Despite sharing some of the scepticism about Labour Live, as the debate around it mounted my curiosity had started to grow. Especially after a getting a text this week from my union Unite about the ticket offer, eventually I decided to bite the bullet and see what all the fuss was about yesterday, going along for the whole day.
Attendance and features
There was of course a lot of speculation about ticket sales and levels of attendance. I went straight to the main stage and it was light there at first for the initial acts (reggae reggae sauce man Levi Roots and Rae Morris — the latter I hadn’t heard of, but enjoyable with a kind of Lorde-type sound). But the crowd did build up, with a vibrant pit at the front for the later bands (for me, The Magic Numbers turned out to be a “ah I have heard these songs but couldn’t have named them” act). How big the crowd appears in any pictures you see floating on social media probably depends a bit on how far back they were taken, but it got better over the day and the vibe felt good. While there I definitely enjoyed my Trade Union Pale Ale served by the dedicated volunteers at the Workers Beer Co, and the free ice cream and hip-hop karaoke courtesy of Unite. It was also good to see two social enterprises brought in to do refreshments, Change Please and Mazi Mas.
The three tents with speakers and panels were also well attended, a fact made particularly evident when Jeremy Corbyn came on the main stage and you could see additional crowds migrate from the rest of the White Hart Lane ground to see him. Some then flowed away again however, back to the tents or perhaps off home for some of the older people and families most motivated by seeing him. My partner (who’s non-party political, but I talked into going with me for moral support and the promise of a very different day out) really enjoyed a panel we went to in the literary tent about the true story of the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) group portrayed so well in the film Pride. Some tweets from even centre-right journalists covering the event praised the popularity of the panels and the thinking in another event in the literary tent on automation, but this all raises a question. It was probably a given that a lot of Labour members are most drawn to keynote speeches and fringes/breakout sessions, but if so, how is staging them at an outdoor cultural festival different enough from all the run of the mill party and ginger-group conferences we do already?
As for the failure to book a Stormzy or Lily Allen — I’m agnostic about how realistic securing them was, but they would’ve been worth having not only for the quantity of crowds, but also for the diversity of them. My partner wondered if Labour would’ve worried about too many of the “wrong crowd” turning up for the chance of essentially a cut-price Stormzy gig just subsidised by Labour, but the opportunity to attract young people not drawn naturally to a political event and engage them even a bit might’ve been more valuable to Labour than a resource-intensive day preaching essentially to our converted.
As an aside, I’d flag that she also had to ask me to clarify Labour acronyms and references like “NEC” when they were thrown out without elaboration — I fall into bubble-speak too, but these things do matter if the point is to be inclusive. And furthermore while I (and I suspect others) wouldn’t have gone if it hadn’t been in London, again if the point is wider engagement, somewhere like Birmingham or Manchester could’ve been the site to show some love to people in the Midlands and North where Labour’s struggles today actually lie.
I bumped into Islington North activist James Potts, who was really enjoying it but also wrote a very reasonable blog with some thoughts (link here). He calculated that the estimated £1.4m spend could’ve gone on 56,000 packs of leaflets or 57 organisers in marginal constituencies, and queried spending it on a one-day event for core supporters when the party is meant to be on a permanent election footing.
While it was baked-in once the event was underway, I do share these concerns. Labour exists to look outwards and win elections among voters at large, in order to fight for their real needs. Resources towards that are precious, especially when we face a Tory party that is always so well-funded because of its ready access to wealthy backers. Moreover, while a festival basically for Labour members funded by members’ subs is one thing, an additional concern to some were the trade union subsidies for it, notably the last-minute buy-ups of tickets. As a Unite as well as Labour member I didn’t feel bad about claiming my ticket, but Labour and the unions already face a challenge where not many trade union members in affiliated unions seem directly engaged with Labour. For example, out of potentially millions eligible, only 100k affiliated supporter votes were ultimately cast in the most recent Labour leadership election. Unions can’t afford to appear flippant about the way they use political funds to lobby and campaign through Labour, as they seek to persuade their members anew about the value of the vital and historic union link.
Party balance and speakers
The ideological feel of Labour Live was pretty clear and not a galloping shock. I saw a hard-left folk singer on the main stage, someone wandering around in a t-shirt reading “being a centrist dad is wrong and bad”, and a poet in The World Transformed tent who made me cringe when he named the police and army as part of the establishment, though I missed the reported booing of Tony Blair’s name and Len McCluskey’s shameful outburst (“the right wing in our own ranks, in the trade unions and in the Labour Party, hoped for a Labour defeat….And they got slapped in the face by millions of people” — his remarks were made in the Solidarity Tent). McCluskey’s condemnation of “doom merchants” also overlooked that he himself predicted that losing 30 seats would be a “successful” election result less than a month before. As I wrote post-election, it wasn’t unreasonable to fear a defensive election when we’d just lost Copeland and Tees Valley and were polling far behind, and the important thing should be that the entire Labour Party united to work hard in that general election campaign.
So yes perhaps the basic concern of party moderates that the event would feel more ‘Corbyn/Momentum Live’ than Labour Live was realised, when compared to party conference where the entire Labour church is represented whichever faction is dominant. However, inclusion can be a two-way street. I’m reminded of something I came across in a campaign in my uni days to get Southampton affiliated to the National Union of Students, where our campus Labour Club formed the backbone. The Conservatives, Liberal Youth and others were opposed in part because they felt the NUS was too Labour/left-dominated, but I found the attitude a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy — ‘we won’t go there, because there’s no one like us there’.
I wrote earlier this year about how the centre-left need to move away from a cycle of reaction and complaint to be positive and engage across the party, rebuilding goodwill even while picking honest-to-god battles on matters of principle where we must. Labour First’s candidate for National Executive Committee (NEC) Luke Akehurst admirably said he wouldn’t join in sneering about Labour Live, noting that Labour’s Italian sister party holds similar cultural festivals and they worked well, so at least conceptually we shouldn’t be churlish. Even if we had concerns about the practicalities, once it was underway the party right could’ve sought the opportunity to take part and make it ours as well, contributing our energy and ideas and losing nothing.
Overall with the questions about cost, purpose and operational struggles weighing heavy, I’m not yet sold that Labour Live itself is an experiment that should be repeated. But it was a real experience while it was on and I enjoyed the day nonetheless — the left shouldn’t give up on finding other ways of engaging in what Open Labour’s Tom Miller called ‘cultural politics’ in a thoughtful LabourList piece recently. And I’d reiterate the closing sentiment of Jeremy Corbyn’s speech thanking all the party staff and volunteers who worked so hard to pull it together and run it, whatever we might have thought of some of the decisions made higher up.