Labour Live - and Kicking? Do Music Festivals Increase Youth Turnout at Election Time?
This weekend, 16-17 June, saw the long-awaited and much-mocked Labour Live festival take place. Once billed as the “biggest ticket in town for Corbyn fans” this brainchild of Ian Lavery, a party spokeswoman insisted, would help Labour to “open up politics to a wider audience”. The event was conceived in the light of Jeremy Corbyn’s Glastonbury appearance to appeal to the so-called ‘Youthquake’ that the leader's office believed was responsible for Labour’s better-than-expected performance in last year’s General Election. Leaving aside the fact that the ‘youthquake’ has been shown to be a myth, is there any evidence that political collaborations with musical events actually has an impact on youth turnout in elections?
Labour Live is far from the left’s first attempt to use music festivals and musicians to try and engage with younger voters. Some – like Red Wedge (launched in 1985), New Labour’s courting of BritPop musicians (1996-2001) such as Noel Gallagher and Labour Live itself – have been ‘party political’, specifically aimed at encouraging young people to vote for and be involved with the Labour Party. Red Wedge, a coalition of musicians fronted and led by Billy Bragg and jointly funded by the Labour Party and the National Union of Public Employees (now part of UNISON) was formed in response to the miner’s strike (’84-85). It featured such musical luminaries as The Smiths, Madness and The Style Council. New Labour’s courting of musicians was slightly different and was more about trying to cash in on the celebrity appeal of bands such as Blur and Oasis, as well as bands whose music the party used as election anthems such as D:Ream (‘Things Can Only Get Better’) and the Lighthouse Family (‘Lifted)’. Both however were specifically attempts to drum up youth electoral support for the Labour Party.
Others – such as Rock Against Racism (1976) and Rock The Vote (1996) – have been ‘issue political’, looking to raise awareness of and activism around specific issues which are of concern to the left. Rock Against Racism was founded by music photographer Red Saunders in response to the rise of the National Front seemingly with support from musical figures such as Eric Clapton who voiced support for the immigration stance of Enoch Powell and David Bowie who greeted fans at Victoria station with a Nazi salute. Rock Against Racism was a genuinely grassroots movement, with 200-300 gigs being put on by local organisers under the branding, and was specifically aimed at keeping young people away from radicalisation. Rock The Vote was lunched with an aim of increasing ‘turnout’ itself and got support from acts as The Boo Radleys, Carl Cox, Gene, Menswear, Radiohead and The Teenage Funclub. Rock The Vote's nights took place on campuses across the UK with voter-registration cards provided to allow attenders to join the electoral registry.
We can track each of these historical examples and compare them to the turnout figures for the elections which followed to see what happened.
Based on British Election Study data (value for 1974 refers to the October election). The three vertical lines refer to (in order left-to-right): (1) Rock Against Racism (1976), (2) Red Wedge (1985), (3) Rock The Vote and New Labour’s courting of ‘Britpop’ (both 1996).
Correlation is not, of course, causality. Nevertheless we can see straight away that the impact from each of these political-musical crossover events, whether issue-political or party-political, has not had any major discernible impact on the turnout figures for 18-24 year olds. Following Rock Against Racism the figure remained relatively stable. Following Red Wedge youth turnout did increase – but only in line with the turnout increase across the board. And youth turnout after Rock The Vote and New Labour’s courting of Britpop figures dropped dramatically, even more so than overall turnout did between 1992 and 1997.
Although Rock Against Racism has been hailed as at least a partial excess – support for the National Front did drop in the 1979 election – this was more likely down to their supporters switching to the Conservatives due to the more hard-line policies of Margaret Thatcher compared to Ted Heath rather than any impact from the festivals. It certainly had no impact on youth turnout. And whilst there was an increase in youth turnout after the Red Wedge a delve into the figures further shows Bragg can’t take the credit. Whilst Labour did get a higher percentage of first time voters in 1987 than in 1983 – 34% rather than 29% - they still lost to the Conservatives who took 45% of first time young voters. And despite the support of bands like Radiohead and big name sponsorship from, amongst others, Carlsberg, Lloyds Bank and Tower Records Rock The Vote saw youth turnout drop by almost ten percentage points in the election held less than a year afterwards.
The message from history then is clear. Even if Labour Live had secured acts of similar stature to Radiohead and The Smiths who graced earlier political music festivals and had sold out within days it wouldn’t have done anything at all to propel the Labour leader into power. Political music festivals it seems attract political youths, rather than politicise musical ones.