Mike Quille

Mike Quille

Mike Quille is a writer, reviewer and chief editor of Culture Matters.

Raptures and Captures
Wednesday, 25 September 2019 10:22

Raptures and Captures

Published in Books

£7 plus £3.00 p. and p. ISBN: 978-1-912710-18-8

Raptures and Captures follows on from Muses and Bruises and Ruses and Fuses, both published by Culture Matters. It is inspired by liberation theology and a fascination with the continuing relevance of the lives of the saints to a radical, liberating politics. As one poem’s title states, we are ‘In Need of Saints’.

So Fran Lock sets about re-imagining the lives 0f the saints in modern contexts. Apocryphal juxtapositions are sprung in the shapes of modern-day activists, enduring pop-culture icons like Tony Hancock and Ian Curtis, and the exploited, abused and oppressed amongst us.

Fran Lock's poems are slip-stitched with punchy tropes and vivid turns of phrase. There are echoes of Sylvia Plath, John Clare and Gerard Manley Hopkins in her uncompromising psychical explorations, self-scouring confessionalism, and vivid, macabre imageries. Suffering, trauma, and spiritual anguish, and the exhaustion, depression and suicidal ideation of working women and men, all overlaying visions of hope and redemption, are continuous themes in her poems.

The images by Steev Burgess which accompany the poems share and express the same dialectical combination of anger and gentleness, strength and vulnerability. As in the other two volumes, the stunning, taboo-busting collages poignantly combine the grime and glitter of modern life in fragmented, uncertain but coherent juxtapositions of images and words, reinforcing, developing and extending the meanings of the poems.

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The film itself is Bait
Tuesday, 10 September 2019 18:09

The film itself is Bait

Published in Films

Class conflict, and the various ways class divisions are expressed and resolved in personal relationships, from outright violence to affection and peaceful co-existence, form the central themes of this outstandingly original new film, written and directed by Mark Jenkin. Set in a Cornish fishing village, the story is about the clash between well-off incomers and the local precariat – working families struggling to make a living.

It’s modern Britain writ small, where fundamental economic inequality generates mutual incomprehension, resentment, and an angry sense of betrayal brought on by the loss of proper work and decent housing. Ring any bells with what you’ve just heard on the radio?

bait 1

The story is rooted in Jenkin’s experience of dispossessed working-class communities, scarred by unemployment, poverty, and social exclusion. A well-off London family has bought and gentrified ‘Skipper’s Cottage’, one of the harbourside cottages. They’ve installed a porthole as a window, filled the fridge with prosecco and pasta, bedecked the rooms with fishing buoys and nets, and rented out the net-loft to tourists who complain at the early morning noise of the fishing boats. The family is itself divided – thoughtful mother, smug father, flirtatious daughter, and boorish son.

The former inhabitant of the cottage is an impoverished fisherman who can’t afford to buy a boat. He lays nets on the beach outside the house to catch a few fish (bait), which he sells to the local pub for a high price, but gives to local families on the estate he now lives on. Throughout the film he simmers with barely contained rage at his inability to make a living any more from fishing, provoking (baiting) the rich incomers. ‘You didn’t have to sell us this house’, they tell him: ‘Didn’t I?’ is his sarcastic response.

His family is also divided. His brother still has a boat, though it’s used not for fishing but for coastal cruise trips for drunken tourists. But his brother’s son won’t work on the cruise boat, preferring to struggle like his uncle with the beach nets, and form a liaison with the rich family’s daughter.

These characters hit, miss and crash into each other in their houses, on the harbour and in the pub. Collaboration, confrontation, violence, and a tragic accident is the shocking outcome. A symbolic and yet also grittily realistic class struggle is played out in the film, in a nuanced, understated yet very powerful way.

None of the characters are happy in their own skin, except perhaps the daughter, who both symbolically and literally embraces both sides of this unhappy, class-divided community. A niggling, aggressive unhappiness and resentment pervades all the other characters, just like the shouting and discontent you’ve just heard on the TV news.

