Festival Leprosy

Vile diseases and avaricious banks - AL Kennedy finds that Edinburgh's festival season isn't all lol

One of the many interesting chance elements which always enters into the Edinburgh Festival mix, is disease. Not to be too graphic, you spend your semi-waking days watching, or working in various warm, moist venues full of strangers who breathe, cough, giggle, guffaw, sigh, yawn and generally spread the usually very private and intimate contents of their lungs all over the shop, you utilise extremely well-used conveniences (with much less-used hand washing facilities) and handle microphones that have probably not been boiled in bleach since they were bought in the late 1970’s – you are eventually going to get Festival Flu, Festival Tummy, Festival Leprosy, or something else genuinely unpleasant. The fact that many venues smell like oldmantrousers, or deadnun is also unnerving. And a good deal of unhygienic hugging, patting and touching takes place. This year I’ve been enjoying a range of aches, snuffles, rasping strangulations and eye throbbings – as has pretty much everyone else I’ve been meeting from a distance with gloves and mask in place.

Given that I occupy a slightly peculiar cross-media position I have been bouncing between club comedy gigs, my show, the Westport Book Festival and the Edinburgh International Book Festival and deargodknowswhat else in a nether world of high-fat and previously-fingered free food and what I can only really describe as chatting. This can seem simply pleasant, if not puerile at one level, but it’s a joy to spend a month being reminded that British people and people in general are brighter, faster, more civilised and more pleasant to be around than any of our media or politicians might suggest. There are, of course, insistently insane and peculiar exceptions (and I have no idea what bowel of hell my audience came from on the 13th) but it is truly exhilarating to get down to telling stories and being told stories with no monkeying about, or muffling/critical/literary/buzz killing interventions.

This year there have already been some genuinely grand moments – the invention of lime tea as a refreshing alternative to lemon, seeing the Tiger Lillies do their twisted and wonderful stuff, the lady who took her socks off in my gig, the chap who was “good at being submissive” and the splendid couple who came all the way from Orkney to say hello. This year I have been proud to go on after a stripper – not necessarily a good thing, then again everyone is going to be pleased if I promise not to take off my clothes, so it all balances out – and have been given a lollipop and a balloon by two different kind gentlemen – not exactly the brand affection one might hope for in the heady world of notreallyshowbiz, but it has to be said that I do love a balloon.

Meanwhile, a pal of mine has managed to run up a £30 overdraft in the midst of the festival chaos. His bank is attempting to charge him £120 for the money he didn’t arrange for them to advance him in the first place… he should have gone to a loan shark, or just sold one of his legs for sandwich meat. We set aside a little time each day to meditate on the fact that greedy and utterly mindless banks have been entirely happy to bring our economy to the brink of meltdown by shifting fake money faster and faster round the globe and taking on impossible risks for the joy of short term blood-letting and with no thought for the implications of the word impossible – and no one in government is going to do anything other than bail them out. With our money. Until it’s too late. This does not improve our combined symptoms.

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.