I began my journey in stand-up comedy after a therapist said it would help me get over the trauma from the Tavistock Square bomb on 7 July 2005, where I was 50 yards from the bus when it blew up.
I always enjoyed making people laugh and cheering people up. I took a comedy course and then performed at any comedy club in London that would have me until I was quite good and became a runner-up at the Hackney Empire New Acts competition. I also appeared on Paramount Comedy Channel performing my routine about eating five portions of fruit and vegetables.
At about the same time as a possible comedy career was taking off, I became a father for the first time. Having a daughter made me suddenly feel more socially responsible. I stopped doing comedy gigs and got a nine to five job in sub-editing articles in magazines and journals.
I joined the Labour Party the day after Michael Foot died. When I saw the news, it brought tears to my eyes when I reflected on how such a good man was treated with such jeering contempt by the media. It made me aware that Labour had an uphill struggle as party leaders would always be ridiculed by the papers and TV if they ever put forward policies that promoted socialism and peace.
I believed it was important that I make a stand and no longer see politics as something played out for me but as something I can shape myself.
I had a background in politics as my dad had been a Labour councillor in our ward in North Kensington in 1970. He also stood in the general election against David Owen in Plymouth in 1987. He was good friends with Tony Benn, who I used to see a lot in Notting Hill Gate, and my dad also fought for Labour to have a dedicated Arts Policy (something he campaigned for within a group called Arts for Labour).
Labour Party recruitment
When I got to my first Labour Party meetings, I was disappointed to see that there were not many people and also that there was no drive to encourage more recruitment.
I suggested to my local Labour Party branch that we put on a comedy night to raise money and raise our profile in the local community. One or two people said I should give it a try, but generally it was seen as an odd idea.
I booked comedians that I had worked with before, and I called the event ‘Let’s laugh at the Coalition’. We had an audience of about 100 people in a theatre in Brentford and managed to raise a few hundred pounds (it would have been more if I had realised the venue was far too expensive). I also managed to get at least 20 or so people to attend who were not Labour Party members and had never been to a Labour meeting before. Some of these people later joined the party.
The first Stand up for Labour event came about in June 2012 in Chiswick. The headline act was Arthur Smith and the guest speaker was Ken Livingstone, who had just lost the Mayoral election. I put up posters and flyers all over west London and, because of this (and the line up), the turnout was incredible. We sold all 200 tickets in advance and the room was buzzing with excitement. It was nothing like any other Labour Party event I had ever been to.
The first Stand up for Labour was such a success that other constituencies stared to ask me to put on events. I set up a website and social media pages and this brought with it more and more requests for Stand up for Labour all over the country.
I took as many requests for Stand up for Labour events as I could manage: in total this came to over 200 between 2012 and now.
Putting on these shows involved a lot of work: liaising with constituencies about a date and venue, booking comedians, designing flyers, posters and printed tickets as well as promoting the event on social media, comedy listings and via the Stand up for Labour website.
I also had to buy a durable PA system and stage lighting that I could transport all over the country. I wanted these events to work in any room in any town. We’ve worked in pubs, community centres, night clubs, even a couple of converted churches.
I am proud that I have been able to book over 100 comedians and offer them not only employment but an opportunity to perform to politically savvy audiences. I’ve never asked anyone to perform for free.
However, I did Stand up for Labour as a volunteer.
How did I do it?
For each event I would cover my own travel expenses and the cost of promotional material through box office revenue. To pay my own bills and support my family, I was working nine to five in freelance sub-editing jobs. I had no job security but this worked for me considering the number of days I had to take off to do Stand up for Labour.
Sadly, I received little help from the Labour Party for these shows. In fact, when I asked if I could have a stand to promote Stand up for Labour at the Brighton Conference in 2013, I was told I would have to pay £1,800 to do so. And I did – with some help from a crowdfunder – because I thought it was important to let as many delegates from CLPs to know what Stand up for Labour could offer.
The way in which my attempts to re-energise the Labour Party were marginalised led me to stand for the Labour Party’s NEC, campaigning primarily for a concerted recruitment drive to take place. I believed then – as now – that Labour can only win with a large, energised membership. I wasn’t standing on an ideological or policy platform – the NEC should be about improving the way the machine is organised. However, I was not ‘on a slate’ so I had no chance of winning – but I certainly made my point.
Jeremy Corbyn leadership
My parents are both Quakers and I was brought up as a pacifist. I didn’t approve of bombing Iraq and I knew from Tavistock Square how traumatic violence is to those who experience it. For this reason, I supported Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign to be Labour Party leader as soon as he was on the ballot paper. I organised the first big event of his campaign at the Seven Dials Club in Covent Garden and it was a huge success, with more people inside than was strictly legal. It showed me how much energy there was around his campaign and I had not seen anything like this in the Labour Party before.
People were excited about the idea we could change the way we do politics and that is why there was a massive increase in Labour Party membership.