Bait Movie

This story of alienation and anger is not told in the usual, straightforward narrative arcs of social realism employed by Ken Loach or Mike Leigh. Its art owes more to Bertolt Brecht, the great socialist theatre-maker and poet. In order to clearly express his critique of the inhuman nature of capitalist society, and avoid the way living under capitalism taints the experience of artworks, Brecht developed various techniques which are used to great effect in Bait.

Just as Brecht always foregrounded the theatricality of his plays, Jenkin never lets us forget we’re watching a film. Visually, the film was made with hand-cranked cameras, like silent movies were made, then hand-processed into scratchy, lined images which are almost tactile in their materiality.

Aurally, the soundscape of the film stands out in a similar way. The dialogue has been recorded and dubbed onto the film, giving the uncomprehending, Pinteresque conversations an eerie atmosphere of alienation. Between the conversations there are hypnotic, rhythmic sounds, an underlying thump, thump – sometimes like the sea on the harbour wall, or the engines of the boats, or the wind, or the persistent tick of a clock. The effect of the sound design is both disturbing and reassuring, enhancing the tensions of the unfolding story. 

The editing has a similarly disorienting and disturbing effect. The point of view switches from landscape or group shots to macro close-ups, taking us out of the story being told and into material reality. It can linger on objects, but also often moves violently fast between the characters’ clipped and sometimes comic exchanges, so that separate conversations appear to be in some kind of weird, surreal conversation of their own. Occasionally shots of scenes are shown in advance of their chronological place in the plot.

And finally, the ending of this amazing film is edited in a deliberately low-key, undramatic and workaday way. Does the ending give hope? Yes and no. We’re not a happy country, but we might be if we worked equally together. What do you want?

I don’t know what you want, but I do know that if you go to see this film, you will be prevented from suspending your disbelief and getting pleasure from immersing yourselves in an entertaining story. Instead, just like Brecht, Jenkin insists that you understand the issues at the heart of the film, and not be a passive consumer of a piece of entertainment. So in a sense the film itself is bait – for you.

All these ‘distancing’ techniques work together to express the alienation, conflicts and collaborations in modern British class-divided society. The Cornish fishing village is a microcosm of post-industrial, post-referendum life today all over this country, where the dispossessed many confront the privileged few. You won’t see a better film this year about what you’ve just heard on the radio, seen on the telly, and read in the newspapers.

Robots Have No Bones
Monday, 05 August 2019 11:46

Robots Have No Bones

Published in Poetry

Robots Have No Bones (available here) is Fred Voss’s follow-up collection to The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of Your Hand, also published by Culture Matters.

Robots in the workplace – computerized metalworking machinery – mean a loss of the tactile impact of ‘working’ a machine tool. And workers are still pushed to breaking point, working long hours in poor conditions and always on the tightrope of the poverty line.

In a series of sympathetic, sometimes visionary poems, Voss takes us into the lives of the American working class, manual workers who have been betrayed by successive politicians. Technological advances like robots mean that that there is enough wealth being created for working people not to have to work so hard, for so long, and for so little – but capitalism makes that impossible.

Like the machine presses he writes about, Voss’s poems stamp in our minds the nature of capitalist work, and the way it dehumanizes us. They also remind us of the potentially revolutionary strength of working-class people, who remain undefeated in the fight with oppressive bosses, venal politicians, and the financial class whose avarice is as automatic, ingrained and inhuman as the robots they use to make profits.

Robots Have No Bones

by Fred Voss

Old men
run the manual machines in this machine shop
I left the manual machines and learned to run computer-controlled
so I'd be skilled on the cutting edge of technology in case I got laid
and needed to find another job
but as I grow old I miss running those old machines
their handles in my palm their vibrating tool steel tables
against my thighs the smell
of their grease-blackened worm screws the trembling
of their steel blocks in their vises deep in my bones as I strained
every muscle in my body leaning on those handles moving cutters
through groaning steel
they say another wave of automation is coming
truck drivers
riveters assemblers machinists replaced
by robots
and I stand at my computer machine clicking through its automatic
motions without me
and I look over at those old men with their warm hands around the
handles of the manual machines
it felt good
feeling the trembling of steel in my bones as I gripped a machine handle
and carved the steel down
into axle
so a car could roll a just-married couple laughing
toward their honeymoon
a brass oxygen valve block
so a deep sea diver could look at blue coral for half an hour deep
beneath the waves
it felt good
to feel the steel of skyscrapers bridges fire hydrants jackhammers
emergency ward door hinges
bulldozer teeth cane tips water faucets in my bones
as I made this world
it felt good
putting every muscle in my body into cutting valves for pipes so water
could flow down the parched throats
of children
the hub
of a wheelchair wheel so a painter could roll to a window and put his
last sunset
on canvas
and what will we have left
after the computers and the robots have taken over
and we pace in circles flexing
our useless hands
what will we have left
when we can no longer feel this world
in our bones
and hearts?


