Why Unite bailed out Labour’s struggling £35-a-head music festival (and why it matters)

For Labour Live, tickets are not selling fast – in fact, they are barely selling at all. 

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When Michael Stewart, later foreign secretary in Harold Wilson’s first government, was cutting his teeth in the London Labour Party in the 1930s, one of his duties was as a member of the Fulham Co-operative committee. It was, at the time, desperately divided. Not over the question of rearmament, industrial relations or any of the great schisms of that decade, but on the rather more mundane question about whether or not the local Co-operative store should stock wine, against the Methodist beliefs of the branch’s founders and most of its active members.

In the end, a compromise was struck: the Fulham Co-op would sell wine… but only very poor wine.

That decision is emblematic of a common tactic in Labour circles: given the choice between doing something and not doing it at all, the unity position is often to do it badly. That’s the attitude that has plagued Labour Live, a one-day music festival scheduled at White Hart Lane in north London for 16 June, which has become a source of embarrassment to the leadership and the subject of derision among practically everybody at Westminster.

The concert was supposed to be a “thank you” to party activists for their exertions at the general election last year. The idea had a number of supporters within the party machine and the leader’s office, although (as is often the case in politics) almost everyone is now claiming to have known it would be a disaster from the get-go. Its opponents – again, well represented in the leader’s office, party headquarters and Momentum – saw it as a pointless waste of time and resources. 

The compromise? The festival would go ahead but without any money allocated to book acts. The summer months are the most lucrative for musicians, who nowadays make the bulk of their income at festivals and on tour, so many Jeremy Corbyn-supporting artists politely had to decline. (In a move of astonishing self-sabotage, the organisers didn’t even ask if Stormzy, the Mercury-nominated grime star and outspoken supporter of Corbyn, was willing and available until the festival had been announced, on a date he couldn’t make.) As a result, the biggest musical name is the Magic Numbers, a band who last entered the top ten when Tony Blair was still prime minister, and who even at their peak would have struggled successfully to headline a music festival of any real size.

Rounding out the bill is a who’s who of Corbynites. From the shadow cabinet: John McDonnell and Kate Osamor; from the media: Owen Jones, Corbyn’s biographer Alex Nunns and the freelance journalist Rachel Shabi. The star attraction is the Labour leader himself. The problem is that Labour Party members are not exactly short on opportunities to hear from Corbyn, Jones, Nunns or McDonnell without having to travel to north London or to hand over £35 to do so.

Predictably, tickets are not selling fast – in fact, they are barely selling at all. In an attempt to avert disaster, Unite – Britain’s largest trade union and Corbyn’s most powerful institutional supporter within the Labour movement – has made a bulk purchase of 1,000 tickets, which it is trying to give away for free to Unite members. The final bill for this largesse will be thousands of pounds.

The move is clever politics from Unite. As one senior figure from another union points out, the major trade unions end up “on the hook” when the Labour Party wastes money anyway, whether through having to bail out the party directly or having to put more into the kitty ahead of elections. All Unite is doing is stumping up cash in a way that means the Labour leadership owes it a favour.

Nonetheless, the Labour Live debacle is being seen by some as a mirror of the Corbyn era’s attempts at party reform more generally: worthy ideas, poorly executed, which have to be bailed out by Unite, either institutionally or financially.

The tragedy is that the theory behind Labour Live is not a bad one. This will be the first summer of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in which he will not have to fight off an existential threat to his control of the party. (In 2016, the danger was from his internal opponents in the Labour Party, in 2017, from Theresa May’s snap general election.) Being a member of any political party is often a thankless task; you are asked for money and time in exchange for not a lot. Putting on a music festival or some kind of fun day out for activists isn’t a half-bad idea. Neither, as it happens, was the much-mocked Tory idea of benefits for party members, which came a cropper when someone at CCHQ briefed the Times about a possible discount at Nando’s, only to have the restaurant chain publicly and humiliatingly announce that it would participate in no such scheme.

Perhaps both parties will look at the Nando’s discount and Labour Live and conclude that the problem is not that they executed their ideas badly, but that they tried to enact them at all. That would be a mistake.

For the Tory party, whose membership has declined from around 400,000 in 1997 to an estimated 70,000 now – and whose grass-roots operation is increasingly withered as a result – anything that encourages new recruits is vital. For Labour, the problem is not membership numbers (it has around 550,000, making it one of the largest parties in Europe) but their effectiveness as a campaigning force. The party is still struggling to work out how to use them, beyond throwing members at the nearest marginal to get out the vote.

So Labour must learn the lessons of its struggling festival. Otherwise, it risks finding that the unity position between Corbyn contesting or not contesting the next election is Corbyn contesting it badly – without even the consolation of a glass of bad Co-op wine when it’s over. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article appears in the 01 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, God isn’t dead