Rebuilding Culture in the Labour Movement: collaborations for the future and celebrations of the past.
Sunday, 21 January 2018 16:30

Rebuilding Culture in the Labour Movement: collaborations for the future and celebrations of the past.

Published in Cultural Commentary

Dr Rebecca Hillman, University of Exeter, reflects on the importance of rebuilding the cultural wing of the labour movement.

Since 2013, a group of political artists, trade unionists and academics have been meeting to plan events to bring together people from across the UK left, to share information about ongoing industrial action, campaigns and organising drives - and artistic strategies which might strengthen those initiatives.

The idea was partly to provide a platform for a kind of cultural/political matchmaking, if you will. That is, the events would introduce people interested in integrating cultural practice into their day-to-day political work, and artists making politically conscious work that was not yet embedded in the broader movement, to seasoned organisers, activists and artists. The events would also provide space for artists from different backgrounds and with diverse approaches and expertise to exchange ideas, hone their practices and potentially form new collaborations. Furthermore, these events would celebrate and revivify some of the extremely rich histories of culture operating at the core of collective struggle, whose documentation is still relatively sparse.

The hope was that all this would galvanise incentive, provide orientation, and build skills across various cohorts on the left, and, in so doing, would weave strong and colourful cultural threads through broader political structures. The events would also provide space for crucial discussion on challenges and opportunities that the movement faces today, for example: changes in technology and the role of social media; challenges of an increasingly casualised and precarious workforce; the prospect of increased automation; significant shifts in policies and practices of trade unions, and of political parties, and so on.

The following text is a short speech I delivered at the Liberating Arts Festival earlier this month, the second and the largest of the two events that have taken place so far to the ends outlined above. There is so much the speech doesn’t cover in terms of processes, achievements, and areas for development/future plans. However, it marks the event, and begins to sketch some of the contexts and ideas that informed it. For now, the rest is for a longer publication, which will have to follow. 

Speech to participants at the Liberating Arts Festival, Roborough Studios, University of Exeter, 4th November, 2017.

Welcome to the University of Exeter. Thank you for being here today to share this space with us, as well as your rich ideas and contributions for creating, sustaining, remembering, and developing political culture. My name is Rebecca Hillman. I’m a lecturer in the Drama Department here, and have been working on a longer-term project, of which this event forms a part, with Banner Theatre, the General Federation of Trade Unions, Reel News and Townsend Productions, overall, over the course of about 4 years!

I’m thrilled that we’ve been brought together today, from locations across the UK and beyond, to discuss – and celebrate – how art and politics have intersected and functioned in political movements past and present… and, crucially, to build relationships with one another as we talk about, and even begin to practice the development of those relationships and intersections for the future.

Townsend We Are Lions

Townsend Productions, We Are The Lions, Mr Manager! at the Liberating Arts Festival 

I’m pleased, and proud, that we are gathered in the University of Exeter’s Drama Department. Exeter Drama has (for 50 years next year!) been the home of research and teaching with radical and progressive underpinnings. Our students, many of whom were helping out today, continue to undertake exciting political work with insight, passion and curiosity, through critical and practical experimentation in the department, and in the wider community.

As for this event and the overarching project, the aim has always been to strengthen and create new bridges between trade union organising and other left activism, art practice and educational work. It feels like a great achievement to be sharing this platform, and the activities today, with people from different occupations and walks of life, and to have representation across different generations of political artists and organisers. It’s been challenging but important to hold some of these different contingents at the core of the organisation of this project, as well as to reflect this, as far as possible, in the structure of the programme, which offers diverse expertise from those pushing the boundaries of cultural and political practice.

My own interest in these ideas stems from my work as a theatre maker and trade unionist, whose practice has been facilitated and enriched through intellectual exchange, financial support, and comradeship from trade unions and trade councils. Meanwhile, I consider my own most successful attempts at political organising to have happened in the rehearsal room, the performance, and the post-show discussion. That is, it’s happened when people have had the space and time to express themselves creatively and to work with others over a duration, and to discover ways to powerfully communicate their experiences. Many of us in this room will have used artistic forms to amplify our voices to speak back to power, and to communicate with one another. We understand that artistic processes can help us discover that we’re not alone; help us discover our strength as a chorus, or crew, company, or collective. I often think of director/playwright/agitator John McGrath’s words (in relation to theatre specifically), that ‘the basic imperative of solidarity – that what happens to other people matters: these things theatre can embody, in its forms and processes’ (Nadine Holdsworth (ed.) Naked Thoughts that Roam About: Reflections on Theatre).

Political art can help us deconstruct the past and imagine better futures. It can articulate a political problem to us, more clearly than we’ve heard it before. It can win an argument, and encourage us to think critically. It can pack an emotional punch; moving us in ways we can’t quite put our finger on or put into words, but that we carry with us. Maybe it’s something to do with the way the light falls on a performer’s face… or the way she looks you in the eye…. or the way a harmony in song, or sharing a space, physically, with people from your community who you’ve never met before, makes you catch your breath, or cry, or laugh, or shout, or want to leave the room. Art can introduce us to new ideas and feelings, start conversations, and friendships, and strengthen our resolve to undertake, or continue with, the hard graft of making change. It can create powerful infrastructures, and ‘cultures of feeling’. It can begin to intervene in the very structures of our reality, changing our environment, and our behaviour. It has been recognised and used effectively to these ends by political agitators and organisers over centuries.