Robots Have No Bones
Monday, 05 August 2019 11:33

Robots Have No Bones

Published in Books

£10 (plus £1.50 p. and p.) ISBN: 978-1-912710-14-0

Robots Have No Bones is Fred Voss’s follow-up collection to The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of Your Hand, also published by Culture Matters.

Robots in the workplace – computerized metalworking machinery – mean a loss of the tactile impact of ‘working’ a machine tool. And workers are still pushed to breaking point, working long hours in poor conditions and always on the tightrope of the poverty line.

In a series of sympathetic, sometimes visionary poems, Voss takes us into the lives of the American working class, manual workers who have been betrayed by successive politicians. Technological advances like robots mean that that there is enough wealth being created for working people not to have to work so hard, for so long, and for so little – but capitalism makes that impossible.

Like the machine presses he writes about, Voss’s poems stamp in our minds the nature of capitalist work, and the way it dehumanizes us. They also remind us of the potentially revolutionary strength of working-class people, who remain undefeated in the fight with oppressive bosses, venal politicians, and the financial class whose avarice is as automatic, ingrained and inhuman as the robots they use to make profits.

Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2019: the winners!
Sunday, 04 August 2019 16:00

Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2019: the winners!

Published in Poetry

The five winners of the 2019 Award are as follows:

So, I Grabbed Ahold of My Own Cunt by Jane Burn

spines stronger than the back of the Earth by Martin Hayes

Pencils by Dave Hubble

Dark by Paul Summers

Bank by Rob Walton

Congratulations to the five winners and thanks to all those who entered. This year's Bread and Roses anthology containing a selection of entries will shortly be available to buy online at £5. If you wish to order copies in advance please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Here is one of the winning entries: 

So, I Grabbed Ahold of My Own Cunt

by Jane Burn

Better that than under the thumb of the wrong man.
The one that shits a brick cos your hemline’s above the knee,
the one who sights a level with your breasts.
Come, you upskirters,
Roll up, roll up to where we’re stuck,
behind our desk, our till, our bar, our counter top, our stall.
with moisture on your smacking lips, rub keen palms
on greasy fabric thighs.
Bless us and our pursefuls of pin money, shackled
to your trouser pocket rummaging for change,
your come-to-bed conversation, leaning that bit over,
a sneaky treat of tit, a clue of cleft. Here, you say,
as we kneel to stack a shelf. While you’re down there, pet.
Look how we break the day around our babies,
bite our tongues
or get the boot.
Look how the bags-for-life have have swung
their weighted lacerations on our skin.
Watch us
check behind before we bend, sense you fix the open target,
thrust with the intrusion of your eyes.
Look at the glass ceiling, how we drown beneath it,
ice over a pond.
How you fear the witch that bleeds five days
and doesn’t die,
how we’ll only mutter on about down below, ask for time off
when our kids are ill. How we’ll only cry.
Look how my hand closes a fist, opens like a rose.
Look how we stop going out cos we’re sick
of midnight coercion whining up our legs, sniffing out the hole,
the pissed-up booze fumes tongued along our necks.
Listen to your songs – your I know you want it,
your justification of blurred lines.
I do not want the feel of you inside of me
and so I grabbed ahold of my own cunt
to save you a job,
to save me having to run.

Lyrics taken from Blurred Lines, sung by Robin Thicke.


