Given how high the stakes feel in this general election – regarding the environmental crisis, Brexit, the NHS and other public services, poverty, and inequality – it may seem that the arts are not a priority. Perhaps not, but as with every other issue put to the British public on 12 December, the choice between the two main parties’ arts policies could not be clearer.
As they have decided not to release their manifesto until two weeks before the polling date, we don’t yet know what the Conservative approach will be. Any attempt to guess is complicated by the fact that Nicky Morgan, the current Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, is one of 74 MPs who will not be standing for re-election. Since 2010, the Conservatives have often given the position to a rising minister with a taste for austerity. During the coalition period, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid and Maria Miller – all trained as economists – held the role, which has changed hands four times since David Cameron’s resignation in July 2016.
Over the last ten years, the Conservatives have valued the arts, like everything else, in purely fiscal terms, and while they have shifted their language on public spending, nobody should be expecting them to reverse funding cuts, or to backtrack on their 2017 manifesto commitment to make 90% of British schoolchildren study ‘academic GCSEs’ – an English Baccalaureate definition that excludes the arts – by 2025.
They made tokenist gestures towards their commitment to more investment outside London, moving Channel 4’s national HQ to Leeds and staging the Great Exhibition of the North at the Baltic Gallery in Newcastle and Gateshead in 2018, although this, like so much else under this administration, was underfunded and consequently underwhelming. Given the nature of the Tory campaign, I anticipate less of these concrete proposals and more of the last manifesto’s rhetoric about post-Brexit Britain’s ‘voice on the world stage and as a global force for good’, doubtless ramped up even more with Boris Johnson’s trademark bluster.
As an aside, it has been intriguing to see the Liberal Democrats’ campaign, which has itself seemed like conceptual art, created either by Russian propagandist Vladislav Surkov or Dada Manifesto author Tristan Tzara. Since it began with Best for Britain flooding the public sphere with tactical voting advice based on avant-garde psephology, limply defended on Sky News by Luciana Berger – herself recently of the Andy Kaufman-inspired Change UK – it has spiralled out of its creators’ control.
In response to the Lib Dems’ disinformatsiya, a story circulated on Twitter about party leader Jo Swinson killing squirrels for fun. This made its way to LBC radio, who asked Swinson to deny it. Unsubstantiated and almost certainly untrue, then, but no more absurd than Swinson’s claim that she would be the next prime minister, and even if she could, the fact that her deputy leader Ed Davey remains the last politician in the UK to use the phrase ‘magic money tree’ promises little move away from their coalition arts cuts days.
Speaking of deputy leaders, another MP standing down is Tom Watson, who has attracted far more attention for occupying this role within Labour Party than as Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. His relationship with both the Labour leadership and membership has often been strained and consequently, the more radical interventions that have come from either Corbyn and McDonnell or conference resolutions have not made such an impact on the party’s arts policies. Whoever replaces Watson in the position, there are reasons for optimism.
Labour’s manifesto promises to maintain free access to national museums and galleries, and establish a £1bn Cultural Capital Fund, to be administered by Arts Council England, to improve infrastructure and invest in ‘creative clusters’ across the UK. In contrast to the Tories’ policy on secondary education, Labour proposes an arts pupil premium, drawn from an annual budget of £160m, to ensure that all British students could take part in drama and dance, learn a musical instrument, and regularly access galleries, museums and theatres.
But most notable in this year’s Labour manifesto is its joined-up thinking, with headline-grabbing policies in other areas likely to impact positively on the arts. The establishment of a National Education Service and abolition of university tuition fees will allow a more diverse range of people to study the arts; the decision to tackle the casualisation of labour should allow more artists and writers to sustain themselves with steady jobs and share their practices with students; the reversal to benefit cuts and the abolition of Universal Credit could it easier for people to follow their creative dreams rather than simply being railroaded into menial work.
One effect of all this should be to open up the arts – and the media, which is often where arts and politics meet – to people from more diverse backgrounds. During the coalition period in particular, British pop culture often felt anodyne, dominated by the privately educated, who at best did nothing to question the prevailing order and at worst, upheld or glorified it.
That glorification of the upper classes may yet lead to the coronation of hack journalist and Have I Got News for You sideshow Boris Johnson – a man who, like Donald Trump, Beppe Grillo and Volodymyr Zelenskiy, embodies the grim conclusion to a right-wing takeover of culture that began here in the 1980s with Rupert Murdoch’s aggressive assault on the media. Artists can play a vital role in changing the culture that allows people like Johnson to prosper – and in this election, only Labour are offering the tools that they need.