Arts for the Many

Successive UK governments have been slashing arts funding for decades. Labour is promising to reinvest.

General view of the "Lucian Freud: The Self-Portraits" press view at Royal Academy of Arts on October 23, 2019 in London, England. Joe Maher / Getty

The upcoming UK general election was billed as the Brexit election, though it’s turning out to be fought over a much wider range of policy issues than expected, including the NHS, welfare, the environment, education, tuition fees, and taxation. Much of this is thanks to Labour’s grassroots campaigning machine, which has brought issues into the spotlight that the Tories would prefer to ignore. However, one area crucial to a thriving society remains overlooked in debate both on mainstream and social media: cultural policy. While it is in itself unlikely to polarize voter support, it’s worth asking: What do the main parties have to say on the matter of arts funding? It won’t be a surprise for most to hear that Labour is the clear front-runner in this policy area.

Cultural Decay

In the ’90s, Tony Blair’s New Labour aligned itself closely with Britpop and an assortment of Young British Artists in an attempt to broaden his party’s appeal among “Middle England” voters. At that point, the notion of “creative industry” was central to New Labour policy-making. A typical Third Way neologism — like “public-private partnerships” — an emphasis on “creative industry” worked to put the shine on the marketization and bureaucratization of the arts.

Funding was increased, but at a price: targets around “value” had to be met; cultural “well-being” was a new indicator and necessitated a national rise in museum attendance — which, though it was met under Blair, ultimately masked the underlying inequality. As it turned out, the boost in new museum attendees that followed a policy of free entry to state institutions was largely caused by repeat visits made by existing middle-class attendees, simply visiting more often than they had previously. Overall improved attendance, with the potential for new visitors from poorer backgrounds, is a good thing, of course, and one that successive governments, including Labour, have pledged to continue.

If New Labour co-opted the arts to neoliberal politics as part of a wider Faustian pact that sold out its traditional working-class voter base for the opportunity to govern, Cameron’s two successive governments embarked on a slash-and-burn policy that viewed any vestige of third-way politics as somehow halfway toward socialism. Research by the House of Commons library demonstrates that in the period since 2010, libraries, museums, and art galleries across England have endured funding cuts of at least £640 million. This has forced galleries, museums, and art associations to make cuts to staffing, educational provisions, and programming. In the run-up to the 2019 general election, cultural workers are weighing up what a new government and an eventual Brexit will mean for their field.

Cultural Decay

The 2019 Offer

As far back as October, the Tories gave an indication of what they would offer in terms of arts provision. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced £250 million of new cultural funding to be handed out over the next five years. Half of this money is destined for regional museums and libraries around the country, while £90 million will be provided to extend the Cultural Development Fund, which aims to drive regeneration and growth through cultural pursuits. Due to the Conservatives having launched their program for the upcoming election prior to them calling an election, this remains unchanged in their manifesto, meaning cultural spending will remain for years at a deficit compared to the pre-2010 figures, with an additional loss of EU arts funding due to Brexit.

Labour launched its cultural policy on November 24 at the Theatre Royal in Stratford, East London, a thriving areas for the arts that benefited from cultural spending linked to the 2012 Olympic Games. Jeremy Corbyn was joined by stars of the cultural left including rapper MIA, singer Lily Allen, and filmmaker Ken Loach. The director is a long-term Labour supporter who has this month been involved in advising Momentum volunteers on how to make viral videos as part of the  #videosbythemany twitter campaign.

Labour’s manifesto promises £1 billion to upgrade and build museums, galleries, and libraries. The manifesto also pledges to initiate a new “Town of Culture” competition to complement the existing UK City of Culture award, a quadrennial award for the city with the best cultural program. In addition, Labour’s education pledges include an “arts pupil premium,” providing £175 million of extra funding each year to give primary school students access to creative and cultural experiences.

The main cultural pledge of the Liberal Democrats revolves around their commitment to revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit. This would ensure continued freedom of movement for creative practitioners between the UK and the EU, while allowing continued access to EU funds for culture. This pledge, which in itself adds nothing to cultural policy-making, is actually matched by Labour as part of their renegotiation of a Brexit deal, which is to include a clause ensuring: “continued participation in EU agencies and funding programs, including in such vital areas of co-operation as the environment, scientific research and culture.”

In addition, Labour’s pledge to create a cradle-to-grave National Education Service — which would include six years of adult education for all citizens — and its promise of free broadband for all households both serve to boost the arts and creative enterprise. All in all, Labour’s £1 billion Cultural Capital Fund places culture firmly at the center of public spending policy, a point perhaps overlooked due to the pro-Tory media bias in the UK. Clearly Labour’s cultural policy is aligned with Corbyn’s wider aim and eventual legacy of putting a socialist agenda at the heart of UK politics. Labour’s manifesto demonstrates that in order to achieve that, a fostering of both individual creative potential and cultural community projects will prove essential.