By Harry Heath
Flags at full mast were flying all around. Flares were ignited deep within the crowds. In unison, the tens of thousands hailed and applauded their man. Football fans across the land have given birth to tiresome variations of the White Stripes’ anthemic Seven Nation Army, but this was no football crowd. As the sun swept across Glastonbury that afternoon it was “Ohhh, Jeremy Corbyn” that they chanted. And then there was me.
There I slouched on the hill at the Pyramid Stage in disbelief at the collective effervescence as he barked out his optimistic but expected platitudes. I wondered how many of those in attendance were in fact ‘Shy Tories’, or like me present somewhat ironically but also out of an interest to watch him as a live campaigner. The Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition had sparked euphoria at an event so central to British culture and I could not resist perceiving this to be of political significance. As their man continued, delivering a speech void of any real substance or radicalism, I felt alone in the crowd. To paraphrase Radiohead’s Karma Police, I thought Corbyn buzzed like a fridge, like a detuned radio.
Since Tony Blair presented David Bowie’s BRIT award and Noel Gallagher rocked up to Downing Street, politicians of all persuasions have sought to show themselves as in touch with popular culture. But if New Labour’s Cool Britannia was no more than a cynical public relations project, Corbyn’s Glastonbury performance reeked of authenticity.
Corbyn believes wholeheartedly in the politics that form the historical roots of the festival: environmentalism, anti-war, a hostility to capitalism and contempt for anyone who thinks a nuclear deterrent could be, on balance, a good thing. The reason that ranting at Glastonbury is a pose that Jeremy Corbyn strikes more credibility than he does leading Labour MPs is no coincidence; he really does have more in common with Michael Eavis and the ethos of 1960s counterculture than he does Clement Attlee. This was Corbyn’s victory parade, his lap of honour. And these were his people.
At Glastonbury, the music is something that happens in parallel to the establishment of a leftist consensus that dissolves on contact with the air of the outside world. From artists such as Thom Yorke telling Theresa May to “shut the door on her way out”, to the “Brexit One Year On” debate I watched at Billy Bragg’s Left Field, Glastonbury is not exactly a beacon of political balance. But then what would one expect at such an event? When Johnny Depp asks his audience “when was the last time an actor assassinated a President?” he receives not disapproval but a ringing endorsement. John McDonnell’s assertion, prior to any inquiry, that the victims of the Grenfell Tower tragedy were murdered by politicians is met not with gasps but unchallenged applause. This culture of leftism is why Jeremy Corbyn looked as comfortable as ever in his own skin.
As someone who is intrigued by the traditions but remains unconvinced by them, I attend Glastonbury in spite of the politics and rather to experience the likes of the xx, Royal Blood and the Courteeners. This said, there is no doubt that for people who believe that Trident, fracking and Tony Blair are the evils of the world, Glastonbury represents the perfect echo-chamber. Politics is not the main reason that people attend the festival but it is inconceivable that the left-wing roots do not render the festival attractive to a vast number that attend. The question is who are these people? The answer is Jeremy Corbyn’s core supporters.
Recently on the campaign trail, Jeremy Corbyn has quoted Percy Bysshe Shelley’s rallying cry The Mask of Anarchy, written in the wake of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre where campaigners for suffrage and social justice were met by cavalry charge at the hands of the British State. Seizing his moment in the Glastonbury limelight, Corbyn once again recited the final stanza: “Rise like lions after slumber, in unvanquishable number. Shake your chains to earth like dew, that in sleep had fallen on you. Ye are many – they are few”.
The disenfranchised masses, each having paid hundreds for a ticket, made possible by their high broadband speeds, stood in their Hunter boots wielding iPhones and GoPros above their heads as the Labour leader spoke. For a second I was struck by a thought that the jubilation may not be Shelley’s lions rising from their slumber, but rather affluent festival-goers and student hipsters feeding the Corbyn delusion. Yes, he drew out the hundreds of thousands to see him. He played us his tune and they chorused his name. But this doesn’t make him an impressive performer and it certainly doesn’t make him right. If I want to watch a rock star, I’ll take Liam Gallagher thanks.