The Trouble with Monsters
Thursday, 02 May 2019 15:26

The Trouble with Monsters

Published in Books

£8 (plus £1.50 p. and p.) ISBN: 978-1-912710-12-6

Christopher Norris’s new collection of political poems take aim at some monsters of our present bad times, among them Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Theresa May, George Osborne, Benjamin Netanyahu, and assorted hangers-on.

These politicians act as if they have said to themselves, like Milton’s Satan, ‘Evil, be thou my good’. They are held to account here in verse-forms that are tight and sharply focused despite the intense pressure of feeling behind them. The satire is unsparing and the dominant tone is one of anger mixed with sorrow, compassion and a vivid sense of the evils and suffering brought about by corruptions of political office.

The influence of Brecht is visible throughout, as is that of W.H. Auden’s mordant verse-commentary on politics and culture in the 1930s, along with the great eighteenth-century verse-satirists Dryden, Pope and Swift.

Norris leaves the reader in no doubt that we now face a global, European and domestic neo-fascist resurgence. It won’t be defeated unless we act together to defeat these right-wing monsters.

A unique combination of political anger and poetic ingenuity

- Terry Eagleton

Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2019
Friday, 01 March 2019 13:15

Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2019

Published in Poetry

Culture Matters is pleased to announce that the third Bread and Roses Poetry Award, sponsored by Unite, is now open for entries.

Our mission is to promote a socialist approach to all cultural activities, including arts such as poetry. So we run the Bread and Roses Poetry Award to create new opportunities for working people to write poetry, and to encourage poets to focus on themes which are meaningful to working-class communities.

As in previous years, there will be 5 prizes of £100 for the best poems, and an anthology of the poems of around a further 20 entrants will be published later in the year. In addition, we are offering a mentoring and support package for writers who have not yet published a collection. Up to 3 of these entrants - who may or may not have won one of the 5 prizes - will be linked to an experienced, published poet, and they will be helped to produce their first published collection.

They will also be invited, along with the winners of the 5 prizes, to launch their collections at the Teeside International Poetry Festival, to be held in Middlesbrough in April 2020.

Submission Guidelines and Award Rules

1. You may enter up to three original, previously unpublished (in print) poems in English, each no more than 50 lines long.

2. You must be resident in the United Kingdom or Republic of Ireland.

3. Entry is free, and open to anyone regardless of trade union membership.

4. There will be five prizes of £100 each for the best poems. In addition, a mentoring and support package leading to a first published collection will be offered to up to 3 entrants, who may or may not be prizewinners.

5. Entries should broadly deal with themes relevant to working-class life, politics, communities and culture.

6. Entries should be sent to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. by midnight on Friday 14th June 2019, or by post to Culture Matters, c/o 8 Moore Court, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE15 8QE, to arrive by Friday 14th June 2019. No entries will be accepted after that date.

7. Please include the poem(s) and your name, address, and contact details in the body of the email.

8. All entries remain the copyright of the author but Culture Matters and Unite will have the right to publish them.

9. By entering the Award, entrants agree to accept and be bound by the rules of the Award and the decisions of the judges. We are unable to respond individually to submissions.

Copies of the Bread and Roses Poetry Anthology 2018 (along with many other fine books of political poetry!) are available to buy here.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019 17:29


Published in Books

£9 (plus £1.50 p. and p.) ISBN: 978-1-912710-10-2

Alan Morrison’s Shabbigentile is a counterpoint to his Forward Prize-nominated Tan Raptures (Smokestack Books, 2017), many of its poems having been written during the same period and on complementary polemical themes. These range from the ominous economic stormclouds of the banking crash, and eight years of scarring austerity cuts, to the potentially catastrophic cross paths of ‘Brexit’, Trump and the insurgent European-wide right-wing populism of the present.

Shabbigentile is populated by assorted grotesques, memes and leitmotivs, distinctly native to the turbulent and polarised Noughteens: the sweatshop barista, the coffee bean Corbynista, the Dole Jude and Welfare Jew, the Five Giant Shadows and Five Evil Reverbs, and the homegrown ogre of the title.

