Mike Quille praises the radical, realistic and visionary approach to culture in the Labour Manifesto
The 2017 Labour manifesto was a step-change in Labour’s approach to culture, breaking free from dominant neoliberal assumptions that state support for culture is just about attracting investment and increasing tourism.
Those assumptions, typical of New Labour’s retreat from socialist values, still underpin the manifestos of the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. In marked contrast, Labour’s genuinely new approach recognises the collective, creative and transformative power of culture, its potential to enhance and enrich our lives and how it can help build a more humane, equal and harmonious society.
Confidently based on values of equality, inclusion and social justice, the current manifesto contains a comprehensive set of plans to tackle all the problems of cultural access, underfunding and unfairness, including class-based exclusion and discrimination. Even official funding and management bodies dominated by rich and powerful cultural elites, like Arts Council England, have been forced to acknowledge these problems in their recent analyses and planning proposals for Culture Compacts. But Labour is the only party with detailed commitments to tackle the full range of real problems faced by “the many.” Some of these commitments form a new Charter for the Arts which, as the recent Tribune letter signed by over 500 creative and cultural workers shows, is immensely popular in the culture industries.
Those workers, as well as all of us who enjoy artistic, sporting and other cultural activities, stand to gain hugely if Labour win.
For young people, the Arts Pupil Premium for primary school children, better funding for arts education in secondary school and rebuilding youth services will improve younger generations’ appreciation of culture, as creators and performers and as consumers and audiences.
For creative and cultural workers, the commitments to involve trade unions more in tackling diversity issues, together with the general strengthening of trade-union rights, will improve wages and help tackle the growing gig economy in the creative industries. It will also reduce class-based discrimination in recruitment and career advancement – depending on the sector, only between 10 and 18 per cent of cultural workers are from working-class backgrounds.
For most of us, who want to enjoy some kind of cultural experience, there are huge variations between what’s available in the London area and in city centres and what’s available elsewhere. So Labour are committing to a £1 billion Cultural Capital fund for libraries, museums and galleries and to start new Town of Culture projects, aimed at neglected communities and regions.
That commitment to rebalancing cultural support could be truly transformational when linked to the other new commitment to tackling the inadequate representation of working-class people on stage and screen. Encouraging more and better representation of working people’s lives and experiences in plays, films, exhibitions, poetry and fiction would be a much-needed boost to social solidarity, inclusion and equality. Over the last few years of austerity economics and Brexit politics, Britain has become riven with all kinds of divisions and differences, and equalising the access to and enjoyment of culture will benefit everyone.
The scandal of lottery funding for the arts, whereby money spent on lottery tickets by the less well-off in poorer areas pays for culture for the better-off in wealthier areas, will also be tackled. This is a good example of how Labour has listened to those of us who have been arguing for cultural democracy for many years.
Commitments on sport include, but go further than, those made in 2017 to put supporters on the boards of football clubs. Problems like the gap between richer clubs and the rest, racist and homophobic discrimination and greedy owners and directors — highlighted by Jeremy Corbyn on a recent visit to Newcastle — are all targets of new commitments. Labour will also make sure some of the huge sums the game receives from TV rights goes to supporting grassroots football.
Use of the media is, for most people, perhaps the commonest cultural activity of all and the manifesto promise to deliver free, superfast fibre broadband to everyone is potentially the most culturally enriching element in it. It will mean far more cultural experiences can be delivered to far more people, at much lower costs. There are also new promises to tackle the monopolistic tendencies of the print media and the tech giants and support local media.
Labour has undoubtedly set the pace for serious policy-making in all areas of culture, across the arts, sport and the media. The approaches and commitments of other political parties on the subject are pale shadows of Labour’s manifesto.
The Tories have mostly done a copy-and-paste job. They propose a version of Labour’s £1 billion Cultural Capital Fund – but with funding of £250m. And they’re committed to better funding for arts education – but only for secondary school children.
The Tory manifesto is more progressive than the Lib Dems. But that isn’t hard, because the Lib Dem document is lazily brief and mostly about “protecting” the status quo. It is also has easily the most brazenly instrumentalist and commercialised approach: “We will continue to invest in our cultural capital,” is the best strapline they can offer. How insensitive is that, in the light of the imbalance in funding between London and everywhere else?
Finally, let’s not forget the benefits from other parts of the Labour manifesto on culture by and for working people. After all, the biggest single problem in this country is the low level of wages and benefits for vast numbers of working-class people, causing structural poverty and deprivation in many areas of Britain and effective exclusion from creating or experiencing cultural experiences of any kind.
Labour’s policies to raise low incomes will do more to improve access to culture than anything else. And how much can those of us who can afford some cultural experiences enjoy them, when we know so many of our fellow citizens and their children are too poor and exhausted from working and worrying to enjoy anything?
Overall, Labour's commitments on culture are egalitarian, radical and realistic, taking us towards a more socialist vision of state support for culture – truly for the many, not the few.