London is not healthy, and I agree, so why didn’t they choose Manchester, Birmingham, or Sheffield instead?

train interior

I also think it’s worth talking about the importance of a party festival in general. France has the fête de l’Humanité, in Belgium there’s the Mani-Fiesta - fête de la Solidarité, in Italy festa de l’Unità, in Greece Odigitis, and in Portugal the festa do Avante! Despite being closely associated with political parties, these are normal cultural events.

La fête de l’Huma is one of the largest music festivals in France, record labels and marketing companies vie for a presence there. A lot of people really don’t care about the politics so long as they get to see Johnny Hallyday. It feels strange to me, but to some extent I understand it’s deliberately set up to appear no different from any other generic festival.

A festival can be at once completely apolitical, and an important political event. A festival pushes outwards from formal participation within party structures, to informal interaction without civil society as a whole. Some parties (and France is an excellent example) prioritise winning cultural hegemony as part of a strategy for winning power. Why is this important? Capturing the ‘fortress of state’ is only one part of the battle for power, you also have to dig into the ‘moat’ or ‘trench’ of civil society which surrounds the state.

band in purple

The UK also has a tradition of political festivals, of sorts, we have the Durham Miner’s Gala, the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival, the Chainmakers Festival, Levellers’ Day, the Merthyr Rising Festival, and probably a couple more I’ve forgotten to name. These all contribute to a generally socialist cultural movement, but until recently nothing was organised under the name of a major party.

The last time the Labour Party attempted something similar was the Red Wedge tour, my dad apparently went to one of the concerts, probably when he was around my age. Between then and now, New Labour came and went. During that period the party pursued a strategy which rendered it effectively invisible in public outside of elections. Perhaps that’s a little harsh, as Labour activists did campaign around other causes and participate in popular movements, but this activity clearly wasn’t a core part of the overall party strategy.

twt stage

I heard that some of the headline acts at Labour Live agreed to perform for free, out of sympathy for the party. The Musicians Union was present and did sponsor some acts, so I’m pretty sure all artists were compensated as per whatever the union requested. Nevertheless, what does this tell us about Labour? How many popular musicians would play a free gig for the Conservative Party? When David Cameron said he liked Radiohead, Thom Yorke threatened to sue him. Cultural power is difficult to measure, but on occasion it can rise to the surface.

I’m all in favour of Labour building a mass pillar in society, and this seems to be where the party is heading. At the centre of Labour’s strategy is a fairly unique problem: what to do with a party of 600,000+ members, which won 40% in the last elections, and yet is not in government. The result is a tentative expansion of the party into the social movements. Labour is trying to learn what it means to exercise and maintain popular power without direct access to the state machinery. So yes, it is 2018 and the Labour Party runs music festivals now.

main stage

This is a subject for a whole other post, but I’m still curious about Grime4Corbyn. I still don’t properly understand what caused this crowd to so enthusiastically identify with the Labour left. The grime artists who publicly backed Corbyn in 2017 were absent at the festival, but there was a glimpse of the contradiction around Corbyn’s Labour Live speech. Before he arrived on stage the speakers were blasting ‘Killing in the Name Of’ by Rage Against the Machine into the crowd. Everyone was cheering, there was an excited mood. Then, instead of launching directly into his speech, he began by reciting a poem by Arundhati Roy. Let’s unpack that, I don’t think rock music and Indian poetry have a mixed fanbase, so he’s speaking to two very different audiences at the same time. I don’t imagine Corbyn listens to Rage Against the Machine in his spare time, and to anyone else that performance would come off as fake and insincere. But for Corbyn, it works, and I don’t know why.

rae morris solidarity tent

Lastly, I sort of have to address the reactionary pro-EU protest which occured during Corbyn’s speech. I already gave my comment to the media:

“Personally, I don’t think the protest was appropriate, but I’d defend their right to protest, and it’s not like it was hugely disruptive.”

And I stand by that. The protesters later claimed they were ejected from the concert, but they had time to pose with their banner in front of the crowd, and they don’t appear to have been threatened in any way by security. They captured the media’s attention, got what they wanted, and left.

Beyond that I do have a broader issue with the way they’ve tried to present themselves as a grassroots movement. The hardline ‘continuity remain’ pro-EU camp tends to be associated with Labour’s right-wing. Not to mention other less than progressive credentials. This all came to a head on Daily Politics with Aaron Bastani, here’s the full excerpt:

So, that was Labour Live. Let’s hope they run it again next year, because I’m already looking forward to it.