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I almost paid £35 to go to LabourLive on Saturday. Happily, good old Uncle Len McCluskey came to my rescue with a last-minute online offer of free tickets. It seemed rude not to take him up on it – after all, up to a quarter of Unite members vote Conservative, and it was their subs he was throwing at the event.

Indeed, that wasn’t the only freeby that Labour’s paymaster was laying on:

It’s fair to say I’m not in dire nutritional need of extra ice-cream, but I had two because they were free. There’s probably an economic lesson in there for Unite somewhere.

Anyway, aside from the welcome generosity of everyone’s favourite union magnate, here are a few key lessons from the day:

No, it wasn’t a massive crowd

Having booked a 20,000-person venue, I’d estimate the peak crowd – gathered late in the afternoon to see Corbyn speak – was somewhere around 4,000 people. The Observer’s Tim Adams estimate 3,000, while Labour themselves would only say that 13,000 tickets were booked. Given that this includes someone I know who successfully registered 29 free tickets in the name of Kim Jong-Un, I’m not sure online registration figures are that reliable. Notably, the digital ticket scanning system in operation on the day will provide Labour with a precise total number of people who turned up – but they won’t release it, which says it all. Oddly, I’m told that there wasn’t any effort to promote the free ticket offer to the estates surrounding the venue – meaning the organisers spent money bussing in Corbynite activists from across the country while missing the opportunity to reach people right on the event’s doorstep.

Yes, it lost a fortune

The left-wing blog The Red Roar reports, using inside accounts of Labour’s own business plan for JezFest, that they needed to sell 15,000 £35-a-head tickets to break even. In the end, having failed to beg a third of that many people to come even for free, the losses are estimated to run to £400,000. I’m not sure if that figure includes the increasingly panicked blanket advertising campaigns on Facebook, Spotify and Snapchat, which ran to the very last moment before the event and presumably weren’t budgeted for by the over-confident organisers. Even £5 pints (which they managed to run out of, even with a smaller than expected crowd) are unlikely to have made up the shortfall.

Yes, it was a bigger crowd than a Tory equivalent might turn out

Aside from the ill-advised and happily doomed efforts of Arron Banks to organise ‘BPopLive’ during the EU referendum – half of Bucks Fizz, cancelled, part of 5ive, cancelled – I don’t think anyone on the right has been anywhere near deluded enough to even consider it a vaguely good idea to organise a political music festival. The challenges would be obvious, starting with the fact that it’s de rigueur in music and the arts to support Corbyn or otherwise keep your opinions to yourself. Even if someone did want to put on a Tory music festival, and their friends didn’t lock them in a cellar for the good of themselves and others, and they managed to actually organise it, I can’t see 4,000 people turning up to such an event voluntarily.

No, it didn’t really work (for the most part)

It’s fair to say that the day was a bit hit-and-miss, particularly on the music festival front. The Magic Numbers’ set gave me, at least, a rose-tinted sense of nostalgia for the year in which I graduated, when their two hits were released, but I’m not sure a whimsical flashback to the summer of 2005 is quite the desired fashionable effect. Teeing up John McDonnell’s speech with Rage Against The Machine’s Killing in the Name perhaps invited the addition ‘…of Irish unification’. All told, the bits of the even that seemed to work rather better were the tents that discussed ideas – more Hay festival than Glastonbury. Inevitably, in the censorious world of Corbynite puritanism, there wasn’t a vast amount of actual debate and disagreement to be heard, but there were some interesting panel discussions nonetheless. The slot about the economic and social impact of robotics and automation, in particular, showed that the Left is thinking radically and deeply (if mistakenly) about an issue that the Right is still under-addressing.

No, what was mocked last year as ‘Tory Glastonbury’ was not the equivalent event

Ironically, those small tent-sessions, where a couple of hundred people watched interesting but slightly uncontentious discussions of philosophical and policy questions, reminded me of last year’s Big Tent Ideas Festival – the event mocked as ‘Tory Glastonbury’. In the effort to spin how LabourLive went, I’ve seen more than a few attempts to compare the two – but, speaking as perhaps the only person who attended both, they weren’t comparable in intent. George Freeman’s event was a free, 220-person discussion day in someone’s garden, and did that job (though not without errors). Saturday was meant to be a 20,000-person, profit-making bonanza which smuggled politics in under the cover of a music festival, and affirmed Jeremy Corbyn’s mass appeal to the young. It fell distinctly short of that. What’s fascinating is that where it seemed to work best was when it most resembled the Big Tent – thoughtful and unashamedly geeky, rather than painfully cool.

A personality cult is a powerful thing…

It was quite a remarkable experience, being in the middle of a crowd, thousands strong, as they sang “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn”. You can see and feel the appeal of hero-worship, even of the unlikely and undeserving hero they have chosen to follow. At the same time, this self-reinforcement is neither healthy nor productive. Turning up to an event at which you are led to believe “the many” also share your adulation of Corbyn doesn’t offer many opportunities to test and challenge, and thereby to strengthen the mettle of his movement. Slapping each other on the back about how only “the one per cent” and “posh bastards” could possibly disagree with Labour is not going to help them reach or convince the millions of people they need to win over in order to gain power.

…but the audience were the core of the Corbynite core

This was not “the people” at play. This was the inner circle of hyper-enthusiastic Corbynites, plus maybe some people who fancied seeing Clean Bandit for nowt. At the political end of the field, questioner after questioner introduced themselves as from one CLP or another. Half the crowd seemed to have at least one item of JC merchandise already (I bought myself a Labour Live 2018 t-shirt – an instant rarity), and in that sense the most comparable event wasn’t Glastonbury – Tory or otherwise – but a Party conference, a time for crowd-pleasers and for the tribe to assemble and share war stories. Consider it that way, and the Conservative conference attracts three times the audience and makes a profit at the same time. I certainly enjoyed myself, and I’m sure those who turned up mostly did too, but any Corbyn follower mistaking LabourLive for a breakthrough moment is making a serious error. Tories wracking their brains about how to reach more undecided voters can at least learn one important lesson: you don’t do it like that.

27 comments for: I went to LabourLive, and all I got was a £15 t-shirt (and free ice cream)

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