The Arts Will Die Under Grey Labour

Keir Starmer just doesn’t care.

by Juliet Jacques

18 June 2024

Keir Starmer surrounded by red "change" placards
Keir Starmer attends a campaign event in Crewe, 13 June 2024. Photo: Reuters/Phil Noble

Keir Starmer’s long-running media campaign to discredit the manifesto on which he himself stood in 2019 has largely ignored its section on the arts. Five years ago, Jeremy Corbyn promised not just to maintain free access to national museums and galleries – a flagship New Labour policy, introduced piecemeal between 1997 and 2001 – and establish a £1bn Cultural Capital Fund, administered by Arts Council England, to be invested in “creative clusters” across the United Kingdom. Corbyn also proposed an arts pupil premium, drawn from an annual budget of £160m, to ensure all British school students could take part in drama and dance; learn a musical instrument; and regularly access galleries, theatres and museums.

These ideas, all featured in the 2017 as well as the 2019 manifesto, tied in with other policies in related fields: the establishment of a National Education Service and the abolition of university tuition fees to allow a more diverse range of people to study the arts; measures to fight the casualisation of labour, which might have allowed more artists and writers to sustain themselves with steady jobs; the reversal of benefit cuts and the abolition of Universal Credit, which could have made it easier for people without independent means to follow their creative dreams rather than being railroaded into higher-earning jobs.

Starmer’s speech at the “Labour Creatives” conference in March might have inspired a little hope that at least some of these Corbyn-era proposals would be retained, rather than backsliding almost entirely on the arts and culture. The National Education Service – an ambitious idea that would have required serious thinking, large-scale investment, a belief in the importance of adult education and a commitment to universal public services – was always likely to disappear, with Starmer dropping the abolition of tuition fees, and Rachel Reeves constantly intimating that public spending will be bound by “fiscal rules”.

Starmer attacked the Conservatives for having “no strategy for the arts”. On the contrary, the party’s mission has long been clear: the Tories have slashed regional arts budgets, by 100% in some cities; trebled tuition fees thus making arts degrees feel indulgent to anyone not from a wealthy background; and frozen funding for the BBC, which in the past has provided work and exposure to numerous British artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians.

Writing in the Guardian, Charlotte Higgins said she had “never heard a Labour leader talk about the arts like this”, prompting me to wonder where she was when Jeremy Corbyn launched his Arts for Everyone policy at London’s Arcola Theatre in 2015, told a packed stadium about the value of cultural expression in 2017 or appeared at Glastonbury weeks later.

Higgins conceded that Starmer’s speech was “short on detail”, as is “customary from the Labour leader and his senior team”, insisting that its importance was in him speaking more extensively and passionately about the arts than his inspiration and mentor, Tony Blair. Now, Higgins wrote, “I hope words become action”, rather than just apparent good vibes. This looks unlikely to be the case.

Blink and you miss it.

When the Labour manifesto came out on Thursday, Higgins was one of the first to register her disappointment at the “blink-and-you-miss-it” culture section that “could have been written by an AI generator”. The manifesto, entitled “Change” has a fittingly greyscale picture of Starmer on its cover, looking like he’s about to report you to senior management (it’s been clear since he became leader that the best graphic designers were all Corbynites). The manifesto does not even have a specific section on the arts, but is instead broken into vague, corporate-sounding chapters such as “Mission-driven government” and “Strong foundations”. After looking at the website for two minutes, I guessed the arts policies would be found under “Break down barriers to opportunity”.

The opening paragraph was encouraging, talking about how arts and music “will no longer be the preserve of the privileged few”. There are a handful of sentences that sound superficially convincing but withstand little scrutiny: Labour will “implement our creative industries sector plan … creating good jobs and accelerating growth” in cultural sectors, the manifesto pledges, tying the importance of the arts to profitability, in the same way that successive Conservative governments have done. It will “work constructively with the BBC and other public service broadcasters” – though without any discussion of their funding. Then there’s the promise of a legal crackdown, so beloved of the Labour right, on ticket touts.

There’s little else in the four paragraphs on the arts (one of which diverts to sport in its second sentence). They promise to “support children to study a creative or vocational subject until they are 16” – whatever “support” means – and to “ensure accountability measures reflect this’. Only slightly less insubstantially, they propose a National Music Education Network – “a one-stop shop with information on courses and classes for parents, teachers and children”. There is no promise to invest in them, just to tell people what already exists. It might well just be a website – impossible to tell, really – as there is no more detail than that, and notably, not a single monetary figure anywhere in the section.

If all this sounds lazy and vague, then no matter: Starmer knows that with every sector of British capital backing him in return for banishing any talk of wealth redistribution, the press will insulate him from difficult questions and turn its hoses on Sunak’s Conservatives, who have swiftly collapsed without the media backing they’ve enjoyed since the mid-2000s. Ideologically exhausted after 14 years in office, the Conservative manifesto is even shorter on ideas, bolstered to 80 pages by the inclusion of numerous cover pages and Union Jacks, and the section on sport and the creative sectors is just one page. It begins with the grammatically dubious assertion: “At the core of our national and local identities is culture and sport”.

