- Interview by
- Juliet Jacques
The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a crisis for millions across Britain, but few sectors have been as hard hit as the arts. From mass redundancies at the Tate to the closure of Cineworld and Rishi Sunak’s suggestion that culture workers might need to find new jobs, the sector has been devastated by corporate and government mismanagement as much as any virus.
In this segment of a recent interview with Suite 212’s Juliet Jacques, Jeremy Corbyn discusses his perspective on the challenges facing the arts in Britain – and what motivated him to place such an emphasis on it during his time as Labour leader. The wider discussion – which can be listened to in full here – ranges from his appreciation of Chilean singer Víctor Jara to Jennie Lee’s White Paper on the arts and the videography employed by the Labour Party in the past five years.
But in this segment, Corbyn discusses the importance of the arts to his worldview, the need for funding for grassroots initiatives – and why culture workers should keep fighting for a proper support package from the government.
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One thing that won me over to your leadership campaign in 2015 was the sense of approaching politics with an artistic conscience, and a sense of having an artistic vision, and indeed a 10-page policy for the arts. You said in 2015 that in every one of us there’s a poet, a writer of songs, an artist or a creative thinker, and I wanted to ask how central this premise was to your political vision.
To me, it is very important, because the way people exercise their imagination, the way they think about things isn’t necessarily in a compartmentalised way. Poetry covers all kinds of emotions and ideas. It’s artistic, it’s descriptive, it’s historical, it’s emotional, it’s personal, it’s angry, it’s happy, it’s sad. It’s everything, and many novelists and artists actually think very deeply about lots of other subjects.
What I was trying to say in my leadership campaign was that we have to unlock the creative, particularly in young people, and let their imaginations fly, because too often young people are forced into very specific subject learning in school. Often as young as 14 or so, and not given enough space to actually develop, and so I thought that one way of helping this sense of creativity in people, particularly young people, was to have a premium with ringfenced spending for arts expenditure in school, so that every child would get to learn a musical instrument, to do theatre, painting or other kinds of creative art.
I’m involved with a number of local voluntary young people’s theatre groups and it is amazing, young people coming along who are not necessarily doing terribly well in conventional school education, but suddenly find themselves when they’re given the space to write a play or collaborate with others on writing, so it’s unlocking that potential, something I was very keen on. Our movement, the labour movement was always born out of a combination of the scientific and the political, in the sense of an analysis of the economic and social conditions, but it was also born out of the creative.
And so some of the great writings are by people who themselves led very poor and difficult lives, but nevertheless were able to write about it. The miners’ institutes from the 18th and 19th centuries on always had libraries and encouraged people to write, and poetry that goes with it, so I think there’s a great tradition there. I’m very proud that we managed to develop an arts policy, and in the 2019 election had a very comprehensive arts policy that we launched at the Theatre Royal in Stratford.
Something that was of interest to me, supporting your campaign, was the prominent anti-austerity aspect. £82 million was cut from the Arts Council budget between 2010-15. There were arts funding cuts of up to 100% in certain places – Newcastle in 2013, for example – and a lot of closures of arts organisations outside of London. It’s noticeable that all of the Conservative cultural secretaries under the David Cameron government trained as economists or accountants. What do you think is the significance of that?
The amount of money involved in terms of national budget and the economy for the arts is not that great. They could easily afford to maintain, if not expand, Arts Council founding. If they want an economic argument, the cultural industries bring in an awful lot of tourists and are actually big engines of economic growth, although I think one should look at art for all kinds of benefits – not just that.
During the Thatcher period, they were just frightened at the prospect of what they saw as loads of creative socialists running subsidised theatres all over the country. My great friend, the late great Tony Banks MP, was a member of the Greater London Council (GLC) when Ken Livingstone was leader in 1981.
Tony was prominent, competent, capable, and he wanted to be chair of the arts committee, because he wanted to put that money into popular theatre and popular art. So he would be funding local theatres, and this became in turn a pressure on the government. And while he loved the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre and so on, he saw it as equally important to promote theatre spending in all parts of London.
Indeed, my discussions with the Arts Council were that yes, I understand the need to fund national institutions like Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre and so on, but if they don’t give support and opportunity to local authority-run theatres, to local theatre groups, and give them a leg up and a way to start out in life, then where are the actors of tomorrow coming from?
We already have a hugely disproportionate number of the major actors in our society that come from public school, as indeed do many of the great musicians. They are great actors, they are great musicians – I’m not condemning them. I’m just saying that if the public schools, which are actually a small minority of the entire education community, can produce so many wonderful people, think with proper funding what all the state schools could produce as well, and how much stronger our artistic life and society would be.
Let me just give you an example of how art for young people can be a liberating experience. There’s one local theatre group, this is a community theatre, said that they would do a play produced by the young people about child soldiers, which is a difficult subject by any stretch. I think three of the young people acting in the play had been child soldiers in West Africa, so for them it was, well, a difficult and interesting experience.
I thought it was a difficult play to do, edgy in lots of ways, and emotionally draining on all of the young people acting in it. I went to see this play and was watching the reaction of the audience around me, and they were in turn horrified it was happening, horrified we had the play on, shocked by the content of it, appalled by the messages they were hearing, and at the end very impressed with the way in which the young people did it. It was an emotional journey for those young people, but I think that’s what good art, good theatre is about.
After the 2019 election you were pictured wearing a t-shirt with a Pablo Neruda quote that said ‘you can cut all the flowers, but you can’t stop the coming of spring.’ You were wearing it again when I met you recently at the protest at the Tate Modern over Tate Enterprises letting 313 staff go.
The impact of the pandemic on the arts looks potentially catastrophic. The Creative Industries Foundation in June said that the arts sector would lose £74 billion in revenue and potential loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, and we’ve seen the Southbank Centre, Cineworld and various other places project or make huge layoffs. Recently, we’ve heard Rishi Sunak suggesting that artists and particularly musicians might have to retrain.
These all seem quite difficult and depressing circumstances, what would you suggest to the people who supported your Labour Party because of your approach to the arts that they do in the current conditions?
Keep at it. Keep writing those letters. Be the strongest possible form of protest to Rishi Sunak and others, and make the point of the value of the arts to wellbeing of everybody, of a strong artistic opportunity for people, as well as the economic arguments that go with it.
The reason I wore the Pablo Neruda t-shirt is that I’m a great admirer of Neruda and his poetry, but also what a message. They can cut all the flowers, but spring is going to come around again. This was my way of saying to people don’t give up hope, don’t give up action, don’t give up opportunity.
The people that are going through the hardest times now are those that are locked down, suffering mental health difficulties, feeling a sense of isolation and feeling a sense of fear of what the future can bring for them. If all that Rishi Sunak can offer is cuts to arts budgets, telling people to retrain for jobs that may not be there, cutting funding for our councils and privatising services, then we are straight back to the politics and economics of the 1930s. And that led to systemic unemployment of several million people right up to the beginning of the Second World War.
The only way has to be investment and has to be doing things for the public good, and recognising that we can deal with both the mental health and emotional issues that people face, as well as the environmental problems that we all face, by a collective approach. It is a collective approach of investment for the future, and that is something that I feel very strongly about. I spend all of my time now campaigning on what I’ve always done: peace, justice and human rights.