When the Labour conference returned to Brighton in September, it was somewhat upstaged by a series of Momentum fringe events dubbed "The World Transformed", which included after-hours parties.
These were a step change from the Billy Bragg sing-alongs of yore: residents from Horse Meat Disco – a weekly gay disco night held in south London’s The Eagle – were booked to play the closing party. During the daytime, one of its most-discussed events was a talk on "Acid Corbynism". An idea riffing on the work of the late, influential leftist writer Mark Fisher, it was one of several talks which probed how a broader, bottom-up left-wing culture in the UK might grow.
At countless junctures of club culture’s many offshoots, there have been club nights or mini-scenes which have tried to grow a space for anti-authority idealism, such as Berlin’s techno scene in the early-1990s, or in scattered pockets of anti-commercial nightlife in the UK.
But Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpected success in last year’s election puts the role of these parties in a new light. For the first time in decades, there’s the realistic prospect of a left-wing government taking power in the UK. Putting on a night which challenges the norms of cutthroat, free-market economics is an idea which, all of a sudden, seems to wield a lot more power.
The Acid Corbynism talk was led by academic Jeremy Gilbert, it explored how collective, so-called "consciousness-raising" activities – both spiritualist, like yoga and meditation, as well as cultural, like clubs and festivals – might empower people out of political inertia: to feel as if, by working together, we’ve got the power to shift the status quo.
But is it really possible that wild, queer techno parties in anonymous lofts, or audiophile sound-systems in community halls, could form meaningful connections with the blokey, besuited hordes of the Labour Party?
Speaking to Gilbert, he makes a tentatively positive case, drawing a contrast with the political climate surrounding the travelling free party sound-systems of the early-90s. Made up mostly of anarchists who’d dropped out from mainstream society, he says, "The problem at that moment was that the wider left was just totally disinterested. It was the moment of the emergence of New Labour, so the idea that the mainstream left would make any sympathetic alliance with anything coming out of bohemian culture was just totally off the agenda."
In some cases, New Labour’s demise has seemed to reverse that effect, inviting people to re-engage with politics. Freerotation festival is a prime example. It’s a revered, intimate get-together in Wales, where techno and house DJs are welcomed by notoriously open-minded crowds. It sees well-respected names from the techno club circuit, like Ben UFO and Surgeon, sharing space with local residents and co-founders Steevio & Suzybee. The festival’s ethos is a reflection of their roots in the free party scene, guided by an egalitarian, community spirit. Well-known DJs have been paid the same basic fee as everyone else, and a condition of them playing is to stay for the weekend, coming to dance, meet people and be immersed.
As Steevio explains, it’s the solution to a difficult balancing act: wanting to have an event that is musically relevant, with an affinity to new sounds being made in dance music, but not wanting to compromise his principles in order to secure exciting acts. "We needed to find a way to bring the two worlds together – mainstream club culture and the DIY underground – and yet keep the collectivist, not-for-profit ethos," he says.
Steevio and Suzybee were involved in various free party sound-systems from the late-80s, having abandoned left-wing politics and Labour upbringings in favour of a pacifist, environmentally-minded anarchism. With government crackdowns splitting the scene up in the late-90s, they decided to settle in Wales. There, they built a network of sound-system-loving, politically idealistic friends, and the festival started, Steevio says, "trying to lead by example: to show that it is possible to run successful organisations on green, collectivist and basic socialist principles".
It’s Corbyn’s election as leader, he says, which drew him back toward the political mainstream. "There’s definitely an appetite for change right now," he says. He feels that the present moment demands more: if it were to promote "worker cooperatives, collectives and green socialism", he says he’d be willing to work on events to push for a left-led Labour government.
For Leeds-based party Cosmic Slop, it’s fundraising that drives its purpose. Celebrated for their warm, darkly-lit atmosphere, wide-open music policy and incredible sound-system (built by co-founder Tom Smith himself), the monthly events raise money for the MAP charity. Based in the Hope House building, which also hosts the parties, the charity provides experience in the creative industries to children at risk of being excluded from mainstream education.
Speaking with Smith back in 2015, he explained how the charity puts the nights in perspective. “It re-contextualises the experience," he said. "I see it happen: people are more respectful, people are supportive. I couldn't do what I'm doing if it wasn't linked in some way to a social agenda."
An important inspiration for Smith is the early-80s club culture of New York. Despite being commercial clubs run for profit, he argues that New York nightclubs were important vehicles for social change. "Disco was the soundtrack to the gay rights movement," he says. "That’s very important: the songs were about emancipation and a struggle for people. It was a cultural, spiritual experience for them… [it was] serious issues, represented very well through a musical vehicle."
In the present moment, he argues, clubs need to go further to make themselves a space for social good. He says, "We're talking 40 years of the development of the capitalist system. I don't think we can imagine how far commercial interests have penetrated into the culture now."
By embracing an anti-commercial, community-driven ethos, more extreme than the New York forefathers he looks up to, he sees it as a way to keep the radical possibility of club spaces alive. "Having people meet up in real life and form societies and groups through music could be a powerful thing, socially speaking," he says.
Using nightlife to support likeminded causes is also an important foundation for Resis’Dance, a seven-strong, all-women collective of DJs and promoters based in London. Started three years ago, they’ve raised money for gentrification-threatened Latin American communities, the UK arm of Black Lives Matter and lesbian and gay migrants facing deportation. They also run DJ workshops for women and those who identify as non-binary, giving particular priority to those who are of colour or from working class backgrounds.
Explaining the rationale, co-founder Saph McIntosh says, "We know that women are less likely to be in the higher levels of music, in terms of producing, DJing, promoting."
Their music policy spans house, techno and the open-ended hinterlands of bass music, but Saph sees grime and hip-hop as important reference points. Discussing how music can be allied with radical politics, she compares grime to disco, considering – similar to Smith – the latter’s role as both safe haven and political incubator for the gay rights movement.
"Disco has a theme of overcoming, about strength, and you can see it with grime as well," she argues. She cites Stormzy, for example, who’s been vocally critical of Tory policies and the racist agenda which pervades the Daily Mail's news coverage. "That's black people making music from their experiences, and straight away that will connect with the Jeremy Corbyn movement," she says. "That's because black people have had to overcome so many things, so it's no coincidence that black people, and queer people, are attracted to the Labour Party."
But even if there’s a shifting tide in terms of how alternative nightlife relates to left-wing politics, will it actually have any noticeable impact on politics? As in, actual concrete effects: like elections, policies, the kinds of people involved in political parties?
Gilbert makes a similar argument to Smith. He’s hesitant to predict any definitive change, but sees a possibility in the rise of nights rejecting a commercial mindset. Citing the role of DIY nightlife as a place for experimentation and new ideas, he says, "It's about trying to self consciously avoid, if anything else, the complete corporate takeover of the culture. I think that in itself will produce some kind of effect, even if you don't really know what it is."