Labour Live shouldn’t deter the party from cultural politics

Tom Miller

Given that the turnout for the upcoming Labour Live festival is looking a bit embarrassing for the party, it would be easy to just dismiss the concept or pull the plug on doing events like it in the future. I think it’s important that we recognise across the party that turning our back on this kind of work would be a very bad idea, even though this attempt has not gone well. Instead, we should learn from the experience.

Labour now has a long history of support from music acts and other parts of the performing arts, most obviously from stand-up comedy. What was Red Wedge and the alternative scene in the 1980s finds echoes today in projects like Labour Live or Stand Up for Labour.

More widely there is a growing interest in the overlaps between politics and wider culture, and I use the word culture in the loosest sense – our background and influences and human beings, and how they are shaped by others when we are at work or leisure. In my opinion a lot of the increased interest people have in these matters is a result of more of our lives being online. Our access to different forms of recreation is huge compared even to ten years ago, and our ability to scrutinise or talk about it has also grown massively.

In fact, it makes Labour Live look like something that is trailing far behind, even though it is an example of something fairly forward-looking for mainstream political parties.

Culture is politics, politics is culture

This idea first took shape coming from the ideas of the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci, who posited that wealthy rulers in societies made constant attempts to co-opt workers by building conservative political and moral ideas into a cultural mainstream, and excluding or dividing any attempts to build anything that challenges it.

This idea of ruling by imposing cultural rules and political outlooks whilst isolating or co-opting alternatives is what he termed ‘hegemony’, and in the modern sense there are clear examples available, such as the influences people like Rupert Murdoch have had on working-class culture. The Sun, of course, used to be a left-of-centre paper with a labour movement background. It is no music festival, but it is a huge symbol of small-c conservative success when it comes to controlling their opponents – people who need to work for a living.

In the course of counting out self-generated bits of political culture from alternative sources to those controlled by the wealthy, working-class independence in particular is removed. For people with low cultural influence, it means a large body of cultural influence ends up coming more from outside than within, and its power is scary to the extent that it can sap political confidence to organise for ourselves. It permanently changes not only many people’s opinions, but often their whole mindset when it comes to politics.

Some thought based around these ideas have been present in the mainstream left thanks to the popularity academics like Stuart Hall or Eric Hobsbawm – themselves Gramscians. Despite their revolutionary origins, repetitions and reformulations of these ideas have influenced thinking among social democrats and centrists. Without an intrinsic and perhaps purely emotional attitude to the press, which ran along these lines, surely the role of Alastair Campbell would never have attracted the priority it did in the years leading up to 1997 and beyond. Likewise, it would be difficult to imagine Tony Blair bothering to have a drink with Noel Gallagher, though at this point I think it’s Gallagher who is more surprised that he bothered putting the effort in. Why did Peter Mandelson make such efforts to present Labour as mainstream rather than subcultural or fringe?

The point is that culture is important, whatever your politics. So what went wrong with Labour Live? Politicians and academics are bad at understanding culture, where it is popular, and where it is powerful. Politicians tend to have a woeful ‘Arctic Monkeys’ mentality towards those culturally influential young people and their music, and looking at the line-up for Labour Live, you have to wonder if that much has changed under Jeremy Corbyn. At 32 I can’t claim to be in touch with young people, but I know that this is not a cutting edge line-up, however much anyone likes the Magic Numbers. By the same token, it’s not hugely mainstream either, in the way that, say, Paul Weller was for Red Wedge in the ’80s. These guys were on Smash Hits as well as NME.

Subcultures, the mainstream, and the fringes between

If anything, even more than in the 1980s, Labour’s relationship with culture is attempting to be so safe that it can’t get any traction at all. Staid labourist attitudes that depend on blandness and shy away from conflict dominate, but the possibility exists of taking something more musically and politically challenging directly to the cultural mainstream.

‘Corbynite’ understandings around culture and politics have focussed on the admittedly excellent The World Transformed festival that runs alongside party conference, and ideas like ‘acid Corbynism’ (the creation of socialist subcultures). I’m not politically sold on subculture. As a former punk rock teenager, in my experience there is usually a direct dichotomy between how subcultural you are and how influential you can be. If we all took our political cues from Crass or Citizen Fish, the world would be quite different.

The real political challenge in culture is making a bridge between ‘radical’ cultural output, of which punk is one example, and what ‘normies’ consume. There is no more perfect example of success in doing this than something like grime. Given that we have Grime4Corbyn, if we are going to put on a festival, why not major on it?

Lurking behind all of this is the failure not just of Corbynism but of Labour more widely to engage with a culture that is mass and working-class in nature, in a way perhaps that trade unions have done in our past. In the 1950s, Labour and socialist clubs were very much part of the fabric of the country. Bodies like the Workers Educational Association had some level of influence directly in communities where there was heavy industry, resulting in a British tradition of working-class autodidacts in areas where early school leaving was very common.

Going back further in time, there were specifically socialist sports clubs and leagues in a range of countries, which even reflected separate socialist/broad left and official communist bodies. A modern equivalent exists to an extent in the form of Hapoel in Israel. We are never going to build entire football leagues, but bringing sport back centre stage via community organising could be a real organic part of modern working-class culture if effort went into building local association.

Making the leap

Festivals are a small step towards greater socialist cultural influence, but trying to do these things in a top-down way from political leaderships with questionable cultural capital is probably not the ideal place to start. It kind of beggars belief that we depend on political leaders or academics for tips on how to ‘do’ culture well, and it shows how far the left has fallen apart socially in its local communities.

From a more purely capitalist perspective, it’s about marketing: finding out what people like and selling it to them. Making sure it’s edgy and distinctive enough to break through and catch on.

As activists, it means more doing it ourselves, in a way that is genuinely organic and bottom-up. It means looking at forms of sport and leisure that are just that – things that don’t just need to focus on a ‘message’ but on socialising itself. It means we need to concentrate on the local. We can support efforts like Labour Live, but we certainly shouldn’t rely on them.

As a political party, it means involving target audiences a bit more. Perhaps if there is some strategy to pull the cultural mainstream towards the left, it’s something that the people it targets should co-produce.

With the deepening of the austerity crisis and the uncertainty of Brexit, our country has a number clear fault lines emerging in a way that has not been true for decades. Divisions between voters see younger working-class people moving in a very different direction to their grandparents on both issues, and younger people from more middle-class backgrounds following in the same direction. They are potentially a new majority ten years from now, electorally speaking, and it’s crucial that the Left squares the cultural aspect of making this happen.

What is at stake is nothing less than the forging of a new common sense, and much of that will be about culture rather than the mechanics of ‘winning elections now’. To get there we don’t need to abandon what is good about Labour – organising campaigns and elections. Nor do we need to abandon shaking it up. But we do need to stay committed to cultural politics, make sure it is real rather than top-down, and give it a lot more than lip service.

Tom Miller is co-chair of Open Labour.

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