It opens with sport, before emphasising apprenticeships as a way into creative industries, with a second and final paragraph on the arts playing up the Culture Recovery Fund during the Covid-19 pandemic, with the vague promise to ensure that “creators are properly protected and remunerated for their work” – something I’ve not noticed them do much while in government. Ominously, the paragraph closes by saying this will happen “whilst also making the most of the opportunities of AI and its applications for creativity” – which are only likely to take away work from copywriters, illustrators and other freelancers in cultural fields.

It’s hard to disagree with the Liberal Democrats’ assessment of their former coalition partners’ arts policies since 2010: “They have downgraded the status of arts subjects at school, slashed funding for them at university, and erected new barriers to British musicians and actors performing elsewhere in Europe following our withdrawal from the EU.” This at least provides evidence of some joined-up thinking about education, and the arts, although it leaves tuition fees pointedly unmentioned given the debacle under Nick Clegg.

The manifesto does, however, commit to “free and simple short-term travel arrangements” for British artists to perform in European Union countries and vice versa, as might be expected from the party that made stopping Brexit its priority until the 2019 election. Otherwise, they mostly advocate defensive moves against cuts and privatisation: keeping the BBC, BBC Alba, S4C and Channel 4 publicly owned and, like Corbyn’s Labour, maintaining free access to national museums and galleries (Campaign for the Arts are summarising the other parties’ arts policies as they emerge).

It’s giving nothing.

The Conservative manifesto can most likely be ignored. Unless they swiftly find a way to bring Reform voters into the fold, as they did with the Brexit Party in 2019, it will be defeated, and its campaign is largely about factions and individuals jockeying for position after Sunak steps down. The arts are one thing on which they’re fairly unified – as Michael Rosen put it in a Defend the Arts rally with me in 2021, philistinism is a core plank of their ideology, besides authoritarianism and neoliberalism. No potential Tory leader is likely to argue for more public arts funding – it’s far more likely for them to push for it to be entirely abolished. You can ignore the Lib Dem one too: Ed Davey looks like someone who knows he’s not going to win just as much as Sunak, but at least he’s enjoying it, moving from the world’s most cringeworthy visual metaphors after by-election wins to a campaign based around pratfalling for journalists.

This captures what’s so strange about this artless election: we all know the media, as enforcers of oligarchs’ interests, will work with useful MPs to destroy any party that addresses the UK’s multiple overlapping crises, all of which require taxation for investment, a turn away from Atlanticist foreign policy, or both. As a result, the main parties dare not make any such concrete suggestions, with the Conservatives having nothing to offer besides culture wars, and Labour desperately trying not to propose anything for which they might later be held accountable. Starmer could make concrete promises in his party’s leadership election in 2020, backed up by slick, professionally produced videos emphasising his apparent socialist credentials because the electorate had been so totally demonised over the previous five years. The media has therefore had to step around the obvious question of “If you lied to your party, and the People’s Vote campaign, why wouldn’t you lie to the country?”

With Reeves endlessly using the language of austerity, the public is not so stupid as not to know this is as big a scam as Brexit or Boris Johnson (who at least never posed as a man of integrity) and despise all the major parties, resulting in campaigns from which not just material concerns but the people themselves are absent, epitomised by Labour parachutist Luke Akehurst’s comically depopulated campaign video.

Yet even given my searing hatred of the Labour right – which I think was grown in a laboratory to suck the joy out of the labour movement – I’m surprised that the manifesto’s arts policies are so pathetic. Starmer’s passion for literature and music is genuine, even if his way of doing politics makes him sound howlingly insincere even when talking about his toolmaker father, and a robust arts offering might have been a way to offset the continued privatisation, austerity and genocide that will likely follow a Labour win. Clement Attlee founded the Arts Council and hosted the Festival of Britain; Harold Wilson set up the Open University and the National Theatre; Blair allowed for the Tate Modern and many regional museums, most of which remain open, and drastically increased arts funding.

Allowing for cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s assertion that the Labour right has no quality ideas and is only animated by its struggle against the left, Starmer’s Labour might have passed some of Corbyn’s proposals off as their own, even if they were somewhat watered down – this was the approach offered in Starmer’s leadership pitch, after all. But no: they’ve shifted so far to the right that not even the promise to retain free access to the national galleries and museums that their own faction introduced has made it into the manifesto. With that, we see that David Cameron’s ideological victory over Labour, personified in Starmer and Reeves, has been as total as that of Margaret Thatcher forcing the party into Blairism 30 years earlier. Even if Labour win their projected super-majority, you’re getting nothing transformative for the arts. If you’re lucky, and it had somehow never occurred to you to use Google, you might be able to click on a website and find your least expensive local piano lesson.

Juliet Jacques is a writer, filmmaker, broadcaster and academic.

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