These part-organic, part-figurative amalgams inhabit the wastelands of asset-stripped Britain, where Tory and red top propaganda against the unemployed is a scapegoating pseudo-science (Scroungerology), and the DWP’s weapons of brown envelopes are transposed as Salted Caramels. From such hostile environments we jump to the dystopian atmospherics of a post-Brexit tinpot RU-RI-TANNIA which sees Easter Island heads sprouting from the white cliffs of Dover.

Tyne Pride at the end of the street, Wallsend
Saturday, 12 January 2019 23:37

The Last Ships

Published in Visual Arts

Mike Quille reviews an exhibition of photographs of the shipbuilding industry on Tyneside.

In honour of the shipyard workers of Tyneside, Chris Killip recently gave a set of over 30 stunning, monochrome images to the Laing Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne.

The Last Ships exhibition of photographs, taken by Killip over just three years, captures the awe-inspiring scale and beauty of the shipbuilding industry on Tyneside in the nineteen seventies. It documents the resilience but also the desolation of working-class communities, destroyed along with the industry by capitalist economic forces and government policy.

TWCMS 2017 2328

End of Shift

The large exhibition prints, with their striking, powerful images, dominate the walls of the gallery. The massive, sleek black hulls of tankers like the Tyne Pride, the biggest and also one of the last ships to be built on the Tyne, loom over the regular terraced streets where their builders lived. Children stand in doorways, dwarfed visually and protected economically by the vast bulk of newly-built ships. The confident, energetic geometry of angular industrial cranes seem to balance and guarantee the everyday, regular domesticity of workers’ houses. Those workers stream out of the shipyards, and their children play in the streets.

TWCMS 2017 80 resized

Wallsend Housing Looking East, 1975

Then suddenly, the industry and the community are destroyed. In the above photograph, Wallsend Housing Looking East (1975), Tyne Pride towers over a group of young girls playing at the end of Gerald Street. The photograph below, taken just two years later, Demolished Housing, Wallsend (1977) shows the same street demolished. There are no large ships being built on the Tyne, no children playing in the streets – and no workers streaming out of shipyard gates. A few walls remain standing forlornly amidst the rubble, with spray-painted graffiti on them reading ‘DON’T VOTE. PREPARE FOR REVOLUTION’

TWCMS 2017 2326 resized

Demolished Housing, Wallsend (1977)

The exhibition is a fitting and just memorial to the lives, energy and strength of Tyneside workers – but it is also much more than that. Killip’s photographs document the productive force of capitalism, the monumental achievements of heavy industry and the close-knit proletarian communities created alongside it. And he also caught the bleak desolation resulting from de-industrialisation, from the sudden, brutal withdrawal of capital, and the historic – and ongoing – economic and social murder visited on Tyneside working-class communities by the rich and the powerful.

The exhibition thus sums up, in a particularly graphic and visually arresting way, a process which has affected most of the British population in one way or another for the last 50 years. It helps explain why so many people voted against the out-of-touch ruling elites of Westminster and Brussels, causing their current political chaos. Is it any wonder that our trust in them disappeared along with the industry, the jobs and the communities they destroyed?

Perhaps, then, we should vote AND prepare for revolution?

All photographs are © Chris Killip. The Last Ships is on at the Laing Gallery, Newcastle, until May 2020. It is free of charge.

Culture for the many, not the few
Thursday, 13 December 2018 14:22

Culture for the many, not the few

Published in Cultural Commentary

Mike Quille presents some principles and practical policies to implement cultural democracy.

This article is a contribution to debates around cultural democracy in the socialist left, the labour movement and academia. It includes discussion of:

- What culture means and why it is so important
- The links between cultural activities and politics, and current examples of the way cultural activities function in class-divided societies like our own
- Why we need a democratic and socialist approach to all cultural activities, going beyond the narrow, elitist and top-down approach of Arts Council England
- Specific measures which might form part of a programme for an incoming Labour government

The real meaning of culture

Culture matters to the many, not just the few. For a large part of our lives, particularly in our leisure time, we make choices – or choices are made for us – on what to do with our time. Whether to watch television, and if so what to watch. Whether to surf the internet, go on Facebook, or read a newspaper or magazine. Whether to visit an art gallery or concert hall, go to the pub or out for a meal, listen to some music, buy some clothes, make some clothes, play an instrument, go to the opera, play football, watch football, go to church, sing in a choir, paint a picture or play computer games.

