An embarrassing, cut-price failure or a triumphant intersection of political debate with pop cultural solidarity? The Labour party’s “Labour Live” event – billed as “a festival of music, arts and politics” – was, as is often the way when pop and politics mix, something of a Rorschach Test. Your view of its success depends on where you sit along partisan lines.
But even the organisers were feeling the pressure ahead of the event on June 16, as ticket sales continued to flounder. In the end, chart toppers Clean Bandit were added to a bill otherwise lacking top-tier star power. And a 70% reduction in the ticket price, along with giveaways, staved off the worst of the tumbleweeds. The organisers were able to claim a lively success of a few thousand in attendance, even if it fell short of the 20,000 site capacity.
Even taking the most optimistic crowd estimates still leaves a stark gap between the aspiration for the event and the reality. Labour Live emerged as an idea in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance at Glastonbury and the raft of musicians’ endorsements at the last general election. It was the brainchild of MP Ian Lavery and Corbyn’s outriders within the party. But it illustrates the difference between rallying the faithful and organising a large-scale commercial gig.
Organisers appear to have misjudged the logistics and struggled to book the likes of Stormzy, who is alleged to have asked for £100,000 to appear, although Labour denies this. Billy Bragg was also unable to attend, citing earlier commitments. Even drinks supplier, the Workers Beer Company, was reported to have refused to supply kegs on the grounds that it didn’t forsee sufficient crowds to warrant them.
Is this a concert or a rally?
At the heart of the matter lie the tensions between music as the centrepiece of an event and as an accompaniment to a political gathering. At Labour Live, the crowds inside the tents featuring Labour stalwart journalists as speakers led to reviews suggesting the event was more of an equivalent to the literary Hay Festival than the glittering mass appeal of Glastonbury that it seems to have originally sought to emulate. Indeed, with speakers – including Unite leader Len McCluskey – who criticised the likes of (inevitably) Tony Blair, but also Neil Kinnock, Ed Miliband and Corbyn’s doubters within the parliamentary party, it seems to have ended up less of a political “big tent” than a shoring up of the leader’s base. Internal party matters still reared their head though, as anti-Brexit protesters heckled Corbyn’s speech.
A good day out for the faithful, then, replete with morale-boosting renditions of the “oh Jeremy Corbyn” chant – available on a £15 scarf at the merchandise stall. But Labour Live may still leave the movement with a significant financial shortfall. Losses of up to £1m have been suggested. Certainly most concert promoters would be grateful for the kind of support for struggling events that Labour Live received, with Unite buying 1,000 tickets and giveaways to constituency members, including buses to the event, bolstering numbers. There are broader ramifications for the party, then, leaving open questions about whether it was a hubristic waste of party money or an innovative attempt to open up political participation to a broader audience.
Such overlaps between music as a potent form of political communication and as a commercial form of mass entertainment have happened before and have a variable record. Red Wedge, in the mid 1980s featured a similarly mixed bag of musicians such as Bragg, Paul Weller, the Communards and the Specials’ Jerry Dammers. There were guest appearances from the likes of the Smiths, Madness and Bananarama. It differed from Labour Live, however, in that even though the initiative was officially aligned with the party, the impetus came from the musicians themselves. But Red Wedge didn’t translate into electoral success. Labour endured its third defeat in a row in the 1987 general election and the project fizzled out by the time of the 1992 election.
So you think you can do better?
Still, if such efforts have had circumscribed benefits for Labour, it looks questionable that their opponents across the political divide would fare much better. Other attempts to use pop as a vehicle for political campaigning have illustrated even more starkly that musicians and politicians have different priorities, and ways of working. The 2016 Brexit oriented BPop Live Event was ignominiously cancelled after key acts like Alesha Dixon, East 17 and Sister Sledge pulled out once they found out it was organised by Leave.EU. Left with remnants of Bucks Fizz that didn’t own the rights to the band name and an Elvis impersonator, organisers pulled the plug and blamed interference from the Electoral Commission, which noted that the concert would need to comply with laws about campaign spending.
Pop stars and politicians alike rely on mass appeal. But there’s a difference between tweeting support amid the intensity of an election campaign and reorganising a tour schedule. Likewise, the benefits of adding musical entertainment to a political rally are significantly different to the costs of promoting a large-scale gig. Pop and politics may sometimes be singing from the same hymn sheet, but that doesn’t mean they’re always in tune.