Last week the founder of the Big Tent Ideas Festival – or “Tory Glasto” was forced to admit the idea was a flop. It was less big tents and more empty tents, bar for a few diehards sitting on hay bales presumably purloined from Theresa May’s wheat fields.
Meanwhile in Brighton, The World Transformed – the Momentum-backed festival which is part of Labour’s conference fringe – has already seen crowds spilling into the September sun even before many conference attendees have arrived. After thousands gathered at an open-air rally in a field addressed by Jeremy Corbyn, an opening party with live music and performances set a lively tone for the rest of the week.
Pointing out the difference is more than simple point-scoring against the Conservatives; it tells a story about a profound shift in British politics.
The chants of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” at festival venues from Glastonbury to Tranmere Rovers to the Durham Miners’ Gala, and the success of Grime 4 Corbyn are often seen as a fun sideshow to the serious business of politics.
But the success of The World Transformed, and the fusing of left-wing slogans and ideas with music and entertainment show a surge of cultural energy behind Labour that helped propel it to 40 per cent of the vote in the general election and poll leads afterward. There is no use – electoral or otherwise – in a politics that is staid and humourless.
When the Conservative Conference starts next week with its stage-managed speeches from a Cabinet carefully suppressing their feuding over Brexit, and its love-ins with multinationals and corporate lobbyists, the distinction will be ever more clear between a party that tells people what to do and a party that engages, involves and motivates.
Labour’s conference this year will see keynote speeches from its leaders, but it will also see an unprecedented bottom-up programme ranging from music and comedy, to debates over how the party should be run, to discussions on housing and jobs and poverty and the planet and every other issue that defines people’s lives.
The surge in attendance here from people of all backgrounds and walks of life is not even just down to a diverse set of exciting events. It’s down to a growing awareness that Labour wants to put people in the driving seat and develop a vision of how politics should be done that goes far beyond the corridors of SW1.
Conservatives have watched this surge in ambivalence, and then in horror. They have tried to downplay it as the antics of a few undergraduates that can be ignored or won with tax breaks for flights to Ibiza. But the more shrewd analysts among them – including Big Tent founder George Freeman – see the scale of what’s happening and understand that culture is a sphere in which politics happens. This explains the rash of half-baked initiatives from controversial youth group “Activate” to Freeman’s festival.
The conversations that people are having about the consequences of life under years of Conservative misrule – falling living standards, record in-work poverty, mouldy overpriced housing, the rising costs of food and travel and education, creaking infrastructure and closing hospitals – are expressing themselves beyond the ballot box as well as inside it.
They are expressed in the UK’s first ever McDonald’s strike and disputes at other exploitative workplaces. They are expressed in local community campaigns. And they are being expressed increasingly in broader culture – which throughout history has often produced more interesting, resonant commentary than the average politician’s speech or opinion column.
The general election saw a revolution in grassroots-driven campaigning. This conference that is being combined with the broader spread of left-leaning ideas in the mainstream to create an all-inclusive, all-encompassing series of events. They won’t end when conference season is over, but continue elsewhere, with Labour activists building a politics that is part of the fabric of community life.
Two years ago at Labour’s conference, a newly-elected Jeremy Corbyn told attendees “you don’t have to live without power and hope. Things can and will change.”
This time around, we’re seeing what that principle looks in practice. Things are changing.
Jenno Killin is one of the organisers of The World Transformed
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