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Glastonbury's Left Field: Can pop and politics mix?

United Kingdom United Kingdom | by John Bownas | 01 July 2010

Of course pop and politics can mix. After all, does a grisly do his number twos in his local forest and wipe his arse on oak leaves?

With this same degree of certainty, the return of the Left Field to Glastonbury was an inevitability rather than a possibility.

The tent possibly got a little too big for its boots in 2008, leading to a fallow year for the Left Field in 2009. For a few seasons the stage inflated itself to the point where it was perhaps the biggest covered live space at the festival. Over 5,000 people were able to cram themselves in to catch anyone from Joss Stone to Beans on Toast – and, of course, Tony Benn. But more of him later on!

If there was a little bit of ‘internal politics’ that pushed the tent out of the programme last year then that is understandable. We guess. But whatever the recent history, the Left Field returned for 2010 and it has gone back to its roots in every sense - scaled back and relocated next to the Hare Krishna free food tent.

So, politics and pop - that’s the Left Field motto. And who better to hammer home the message and curate the whole shebang than Billy Bragg?

If Tony Benn is the rock star of contemporary politics then Billy is the pop star most likely to get elected should he ever stand for parliament.

His prescribed Left Field daily-dose followed a simple pattern over the three days. Speakers and debates came in front of a collaborative acoustic session (featuring Billy and some selected guests) - before it’s time for comedy and another speaker, and then a three-act bill of outstanding bands.

And critically, from open to close, we never saw the Left Field tent empty.

In a way the musical talent alone should have seen to that. Despite a refocus on the political and social angles, when you get Frank Turner and The Agitator sparking off each other or Carl Barat and Reverend and the Makers ripping it up then it’s not really surprising that a party is about to kick off.

And to make matters better the debates were open and frank and had less of the ‘preaching to the converted’ feel that we have been used to at these sorts of events in the past.

‘No platform for racists’ often means that if you don’t agree 100% with the rallying cry of the speakers then it’s a good idea to stay the f**k away. However the joy of this year’s stage was that nobody got shot down if their views and opinions didn’t gel completely with the flow of discussion. Challenging questions were encouraged and answered, and consensus was sought.

Although that’s not to say that there were any overtly racist or bigoted comments thrown up from the floor...Glastonbury just isn’t like that. But politicians and union leaders were challenged openly on their views, and not once did we see anyone’s voice being stifled.

When you go to Glastonbury it should be with an open mind and a desire to explore. So in the same way the festival should be happy to listen to a wide rage of ideas. And that’s what the Left Field caters for.

Campaigners and lobbyists make use of the stage to express their fears and hopes for the future. Musicians lend popular support to a whole range of good causes. And people are allowed to make up their own minds about what to believe and what to do when they return to the ‘real world’ outside those miles-upon-miles of fence.

So whether you are there to support workers rights, laugh at Lembit Opik or cheer on Carl Barat, it doesn’t really matter. As long as you take away a belief in the common morality of humanity, the power of the collective voice and the importance of individuals choosing right over wrong then the Left Field has done its job.

Oh yes – and then there is Tony Benn.

Driving down from London and across the site with the elder statesman of British politics opened our eyes to the power of a principled personality.

He may be an 85 year-old vegetarian, but he still has the courage of his convictions and the ability to stir up the sort of emotions that change people’s lives forever.  

Tony Benn has been appearing at Glastonbury since the Left Field first kicked off about a decade ago as a small speaker’s corner holding no more than around 100 people. His only year off in that time (except the festival’s own time-outs) came last year when the whole stage took an enforced break.

For 2010 he committed to a gruelling three-show tour - with his Left Field stint being followed by a Q&A in the Green Futures field and a big outdoor show at Blazing Saddles in the theatre area.

Workers’ solidarity, environmental sustainability and the futility of nuclear arms were his three key themes and with practiced and polished ease, the former 2nd Viscount Stansgate (he made British history by renouncing this inherited title) held thousands of Glastonbury revellers rapt with his level-headed socialist ideals.

It’s really hard to argue with the notions that we all achieve more if we work together, that if we all care about our environment then we might just save it - and that regardless of how many nuclear weapons we have, we will never have a prime minister who would sanction their use.

And even if one did then the Americans would probably veto the decision – so what’s the point in diverting money from soldiers in front-line conflicts when a few pounds is all that are needed to provide a decent flak-jacket and a gun that works?

Tony Benn retired from parliament in 2001 – to ‘spend more time involved in politics’. He has been as good as his word, and now is president of the Stop the War Coalition as well as appearing at a multitude of grass-roots events like this - where his experience and wisdom will hopefully motivate a whole new generation of politically aware young people to forge morally significant futures for themselves and the rest of humanity.

So pop and politics – what’s the verdict?

Maybe not every festival could carry it off, but Glastonbury has that magical mix of people from every part of society that makes a concept like the Left Field a winner. No matter what the subject there are always those who want to dip their toes in the water.

And what changes as a result...well that’s the $64,000 question. But we hope with all our hearts that whatever it is, it will be a change for the better.

Because life is not about certainty – it’s about possibility. So if a random or accidental 15 minutes spent sheltering from the sun in the shade of the Left Field has opened just a few eyes and minds to the possibility of a fairer and more just world – and if in some way this experience nudges the world just a fraction in that direction – then that justifies its existence in a more concrete way than anything else possibly could.

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