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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 June, 2003, 16:52 GMT 17:52 UK
Right on in the Left Field
Ian Youngs
By Ian Youngs
BBC News Online at the Glastonbury Festival

Glastonbury banners
It is impossible to avoid the political themes at Glastonbury
Glastonbury has always been a festival with a conscience - but do today's fans care about the political side of an event that was once known as the "CND festival"?

Everyone except the worst drug casualties will notice at least some of the political and social messages at this year's Glastonbury.

Bands play above a huge Greenpeace banner on the main stage, there are notices about Third World water supplies inside the toilets and organisers want every single person to sign a petition for fairer international trade laws.

On top of that, Tony Benn got a rock star's welcome, a Palestinian group has brought an inflatable tank, Columbian trade unionists are planning to stage mock kidnappings of comedian Mark Thomas and singer Billy Bragg, and the Drop the Debt double decker bus is offering its bath to a lucky competition winner.

Not the bath itself - just the chance to wallow in hot water inside it on the festival's final day, which is a very tempting proposition.

Tony Benn
They will walk across broken glass to see Tony Benn
Left Field organiser Geoff Martin
Scores of pressure groups are competing to find the best attention-grabbing ways to win over a generation that is constantly said to have given up on mainstream politics.

Although many groups have political aims, few are from the world of Westminster.

Michael Eavis - who stood locally for Labour in the 1997 election - splits his profits between Greenpeace, WaterAid and Oxfam, and all three have a strong presence.

A dedicated political tent, the Left Field, which has expanded after making its debut last year, makes things more interesting by alternating between music, comedy and debates.

'Cutting edge'

Left Field organiser Geoff Martin said the numbers of people coming to listen had been "absolutely phenomenal".

"It really nails the lie that young people aren't interested in political debate," he said.

"People will engage if there's something interesting going on. The cutting edge is very much in tune with a lot of the audience."

Tony Benn banner
Left Field pin-up: Tony Benn
The Left Field's star attraction was Tony Benn, and a giant portrait of him was painted on a tower alongside the words: "Icon of the day."

Mr Martin said the festival crowd would not walk across a field to see Tony Blair, "but they will walk across broken glass to see Tony Benn".

Left Field debates give each speaker just five minutes to put their points across, with the debate then opened up to questions from the floor - although the war debate was mostly anti-war speakers preaching to the converted.

Mr Benn, who also spoke at the festival in 2002, told BBC News Online: "There are a lot of young people here, and you try to get your message across to anyone who will listen."

Monster

Over at the Green Futures field, where petition stalls line the paths, the Trade Justice Movement was trying to get its message across with a parade featuring a giant Chinese dragon-style "free trade monster" and someone dressed as a fat cat snarling at passers by.

Free Trade Monster
Watch out, there's a Free Trade Monster about
About 100 people set off on the procession, although spokesman Eliot Whittington said more than 15,000 people had signed their petition in just over three days.

"We knew we weren't going to get huge numbers, but it's enough to get the message out there," he said.

Glastonbury has always had a tradition of activism, he said, adding: "It was founded with the aim of pushing for a fairer world."

Actually, it was founded because Michael Eavis liked the festival vibe and wanted to clear his overdraft. But it was not long before politics became intertwined with music.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) got involved in 1981, and the alliance helped gain publicity for both the festival and CND during the 1980s.

It was known as the "CND festival" and some say CND's organisational expertise was the only reason the festival was able to survive.

'Crusaders'

Peace banner
Everything has a sign up - even in the loos - so you can't ignore it
Festival-goer Charlotte Williams
Environmental charities have now taken CND's place as the main beneficiaries, and Mr Eavis says the political aspect has become less central - but still important.

"I feel that we've always been crusaders, really, and it would be really sad if we lost the political challenges that are out there today," he told BBC News Online.

But, even if the messages are put out there, are they taken on board by 112,000 people who have come to escape the real world?

"You notice it a lot but I don't really take much interest it," said Lisa Rush, 28, from Colchester.

"I work in the City and I get enough of that kind of thing as it is."

Outside the Left Field, Charlotte Williams, 26, from Oxford, had intended to listen to Tony Benn - but was too hot.

She noticed all the good causes on site - but it was unlikely to make her do anything differently when she got home, she said.

Drop The Debt campaigner
The Debtman in action
"Everything has a sign up - even in the loos - so you can't ignore it."

And a group of five local 16-year-old boys, who had added the word "off" in masking tape to their giant rainbow "peace" flag, said the festival had made them think much harder about some issues, especially the Third World water supplies highlighted by WaterAid.

"There's lots of geezers going round telling you about stuff," Harold Lovell from Shepton Mallet said.

His friend, Alex Raina, from Pilton, added: "It's not really in your face - but when you come here, you can't really ignore it."




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