Cultural Manifesto

With the UK General Election next week, what are the country’s political parties saying about the arts?

The biography of Britain’s outgoing culture secretary, Karen Bradley, makes no mention of either culture or the arts. This ought to be surprising, but it is in keeping with the philistine trend in government, in which the arts are regarded purely in utilitarian terms (their value calculated by revenue alone). The role of culture secretary, a portfolio shared with media and sport, is often given to ambitious junior politicians with a taste for austerity: Bradley is a chartered accountant, while her three predecessors all trained as economists.

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British Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party, Theresa May. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

British Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party, Theresa May. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

A general election offers an opportunity for politicians to articulate a vision of society where culture thrives. Labour’s victory in 1997 was met by enthusiasm among many in the artistic community, but despite substantial investment, the attitude in government remained focused on utility – how the arts could be justified, whether for social cohesion or tourist attraction. Senior politicians tend to regard culture as an opportunity to tout their populist credentials; who can forget Gordon Brown’s clumsy conversion to the Arctic Monkeys?

For the first time in two decades, there is cause for optimism. One week after the launch of their general election manifesto, Labour unveiled a dedicated culture manifesto in Hull on 22 May 2017 – an event sadly overshadowed by the bombing in Manchester. The appeal of the document, entitled ‘A Creative Future For All’, lies not merely in its policy promises, although these are significant, but in a radical change to the language and philosophy of cultural policy.

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Jeremy Corbyn campaigning in West Kirby, Merseyside. Photograph: Andy Mia

Jeremy Corbyn campaigning in West Kirby, Merseyside. Photograph: Andy Mia

The proposals are relatively ambitious: an arts pupil premium, drawn from an additional £160 million per year, aimed at ensuring every student in England can take part in drama and dance, can learn an instrument, and has regular access to a theatre, gallery or museum. The manifesto pledges to set up a £1 billion Cultural Capital Fund, to be administered by the Arts Council, to upgrade infrastructure and invest in ‘creative clusters’ nationwide.

The manifesto also includes a set of important structural aims that may be tricky to implement. Acknowledging the ‘culture of low or no pay’ among performers, which invariably offers greater opportunities to the children of wealthy families, the party promises to work with trade unions and employers to agree ‘sector-specific advice and guidelines on pay and employment standards’. In addition, the manifesto cites ‘the serious concern about the ‘value gap’ between producers of creative content and the digital services that profit from its use’, promising a review of the remuneration for artists in the digital age. More viable is a commitment to nurturing diversity in the film industry and on public and commercial broadcasters.

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Jeremy Deller, ‘Strong and Stable My Arse’, series of posters made for the UK General Election

Jeremy Deller, ‘Strong and Stable My Arse’, series of posters made for the UK General Election. Photograph: Duncan Cumming

Labour’s manifesto is boldest in its challenge to the generational consensus about how to evaluate the arts. Since being elected leader in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn has spoken of the ‘broader, intrinsic worth’ of the arts, which enrich us in ‘intimate, often immeasurable ways’. He has critiqued government methodologies which seek to follow ‘the narrow, ruthlessly instrumentalist approach of the Thatcher governments’, and signify ‘a dangerous retreat into a callous commercialisation of every sphere of our lives’.

When Corbyn proclaims that Labour will deliver ‘culture for the many not the few’, he is not appealing to popular spectacle – it is notable that he speaks of art, not of entertainment, and does not seek to mimic the tastes of the electorate. ‘I do write quite a bit of poetry myself’, Corbyn told supporters in Dalston’s Arcola Theatre in 2015, in addition to creating ‘totally random paintings that are abstract beyond belief… I find the combination of colour and movement fascinating’.

Corbyn wishes to extend these opportunities to all: ‘access to culture is vital for the emotional and intellectual growth of our people’, he declared in his culture manifesto launch speech, because creativity lives in all of us, often dormant. Labour will ‘unleash’ this talent and help it ‘flourish’, driven by the belief – articulated by Corbyn in Hull – that ‘in every one of us there is a poet, a writer, a singer of songs, an artist’.