The surge in membership gave me great hope but I knew that there would be attempts to topple Jeremy Corbyn and undermine this movement. So I thought up #JC4PM, a tour that got big names in comedy, poetry and music to perform in support of Jeremy Corbyn. I wanted to help inspire more people to get active politically.
We won sponsorship from Unite the Union and the CWU and, working in a team, we set up gigs in big theatres in England, Scotland and Wales. Over the course of twelve shows, we had 1,200 people attend in Bristol, 900 in Sheffield, 800 in Swansea. These were massive events to organise and I managed to do these at the same time as organising CLP events in places like Banbury, Camberley, Gainsborough and Hertford too. The demand for Stand up for Labour had not stopped.
I followed up some of the #JC4PM shows with a tour during last year’s leadership election. #KeepCorbyn dates were set all over the country (also with some sponsorship from the TSSA and the FBU) but we encountered a problem with attendance as Labour were not promoting these events and the budget constraints on the ‘Jeremy for Labour’ campaign meant that Jeremy Corbyn could not be seen to promote them either. So we lost a lot of money in ticket revenue.
At around the same time as we took a hit from the #KeepCorbyn tour, my freelance jobs dried up, one in part due to the time I was giving to guess what? Stand up for Labour!
Despite unsuccessful applications for Labour Party jobs in events and fundraising (which I thought I might have stood a chance at?), it hasn’t stopped me believing in the Labour Party and I continue to strive for it to change and improve.
General Election campaign
When the 2017 General Election was called, I wanted to do as much as I could to support Labour’s (supposedly doomed) campaign. I drew up a list of constituencies that would be off the beaten track and not in Labour strongholds. Having taken pointers from some #JC4PM shows, we offered a more variety show bill with music and poetry alongside comedy. We also incorporated films from local Labour Party activists who were also filmmakers in a screening slot called Brit Rocks.
A team of us went from Cornwall to Cumbria with projector, projector screen, comedians, poets, singers and a van full of Jeremy Corbyn t-shirts. We filmed all these gigs and shared them widely on social media so people could see that Jeremy Corbyn’s message was popular all over the country – not just in Islington.
Stand up for Labour has improved a lot since 2012. I’ve learned from my mistakes: I learned I had to keep events short as audiences get tired and it’s now less of a comedy night and more of a variety show. The other thing I’ve noticed is that members of the party are often far more entertaining than any of the performers once they get warmed up. As I am the Compere, I have been able to extend the time I spend interacting with the audience.
I want to continue to energise Labour members and raise funds for CLPs all over the country but I am now overdrawn and am close to reaching my credit limit.
I also have monthly direct debit payments for Stand up for Labour that I am struggling to keep up with. These include: storage for the speakers, mic and other equipment £156.20pm; Adobe creative suite for flyers, tickets and memes £50.57pm, Mailchimp for emailing over 10,000 subscribers £117.29pm, accountancy services from Tax Assist Accountants £183pm and a Registered Office address £23.99.
Over 40 CLPs have written asking me to put on events but I simply cannot afford to do them. The revenue from ticket sales covers the costs of the show and the rest goes to the CLPs. But I have always kept ticket prices low so most people can afford to come. The acts I book would often cost a lot more to see in a comedy club. This model doesn’t leave any slack to pay me and, to be honest, I would feel guilty taking money when the CLPs need it so badly.
My plan therefore, is to raise the money to cover my wage and the costs of the gigs through sponsorship. That way, all of the revenue from tickets can go straight to the CLP. The only cost I am asking the CLP to cover is the venue hire and the reason I am doing this is so that fundraising teams in CLPs take some responsibility for making these shows happen. Often CLPs do not have fundraising skills and, if they are encouraged and guided in this they will push to get the best rate (or for free), pick a venue size they think they can fill and then push to fill it. On this model, the more people the CLP get down to the show, the more money they make.
In order to get this backing and sponsorship, I’ve spent the last month contacting trade unions and other potential donors and asking them to cover the costs of a tour. I am making some progress and have already got the performers’ costs sponsored for the Brighton conference gig. But this process takes time and I need to fill the gap or I risk going under.
People are now talking about two years until the next general election. If I can put on Stand up for Labour shows during that time, particularly in key marginals and previously labelled ‘unwinnable’ seats, I believe this will help win the next general election for Labour. By building membership, energising and boosting morale, helping Fundraising Officers to improve their entrepreneurial skills, raising money so that CLPs have the resources they need to fight the strongest battle they can, I see a role for Stand up for Labour in forging a victory for the Labour Party. But I need your help to do it.
Please contribute as much as you can so that I can reach my fundraising goal of £7,000 and, if you are unable to contribute, it would be really helpful if you could write a testimonial about your own experience of Stand up for Labour, or share the crowdfunder via social media.
The crowdfunding site is here:
Crispin Flintoff, 22 September 2017