Many of you will be very familiar with the rich history that cultural workers and trade unionists share; how they’ve tackled collectively ideological, practical and financial challenges (many of which, unfortunately, still resonate today - remarkably closely in some cases). In the 1960s and 1970s in the UK organisations were developed by artists making politically radical work, to provide infrastructure and support for their practice. For example, Agitprop was set up in 1968 to provide (and I quote) ‘a comprehensive information and communications service for all those […] working towards a revolutionary transformation of our society’ (Catherine Itzin, Stages in the Revolution: Political Theatre in Britain Since 1968). Impressively, this included an Entertainments Booking Agency, a Lawyers’ Group, a Publicity Group, a Music Group, a Special Effects Group, and a Street Theatre Group, as well as publications, libraries and conferences to disseminate information, and coordinate operations!

Meanwhile, the formation in the mid-70s of TACT (The Association of Community Theatres), the TWU (Theatre Writer’s Union) and the ITC (Independent Theatre Council) gave practical, creative and financial support to ‘alternative’ theatre-makers, providing a central base for equipment for hire/loan/sale; helping playwrights win the living wage, and helping groups define their own identities when the Arts Council’s criteria was found to be limiting and exclusive. Supported by such endeavors, collaborative projects evolved between artists, unions and housing associations, for example. Theatre companies performed at meetings, on picket lines and mass protests, in working men’s clubs, and in factories, schools and hospitals. We’re so privileged today to have representation from groups who were involved with, and who continue that work (in fact, I’m speaking through Banner Theatre’s microphone right now!)

Over the last few years, brilliant initiatives have emerged that begin to recall that legacy, in terms of their approaches to engagement and/or their integration into political movements. A few examples of this in terms of groups who are with us today or who presented work at our last event in December 2016, include the Artists’ Union, founded last year; Reel News who have documented strike action up and down the country and disseminated this far and wide; Brandalism’s campaigning through street art in the run up to the general election this summer; and Salford Community Theatre, who have worked with their community to create spaces of political consciousness and solidarity, in the process bringing people together with labour movement activists, and blurring the lines between performance and protest.

Love on the Dole

Salford Community Theatre's production of Love on the Dole, 2016 (Colin Armstrong Photography)

And there are many other examples, of course… like Common Wealth Theatre’s We’re Still Here, which took place a few months ago at the Port Talbot steel works, and which told the story of the Save Our Steel campaign through the eyes of local people; Ken Loach’s I Daniel Blake, which premiered at Momentum’s 2016 The World Transformed, before touring community centres, labour clubs and foodbanks to raise money for those whose lives have been carved up by relocation, benefit sanctions, precarious contracts, the running down and the privatization of public services, and a raft of other symptoms of dogged neoliberal governance. The World Transformed itself, of course, which aims to function as the cultural (left) wing of the Labour Party, provides an interesting model with scope for networking and infrastructures to support relevant practice. There have also been various initiatives by Collective Encounters (who today happen to be running an event on kick-starting cultural activism projects!) … I could easily go on.

So, these are exciting times! But, as ever, there’s much work to be done. There’s a case for rebuilding a cultural wing to the labour movement that is far more tightly integrated and more firmly supported than it is presently. What this might look like, and how to make steps towards it are the fundamental questions driving these events. It is an ambitious undertaking, but it is essential if we are to rebuild the strength of our movement so that it can respond with power and dexterity to many current forthcoming changes and challenges.

My general impression over the past decade, though things are beginning to shift, is that there is a disconnect between many - particularly young - political artists and the broader movement. Also, though, that the moment we’re in, slippery as it is to hold onto long enough to define, provides unique opportunities. We have recently witnessed an influx of young people into political consciousness and activity in this country. They have, and will continue (sadly) to respond to privatisation, precarity and poverty, but also to political figures and cultural activists bold enough to carve out a socialist politics in late capitalism. Their response has manifest recently from the doorstep to branch meetings and to the ballot box; from social media to mass protests; through quiz nights, karaoke, boxing clubs, grime, street theatre, strike action, benefit gigs, community theatre projects and hilarious memes - all of which has been facilitated by expert networking.

Those of us involved at the outset of this project - the one we’re part of today - couldn’t quite envision this burgeoning of organised, creative political engagement, which was just around the corner. Or, how young people, and others who were previously disengaged would channel their anger - including, by the way, those who may not fit neatly into conceptions of what ‘the left’ looks like. What we can learn from each other, across perceived differences, so that political culture is something useful and relevant, powerful and integrated, and so it is understood that it is socialism that answers our immediate class interests, should be our greatest priority as we move forwards.

Please keep in touch. Thanks for being here. Have a fantastic night.

banner theatre Rise Like Lions

Rise, Like Lions! Performed at the Liberating Arts Festival

A full list of the sessions, which included a wide range of workshops, discussions and performances is available here.