Colin Revolting reviews a rally and fundraiser for Jeremy Corbyn at Union Chapel, Islington. Featuring Thee Faction, Owen Jones, Robb Johnson and the Socialist Magician. Credit for all photographs to Theo Michael.
Queues and crowds have followed only one of the candidates competing for Labour leader. And despite tickets costing £15 for this fundraiser, the queues still start ridiculously early and curl round the block in a chatty gathering of London’s left wing, young and old – in some cases, very young and very old.
As soon as we fill the wooden pews of this atmospheric venue, the opening act, Owen Jones, bounds on stage. Jones can’t resist calling Corbyn the “hardest working man in show business” and comparing his touring to packed out venues across the country with that of a rock star. He talks of how hope and optimism are infectious, but also warns of the media onslaught that would follow a Corbyn victory.
With his acoustic guitar, Robb Johnson has been singing songs of social significance for almost as long as Corbyn has been a socialist activist. Johnson’s not young, but his songs are… The Future Starts Here is a brand new number, written in response to this growing movement. With his next song ripping the piss out of Michael Gove, people respond to the call and response chorus.
I’ve sung Bella Ciao with huge trade union demonstrations in Europe, I’ve seen civil rights marchers singing their hearts out as they are being arrested, I’ve heard rebel songs raise the roof in Irish pubs. But the British left seem shy about singing – or have forgotten this radical tradition.
Yet suddenly the crowd are singing together, hesitantly at first, then almost everyone in the place is joining in with the chorus…
“Make the rich pay – why not?
We don’t have any money
Cos they got lots and lots
Make the rich pay – why not?”
Who wouldn’t want to sing when the song makes such sense? Even the Spectator blogger skulking in the balcony has to note, “His songs tore into Michael Gove, celebrated ‘Bob Crow was a union man’ and asked ‘Make the rich pay, why not?'”
Following Johnson and despite being “freaking nervous”, Lady Phyll Opuku – co-founder of UK Black Pride – speaks brilliantly. She begins by declaring she is “an unapologetic black lesbian trade unionist socialist whose migrant parents built the NHS.” And ends with, “my 20-year-old daughter is a student and has signed up to vote for Jeremy because he will get rid of student fees.”
“Red Magician” Ian Saville the does sleight of hand magic tricks which spoof how the bankers always end up with cash in hand whilst the government makes the rest of us subsidise them.
Looking around the chapel, Unison organiser Joanne Kaye says: “there’s only one person with a beard and the initials JC that would get me in a place like this”. She proclaims she wants to be able to look her children “in the eye and make sure they have the right to free higher education, just like I did.”
The nine members of Thee Faction fill the chapel with their punchy, pointed songs. They describe their music as Socialist R&B and add a glorious blast of brass powerful enough to make walls come tumbling down. Their songs call for us to Chose Your Enemy and declare You’ve got the Numbers. Praising Corbyn’s proposal of right-to-buy for private tenants they sing “We need a Rent Strike” – and another song which cries, “We want the bakery, not just the bread!”
Calling everyone “comrade”, their playful and provocative front man proclaims, tongue-in-cheek, that they are “bringing down the government – one song at a time…”
If it wasn’t for the wooden pews, many of the crowd would up and dancing…
Music is matter of personal taste and can be quite divisive, but in terms of bringing people together in a sense of hope and solidarity, tonight it did the job.
Arriving hot-foot from Radio Four’s Any Questions, Jeremy Corbyn finishes the evening with a rousing speech calling for an end to austerity, insisting that “Labour lost the election because it wasn’t offering an economic alternative” and declaring “Whatever happens on September the 12th, we’re going to stay together.” He’s drowned out by cheering and applause.
Robb Johnson returns to lead everyone in song…
“We’ll rehouse the homeless in Buckingham Palace,
Start at the bottom, work down to the top,
Stop the city, rebuild the forest,
Cancel the rent, nick all the cops,
Be reasonable, and demand the impossible now”
The evening of optimism and hope is rounded off with a crew of young activists leading everyone in an upbeat song written by an Irish immigrant worker on the railway line between New Cross and Charing Cross – the very route I travelled tonight. The song is called The Red Flag and, sung by workers across the world, is both celebrated and parodied.
“Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We’ll keep the red flag flying here.”
It can be sung tongue-in-cheek or fist in the air, or even a bit of both – whatever you decide…
Tonight’s music was far from fashionable and yet it hit the right note at this amazing moment, pregnant with possibilities. Everyone left buoyed by an evening where culture and politics came together in an entertaining and inspiring way that I haven’t experienced for some years.
Thee Faction: www.theefaction.org/
Robb Johnson: www.robbjohnson.co.uk/
Ian Saville – Magic for Socialism: www.redmagic.co.uk/