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Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats

Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats

Like Labour, the Liberal Democrats promise to protect arts subjects in the school curriculum from Tory plans: the Conservative election manifesto sets a target that 90% of pupils will study a combination of ‘academic GCSEs’ by 2025 – an English Baccalaureate definition that excludes the arts. The Lib Dems’ election manifesto proposes to fund ‘creative enterprise zones’ to ‘grow and regenerate the cultural output of areas across the UK’, in a plan similar to Labour’s Cultural Capital Fund. Both Labour and the Lib Dems commit to help imperilled live music venues: over the last ten years in London alone, 40% of small venues have closed.

The spectre of Brexit ought to feature more prominently in the Lib Dem manifesto – the party is the lighting-rod for resistance to leaving the EU, which remains the most serious threat to cultural flourishing in the UK. Their manifesto acknowledges the funding ‘risk’ of Brexit, and says it will ‘ensure that we continue to invest in our cultural capital’, but it doesn’t outline the danger of restricting freedom of movement, which will greatly diminish the possibility of cultural exchange – among both individuals and institutions.

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Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister of Scotland

Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister of Scotland

There is a strain of Conservatism that nurtures a deep commitment to artistic excellence, as articulated by figures such as philosopher Roger Scruton, who has written at length on aesthetics and public taste. Yet despite Theresa May’s professed aversion to the creative destruction of neoliberalism, her Toryism offers little to inspire. The Conservative election manifesto instrumentalizes art for the age of Brexit: Britain’s culture is ‘world-beating’, with a promise for leading cultural institutions to ‘ensure they have the resources they need to amplify Britain’s voice on the world stage and as a global force for good’.

The Tory manifesto does commit to greater investment outside London – a welcome development. It promises to host a Great Exhibition of the North in 2018, along the lines of the imperial extravaganzas of the Victorian era, and pledges to support the development of a new Edinburgh concert hall. It also promises to relocate Channel 4 outside of London. All three main parties commit to retaining the broadcaster in public ownership, as well as free entrance to national museums and permanent collections.

I had high hopes for the Green party manifesto (‘Confident & Caring Britain’) but the words ‘art’ and ‘culture’ do not appear at all – as is the case with the nationalist parties in Scotland (the SNP) and Wales (Plaid Cymru). The UKIP manifesto makes a single mention in relation to much-needed investment in regional development: ‘Our new coastal towns taskforce will raise funding for new arts and heritage facilities’ – but no explanation of how this will be achieved.

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JME and Jeremy Corbyn

JME and Jeremy Corbyn, making a video for i-D magazine encouraging young people to register to vote

Enthusiasm for Corbyn’s radicalism has been expressed by the ‘Grime4Corbyn’ campaign, focused initially on increasing voter registration, and featuring prominent artists such as Akala, Lowkey, Stormzy, Novelist, JME, Professor Green and AJ Tracey. In his interview with Grime artist JME for i-D magazine, Corbyn spoke of the importance of finding ‘that space to be creative – and that political space to be creative as well’. This is a revealing statement, as it reflects his belief that ‘political change doesn’t always come from politicians’ but rather ‘from pressure on people in power’. Labour’s arts policy has been misunderstood by some of its supporters: it does not demand the crude screeds and artless sloganeering to be found in the 2015 collection Poets for Corbyn, but the carving out of a space in which each individual can realize her potential. Indeed, Corbyn ended his 2015 chat with Mumsnet with advice for every citizen: ‘Let’s all live rich lives through music, dance and art!’

Main image: Jeremy Corbyn campaigning in Kirby, Merseyside. Photograph: Andy Miah

Benjamin Ramm (FRSA) writes features for BBC Culture and presents documentaries on BBC Radio 4. He is editor-at-large at openDemocracy, and tweets at @BenjaminRamm

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