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Field of Dreams: When Politicians and Festivals Meet

Field of Dreams: When Politicians and Festivals Meet
7 min read

Pop festivals and politicians – not an obvious match. But from triumphant appearances on the Pyramid Stage, to hangovers and hasty exits, many MPs have in-the-field experience.

What will your Great British Summer (copyright Matt Hancock) look like? Barbecue? Beach? All of that sounds great. But for a lot of people, summer means standing ankle deep in mud watching bands play their greatest hits. Yes, many are dreaming of the return of festivals, in all their muddy glory.

Vaccinations and the lifting of lockdown mean the coming months may allow us to once again set up camp in a field and pay £5 for a bag of cold chips before going to see four-fifths of Duran Duran playing in the rain.

And festivals aren’t just for kids and aging hippies. As we’ll see, one Conservative MP sees pitching a tent in a field as a way to open up the political conversation. They’re also a chance to  escape the pressure cooker of Westminster and kick back. And they have cross-party appeal: Tories Nigel Adams and Damian Collins have both been to Glasto, while shadow housing secretary Lucy Powell has been going there with the same gang of friends since she was a teenager.

But sometimes, the politics just can’t be escaped. Glastonbury 2016 was the week of the Brexit referendum. Powell, at that point shadow education secretary, had arrived on the Thursday evening. “I hadn’t realised Leave would win,” she says. “I had far too many cocktails, and woke up on the Friday morning with hundreds of missed calls.”

The mood among the largely anti-Brexit festival-goers was morose, and Powell decided she needed to get back to work, driving miserably home to Manchester with her fellow Labour MP Jeff Smith. “So I missed Adele,” she says, sadly.

If Powell thought her Glasto experience was as bad as it could get that year, it was only because the then deputy Labour leader Tom Watson’s had yet to begin.

Watson’s relationship with the festival was already the stuff of political legend, after he decided to resign from the Labour frontbench while attending in 2013, signing off his letter to then-leader Ed Miliband announcing the decision with the immortal words: “And if you want to see an awesome band, I recommend Drenge.”

He was to cap that in 2016. He’d been working the night of the referendum. Glastonbury had been planned as his post-vote outing. “I was due to go on the Friday,” he says. He was taking a friend who had never been before, so didn’t want to drop out altogether, but postponed until the Saturday.

Once he got there, Watson’s mood perked up, helped by a couple of beers on the train, and a few more in the Workers Beer Company tent. “And then we’re walking back… and fall into the silent disco...”

If things got a little fuzzy after this point, Watson had the foresight to post reminders for himself – and every political journalist – on Snapchat. These revealed not only his silent disco exploits, but also that, unlike Powell, he had managed to catch Adele’s gig. “Happy,” he scrawled across one of his posts.

This was not, however, a reflection of the mood of the wider Labour Party at this point. At around the point Watson was joyfully making his way between tents, Jeremy Corbyn was sacking Hilary Benn as shadow foreign secretary.

“I woke up at eight o’clock, and there were 100 messages,” Watson recounts ruefully. He realised he needed to get to London. “I missed the train by two minutes, and the next train was two and a half hours.”

He sat in the station, still in his shorts, mud down his legs, and considered his next move. Shadow cabinet members were resigning one after another. Corbyn’s leadership was in peril. Then his communications chief rang. “He just yelled: ‘Get off the platform! You’re on The Telegraph website!’ Someone had taken a picture.”

Watson fled the station, and found a minicab. “It was this 25-year-old Skoda. I asked if he could take me to London, and he said he would, for 200 quid. I had a fiver.”

While cameras hunted for Watson along the train from Glastonbury, he was enduring a hangover in the back of the taxi, the journey punctuated by furious phone calls, including one from Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey. “I asked him: ‘Len, can you shout at me a little quieter? I’m a bit worse for wear.’”

After the low of 2016, the following year’s festival was a high for Labour. Corbyn, fresh from his unexpectedly good election showing, was serenaded by the crowd as he addressed them from the main stage. John McDonnell joined him, and as the cries of “Ohhh, Jer-e-my-Corbyn” rang out to the tune of the White Stripes, the pair got a taste of how Bono feels most evenings.

It gave his staff an idea: why not organise their own festival?

And like most ideas people have at Glastonbury, it should have stayed there. Labour Live – quickly dubbed “Jezfest” – was held in 2018 in north London. Corbynmania had proved a fleeting summer hit, and the party ended up giving away tickets. The musical line-up was solid, with Clean Bandit headlining, but while supporters still chanted the leader’s name, the splits within the party were now apparent; protesters held up a banner urging Corbyn to “stop backing Brexit”.

But is the Tory festival experience any better? According to George Freeman, the answer is yes. Since 2017, Freeman has organised the Big Tent Ideas Festival. Unfairly dubbed “Tory Glastonbury” when it was announced, it was less about music and more about bringing people together. The plan was to “step into that horrendous civil war after the referendum”, Freeman explained. “To try to create a safe space where people who are interested in what’s underlying the tectonic shift in politics could come together and debate it.”

His audience is “earnest centrists – people who reject Farageism and Corbynism equally”. By meeting in a field, with an informal atmosphere, he aimed to create “the opposite of a party conference”. Labour MPs were invited, and the hope was for spontaneous moments of agreement and inspiration, rather than heavily stage-managed speeches.

It has proved more enduring than Labour Live, holding meetings in subsequent years, supported by a staff of six, though it’s less clear that Freeman succeeded in his goal of moving the Conservative Party to a centrist way of thinking.

He longs to engage more artistic and creative people, acknowledging that Labour supporters are dominant in the field: “The great party that I belong to seems to have nothing to say about culture.”

An attempt to address that will arrive next year, in the shape of Festival UK 2022, a £120m national “celebration of our creativity and innovation”. When this was first floated by Theresa May, it was welcomed by Jacob Rees-Mogg as a “Festival of Brexit”. However the concept since seems to have been watered down,  with its branding now promising to “showcase the best of our art, culture, heritage, design and technology sectors,” rather than hold endless Commons votes and host a series of arguments about the Irish border.

Meanwhile, those wanting to get away from colleagues could try a place where you’d once have expected to find dozens of Tory MPs: the Glyndebourne opera festival. Guardian sketch writer John Crace is a regular. For him, part of the appeal is that he’s never met an MP there.

“It’s not that there aren’t a lot of other people that you wouldn’t like to meet,” he says. “But it does seem to be clear of politicians. And the tickets are cheaper than Glastonbury.”

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