For Jeremy Corbyn’s team just one question would decide whether Labour Live was a qualified success or an abject failure: would there be a real crowd by the time Jeremy took to the stage?
On that measure, Labour Live was a success. Images of the crowd assembled to hear Jeremy speak at the main stage put beyond doubt that he could attract a greater audience than any of his rival party leaders – even if he’s only competing with Theresa May and Vince Cable – and images of a sparsely populated festival from the afternoon were swept into irrelevance.
It was a success too in entertaining and energising a few thousand die-hard supporters. There is no doubt that bringing together masses of supporters in one place adds to the intellectual and social life of the party. It’s one reason why all of Britain’s major, and most of its minor, political parties have an annual conference. It’s why the Conservatives held an anaemic ‘Festival of Ideas’ last year.
But to suggest that Labour Live was an unmitigated success is fantasy.
The event filled a fraction of its 20,000 capacity. Party chiefs could have announced how many actually came through the doors, but have chosen not to. Instead the party and its Twitter outriders referred only to attendance “in the thousands” while the press estimated 4,000 were present. Labour briefed that 13,000 tickets were sold, but it was later revealed this included the thousands of tickets given away free in the names of Tony Blair, Kim Il Sung and Trotsky.
That matters because Corbyn’s team pitched the festival on the basis it would sell out its 20,000 capacity and make a profit.
In fact the festival cost the party around £400,000, enough to hire thirteen full-time organisers. Staff in Labour’s events and digital teams, who were working to drive ticket sales even through the local elections, were repeatedly briefed that the festival would have to sell 15,000 tickets at £35 each to break even, an income of £535,000. Ticket sale figures were closely guarded as fears of a complete disaster set in, but a week before the event it was widely reported to have sold between 3,000 and 4,000 tickets, bringing in £400,000 less than was needed to cover the festival’s costs.
That’s to say nothing of Unite the union using members’ subs to cover the costs of 1,000 of those tickets along with free travel, which it was still promoting to its members by text message 48 hours before the gates opened. Len McCluskey cashed in by using his spot at the festival to attack the party’s own MPs, providing a free hit for visiting journos. He may yet have to account to his members on this £35,000 splurge to help Jeremy Corbyn keep up appearances.
All accounted for, the party spent £400,000 to entertain a 4,000-strong group of its most hardcore, mostly London-based supporters. It cost serious money. It failed to attract new supporters. It invited almost daily ridicule in the press.
So when Labour’s campaign chief Ian Lavery says next year it will be “twice as big”, it risks being twice as bad. As with last year’s election, opportunities to learn from our mistakes are being ditched in favour of “one more heave”.
For all the talk of Labour Live being unprecedented, there are lessons to learn from Labour’s past. From 1985 to 1987, the Red Wedge collective of musicians led by Billy Bragg toured the entire country, with an aim of “creating some common ground between young people and the Labour party” far beyond London.
But there is a warning from Labour’s history too: Michael Foot rallied 40,000 of the Labour faithful, and even Neil Kinnock managed 10,000, both for considerably less than Labour Live’s £100-a-head cost, but the applause did not translate to votes in the elections that followed.