The arts can imagine alternatives: Chi Onwurah MP introduces the AV arts festival

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Combat au bout de la nuit
Combat au bout de la nuit
Film still by Sylvain de l'Espeurance

Chi Onwurah MP made the following address at the opening of the biannual AV Festival in Newcastle upon Tyne recently.

You know the mining institute is one of my favourite buildings in the city, built by engineers, enjoyed by everyone. But as I stand here with Rebecca opposite the picture gallery – all these paintings of men, well, they may be Geordie men but they are very like all the paintings of men which follow me around the houses of parliament. And it’s ironic that it should be two women championing the telling of our stories in the face of all these men! But I want to start by saying how great it is to be opening the the AV Festival – again!


As I said last time I was here, I was sorry to see the demise of the Tyneside Film Festival. It was a great reflection of the region, focusing as it did on politically engaged film making. But we still have the Tyneside Cinema, best cinema in the world, and I’m pleased that we still have such a wide range of quality cultural events like the AV Festival and the Newcastle International Film Festival which is launching later this month.

Not only do events like this benefit those lucky enough to call Newcastle home but they draw in visitors from all over the country and the world too. The AV Festival has been doing that work here for fifteen years and looking ahead at this year’s programme I hope you’re all as excited as I am.

Road to Wigan Pier

The theme for this year continues to be The Road to Wigan Pier – picking up where the last festival left off two years ago. As The Road to Wigan Pier is a two-part book, it is fitting that we are now returning to ‘Part Two’ of the Festival.

I first read the book when I was 12 or 13. When people ask how I got my political education, I say listening to my mum, reading George Orwell and growing up in the eighties. The first part of the book was about trying to convey the real lives, the very real poverty and struggle that ordinary working class people lived through every day, albeit through the eyes of an Old Etonian. The second half is a long political essay in which Orwell describes his middle-class upbringing and questions British attitudes towards socialism.

Two years ago during ‘Part One’ of the Festival, the context was very different. Labour’s bitter defeat of the 2015 election was still fresh in the memory, we were trailing in the polls, austerity was hegemonic, working people were suffering. And the Brexit referendum was looming. When Osborne wasn’t on TV smirking about the virtues of his zombie economics, it was Farage saying that UK needed to ‘take back control of our borders’. So in 2016 the question ‘what about socialism?’ could have been met with a shrug. ‘What about it?’

A broken economic model

In 2018 it still may not be question on everyone’s lips, but when even the Financial Times is asking if the country needs a socialist Chancellor, it is clear that a lot has changed. Since 2016 the country has voted to leave the European Union – a fact that I am sure passed none of you by. It makes me angry when commentators blame Brexit and its consequences – rising hate crime, paralysing economic uncertainty – on the Northern working class, those ‘left behind’ by globalisation. It’s especially ironic given that the ‘Brexit revolution’ was led by a Surrey stockbroker and an old Etonian.

But the vote for Brexit was driven in part by a broken economic model. And I believe it that it was a backlash against this model that led in part to Labour’s unexpected success at the last election. Our message won hearts and minds across the country, we gained 10 percentage points and over 30 MPs. Our party now has almost 600,000 members, and our youth wing has more members than the entire Conservative party.

Two years ago at this festival visual artists from Newcastle and beyond were able to shine a light on Britain’s injustices and provide – in Rebecca’s words – ‘historical foregrounding to the theme’, much as Orwell did in the first half of the Road to Wigan Pier. In 2018, I believe we’re now better equipped to do what Orwell did in the second half of his book – analyse, discuss, and imagine an alternative. To return to that question ‘What about socialism?’

Imagining the alternative

I’ve always admired the power of the arts to inspire and inform on a whole range of important issues, to respond viscerally to the important issues affecting our city, our country and our planet.
Art can illustrate – as I, Daniel Blake did so powerfully – the callousness of Tory welfare policies, the precariousness of modern work, the reality of poverty. But it can also inspire people, can help them to imagine and articulate alternatives to the world we live in.

Too often in recent years our future has been seen as something to be determined by investors, financial speculators, and Whitehall mandarins – not people on the streets of Newcastle. Festivals are an antidote to this. They are unique in the way they inspire interest and allow the power of contemporary culture to burst forth. This festival creates, captures and harnesses the energy of visual artists and visitors alike around a particular theme.

I am proud to call myself a socialist. In Newcastle we never stopped calling ourselves socialists, even if some of my comrades elsewhere in the Labour Party did. There is no shortage of issues that need socialism in today’s world. Be it the rise of foodbanks, the desperate plight of refugees, children in poverty – more than 50% of children in some wards in my constituency - the insecurity of modern life, the lack of diversity at the top and throughout many institutions and organisations. The fact remains that today, just as in Orwell’s time, for the disadvantaged, for the poor, for refugees, for those discriminated against and those without opportunity socialism remains the best and indeed the only recourse to achieve a society where everyone can reach their full potential.

My hope is that by the end of this festival, there will be more people in Newcastle and beyond who will join me and those of us here in calling themselves proud socialists too.

Read 1171 times Last modified on Saturday, 10 March 2018 12:07