If your Facebook is anything like mine, then you would have seen gleeful clip after gleeful clip of Jeremy Corbyn at Glastonbury doing the rounds in June. Corbyn on stage, Corbyn pouring Workers Beer Co beers #forthemany, Corbyn celebrating the work of emergency staff.
Dispatches from music festivals are a dime a dozen on social media, but they don’t usually look like that. I’m more accustomed to grainy videos taken in mosh pits, perfectly styled poses that show off the season’s ‘festival look’, and late night snaps of hazy smiles and warm beer in plastic cups. I see unambiguously good times that celebrate a departure from the material constraints of life, a holiday from the real, a holiday from politics.
In the genre of music festival snapshots that go viral, Corbyn’s moment in the sun was an anomaly. It was decidedly not like these other things. It was materially political: ‘Rise like Lions after slumber/ In unvanquishable number –’ Corbyn declared to his crowd from the festival’s mainstage, ‘Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you – / Ye are many – they are few’.
By now this stanza from Percy Bysshe Shelly’s The Masque of Anarchy is irrevocably linked to the Labour leader’s rousing – startling even – campaign in the recent UK general election. The words come from another time, but they spoke to the real significance of Corbyn’s appearance on Glastonbury’s mainstage.
Shelly wrote The Masque of Anarchy to mark the occasion of the Peterloo Massacre. An occasion when, on another summer day 198 years prior, a rally of between 60,000 and 100,000 English workers was violently attacked by a local militia, while peacefully protesting for the right to elect their MPs. Ten to twenty of them were killed and hundreds were injured. The occasion caught the eye of the country and transfigured what had been seen as a fringe movement of a few into a legitimate, mainstream political action. It sparked the opening of a small newspaper called The Manchester Guardian (later just The Guardian), the first glimpse of trade unions and, crucially, the reform movement’s moral high ground. The Peterloo Massacre triggered a vital change in optics: a ‘troublemaking few’ overnight became a coherent ‘many’, whose voices had to be listened to.
Corbyn’s journey to Glastonbury is a story of the same kind of transfiguration.
On the one hand, Glastonbury is fueled by the same nostalgia that feeds all music festivals: a yearning for the halcyon days of yesteryear’s ‘free love’ and ‘radical self-expression’. On the other, it is also a lot like the material thing that it mimics.
As far as large gatherings of engaged, energised young people go, Glastonbury stands out from the other festivals that share its media hype, size and headliners. Every year 135,000 punters descend on Worthy Farm in Pilton, Somerset. And though every festival of Glastonbury’s size, shape and character recalls its seminal prototype – Woodstock – Glastonbury is one of the few that sits on the precipice between its aesthetic and material identities. It started in 1970 and has been facilitated by the same guy who owns Worthy Farm – Michael Eavis – ever since. And it consciously attempts to resist the commercialisation that defines festivals like it. Punters who attend the festival are participating in both a dream and a reality. And like the protestors at Peterloo, they might look at the outset like a thuggish mob holding a minority opinion.
By the end of Corbyn’s ten-minute time slot, fittingly sandwiched between the nostalgia of Craig David and the radical political vitality of Run the Jewels, he had managed to orchestrate his own Peterloo switch. He shifted the balance: suddenly the sweaty, wide-eyed festival-goers chasing that holiday from their real lives, real job insecurity, real debt, real sense of betrayal and real sense of inequity, became a legitimised body politic. And he made sure that the rest of England was looking at them, and taking them seriously:
The wonderful campaign that I was involved with, that I was so proud to lead, brought people back into politics because they believed there was something on offer for them.
But what was even more inspiring was the number of young people who got involved for the first time.
Because they were fed up with being denigrated, fed up with being told they don’t matter. Fed up with being told they never participate, and utterly fed up with being told that their generation was going to pay more to get less in education, in health, in housing, in pensions and everything else.
Corbyn’s words helped the crowd, and helped the nation, reimagine Glastonbury’s disaffected youths as a mobilised singularity. As the protesters at Peterloo became, in a summer afternoon, a cogent political body, so too did the Glastonbury audience. Shelly’s words implicated Corbyn’s audience in a radical idea: that politics is not just an aesthetic statement, but a very material one in, and one in which they could participate. That there were a lot of them. And they felt the same way. They have a direction. And vitally, that their concerns about their future are legitimate.
Corbyn’s address at Glastonbury offered a radical intervention into the same myth that the punters were hoping to buy into when they bought their tickets. For a long time, the green field music festival experience has felt miles away from the gone days of political activism and radical self-expression that supposedly birthed it. Less Woodstock, more ‘customer experience’, less radical, more ‘instagrammable’.
Whatever reality festival-goers initially hoped to transcend very quickly found itself colliding, in real time, with the continuous narrative of their lives. Or, in Corbyn’s own words from that evening: ‘Politics is actually about everyday life. It’s about all of us, what we dream, what we want, and what we want for everybody else.’
Image: Raph_PH / flickr