Over in Left Field: the sound of tub-thumping

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The Independent Culture

Corporate sponsorship there may have been at Glastonbury 2002. But in at least one corner of a Somerset field, Tony Benn was doing his rabble-rousing best to uphold the spirit of the radical.

In an impassioned address to a packed tent, the 77-year-old former MP offered living proof that idealism isn't dead among the festival faithful. He had been invited to inaugurate the Left Field, a forum for campaigning politics and action that the organisers hope will become a feature of future festivals.

After a group of trade unionists helped to forge links between Glastonbury and the Mean Fiddler organisation, which is now helping to manage the event, they got in return their own venue on site.

Mark Thomas and Billy Bragg appeared there over the weekend. But it fell to Tony Benn on the final afternoon of the festival to give a radical heart to the proceedings.

While a heavy bass pumped noisily from the nearby jazz stage, the former MP delivered a tub-thumping political narration that could have converted the most cynical.

He admitted he had never been to Glastonbury before – though he had accepted an invitation to return even before the proceedings were over. But he immediately saw its political capital. "We can harness all the energy of the people who come here today to tackle the most serious problems of the human race," he said.

He visited them one after another: unemployment, student loans, failing pensions, lack of trade union rights. He spoke of his wartime National Service. "If we can have full employment in wartime, why can't we have full employment in peacetime?" he said to the acclaim that became routine over the next hour.

He spoke of the burden on students leaving university in debt. "I'm in favour of taxing people who are rich, not people who have got degrees," he said to more applause.

Moving from the young to the old, he recounted how 20,000 pensioners suffered annually from hypothermia and suggested that is what was meant by Cool Britannia. "You die of cold in winter."

Even Europhiles were prepared to applaud the doubts he voiced over controls exercised from Brussels.

His comments rose to a climax in which he spoke of the need for hope. "Hope is the fuel of progress. If you've got hope, there's nothing you can't do. When we start, there's no power can stop us," he said to a standing ovation.