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‘Ohh Jeremy!’: Labour leader Corbyn's rock-star politics storm UK’s Glastonbury Festival

Oli Scarff / AFP | Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn addresses the crowd from the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival on June 24, 2017.

If ever there were concerns that music festivals have forgotten their original 1960s' political roots, this year's Glastonbury laid that to rest with one of the most politically charged festivals in years.


Glastonbury, the world’s largest music festival, has always possessed an undercurrent of political activism alongside the musical acts, which has been encouraged by the festival’s founder and one-time Labour Party candidate Michael Eavis.

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Yet with the ‘free-love movement’ and ‘anti-Thatcher punk’ movements a distant memory, the modern music festival economy has been attacked by many for supporting the very commercial, corporate agenda it once defied.

But this year, there was plenty of proof that protests and debate are still alive and kicking.

Corbyn an 'inspiration'

Well, among the musical headliners there was also a political headliner: Labour Party opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. And he attracted a crowd that beat huge musical acts.

Corbyn’s popularity has continued to soar following May's embarrassing performance in the June 8 snap general election that saw her Conservative party lose their parliamentary majority.

When he walked onstage, Corbyn was greeted with chants of “Ohhh Jer-e-my Cor-byn,” set to the tune of “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes.

It was an anthem heard all weekend.

The Labour leader’s speech was lively and charged with human rights and socialist values, promising festival goers that, together, they would challenge “people who tell us how to think” and defeat inequalities.

In a speech delivered from the Pyramid Stage, he decried poverty, Donald Trump and
the ramifications of Brexit.

The crowd went wild when he quoted Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, “The Mask of Anarchy' a nineteenth-century rallying cry for non-violent resistance.

“He is just an absolute inspiration. I’ve been coming to Glastonbury since the 1980s, and Glastonbury has always been political. So, it’s the natural place for him to be. But it does feel this year like everyone has woken up,” Claire Cook, 45, told FRANCE 24.

The themes resonated with those who say their concerns have been forgotten by UK politicians.

Preaching to the converted?

“We’re from a really deprived area in Teesside, and I think he speaks to the people that may think politics hasn’t got anything to do for them, and to promote actually a party that cares for everyone,” said Katherine Baxendale, 32.

Teesside is a manufacturing region in northern England that, until recently, carried the unwanted tag of Britain's unemployment capital.

“It was probably preaching to the converted but it was really good to hear him engage with us,” added Nikki Scott, 29.

Not everyone was so thrilled with the political wave sweeping the festival this year, however.

“It feels forced. It’s like preaching. I think the majority of people are here just to enjoy the music. We’re here for the music and seeing friends,” Ben Smith, 24, told FRANCE 24.

Corbyn then made his way to Leftfield, the festival’s space dedicated for activism that Eavis started when he raised funds for the ‘Campaign on Nuclear Disarmament’ and in the midst of the famous miners’ strike under Thatcher in the 1980s.

“I’ve seen more political stuff this year than ever. This year, the whole festival is like Leftfield,” said Anneka Sutcliffe, 29.

“You wouldn’t get any conservative politicians at Glastonbury. It felt like [those of us on the left] were in a bubble. But now actually you see that there are many more of us than we thought,” she added.

Peace and Palestine

Festival goers also broke the world record for the largest human peace sign. Some 15,000 gathered at the Stone Circle – a sacred festival space – to send “a message of peace to the world” in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks that have struck the UK and the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower.

Things were not always harmonious, however.

As Radiohead made their way onto the festival’s Pyramid (main) Stage on Friday night, Palestinian flags emerged from the throngs and calls to “free Palestine” competed with Thom Yorke’s vocals.

Radiohead are scheduled to complete their summer tour on 19 July in Tel Aviv. While the band have played in Israel in the past, this would be their first show since the 2005 launch of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement (BDS). Many have called for the band to cancel, including anti-apartheid leader Desmond Tutu, American activist Alice Walker, and Roger Waters (formerly of Pink Floyd). Yorke countered back, saying it would deepen divisions. But many at Glastonbury appeared unconvinced, with flags continuing to appear throughout the weekend.

“We want to talk to Thom Yorke,” demanded Toby Marshall, as he brandished a large Palestinian flag. “Glastonbury is an opportunity to tell the world about Palestine,” explained Marshall, who works for the Palestine Museum Bristol.

For their part, Radiohead mocked British Prime Minister Theresa May, changing song lyrics and telling the British Prime Minister to shut the door on her way out.

'Non-violent curries'

It is, of course, hard to please everyone and one of Glastonbury’s points of pride is that it caters to an incredibly diverse crowd of some 200,000 people. Unlike some festivals, it can often be tough to pin down the culture at Glastonbury, which attracts ravers and hippies, children and elderly, music fans and cinephiles.

Major musical acts like Foo Fighters, Ed Sheeran, Solange, Ani DiFranco are balanced with film, performing arts and small acoustic bands. There are also areas like the Healing Fields, a space offering donation-based massage, spiritual guidance, reiki and fortune telling. Glastonbury is a veritable city that emerges on a 900-acre farm site in the midst of a small village in southwest England. It even has its very own newspaper. Still, it was hard to escape the political fervour that took root this year.

Given the charged political climate in Britain right now, it would seem that a more politicised Glastonbury is inevitable.

And some, including the festival's founder, would argue that is very much a good thing. “I think it [the festival] could well become more political," Eavis predicted back in 2011 in an interview with UK newspaper The Guardian.

"We've always been a sounding board for lots of unrest … it [politics] gives Glastonbury soul and gives it back its purpose.” 

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