All these activities, and many more, have a cultural dimension. They entertain, educate and enlighten us, and help us to enjoy life by giving it meaning, purpose and value. And the choices we make are socially determined. Their accessibility, cost and their very meanings are conditioned and constrained by the choices made by the owners, controllers, and gatekeepers of culture – the rich and the powerful, the politically dominant social classes in capitalist societies. We make our own culture, but we do not make it as we please, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. 

So culture is essential to being human. Culture is ordinary and culture is everything, a whole way of life, and it is closely linked to society, to the economy, and to politics. Let's unpack these ideas in more detail.


As Raymond Williams said: “Culture is ordinary: that is where we must start”. So culture includes not just the arts, but all those learned human activities which give our lives meaning and enjoyment. To restrict the term, and political discussion of it, to a selected menu of arts-based activities is to devalue and exclude the majority of cultural activities as practised by the majority of the population. As well as the arts, culture includes sport, TV and the media generally, eating and drinking, fashion and clothing, education, religion and many other popular activities. This makes for a looser and more varied set of concerns to think about, integrate into political manifestos and campaign about. But it is fairer, more inclusive and is far more relevant and appealing to the labour movement and most working people.

Fundamentally, human cultural activities are social, unifying and egalitarian. They tend to express and assert our common humanity and solidarity against divisions of class, gender, race and other social divisions caused by unequal economic arrangements such as the capitalist system. And cultural activities such as art, music and religion can directly inspire and support radical change in the real world, both personally and politically.

Taking part in this wide range of cultural activities, as consumers and as performers/actors, is not some optional extra for us. It sustains our health, well-being and happiness, promotes our freedom from oppressive political systems and exploitative economic arrangements, and is absolutely necessary to our development, liberation and flourishing as human beings. Culture is therefore essential to the socialist project of transforming society for the benefit of working people – the many.

As workers, we’re well aware of the economic struggle, the struggle for a fair return for our labour and for food, shelter, and other material necessities. In these days of austerity economics and flatlining wages, it’s a constant struggle to make ends meet on low incomes and inadequate benefits. The chaos and cruelty around the introduction of Universal Credit is the worst but not the only example of deliberate attacks on the poor by the Tory Government.

As voters and political activists, we’re also aware of the political struggle. This is the struggle to change the terms and conditions of our existence for the better – to liberate our social selves and prioritise social justice and the common good across all areas of state power and policy. So we struggle for various forms of social rather than private ownership of the land, farms, factories, offices, shops, utilities and banks. And we struggle to gain democratic control of social institutions, so that we all have an equal say in what happens in our lives.

Socialists, however, have always recognised that there is another struggle, which accompanies, expresses and supports the economic and political struggles. This is the cultural struggle, the struggle for cultural democracy, to apply fundamental socialist principles of shared ownership and democratic control to everyday and ordinary cultural activities.

How is class linked to culture?

Class-based divisions in society, based on unequal property ownership, constrain or prevent the full and free enjoyment of culture. Cultural activities may be fundamentally liberating and social, but in societies divided by class they are limited, appropriated and privatised.

Throughout history, tiny minorities of dominant social classes have tried – often successfully – to turn cultural activities into circuses, to go with the breadcrumbs thrown from the tables of the rich and powerful. In these class-divided societies, culture tends to become inaccessible, costly, irrelevant and of poor quality. It tends to be owned and organised in undemocratic ways. It tends to legitimise, conceal or ignore the ongoing, systematic oppression and exploitation of working people. And it is used to promote diversionary and reactionary political messages and values, in order to prevent the development of radical, anti-capitalist ideas such as cultural democracy.

So a continual struggle goes on to develop and sustain a cultural commons for the many, not the few. We face a cultural struggle against the co-option, misuse and appropriation of cultural activities, just like our economic and political struggles for better wages and for ownership and control of essential goods and services like our schools, our railways and our health service.

Just as neoliberal capitalism has shown itself to be incapable of providing adequate public services in these areas, so too it cannot sustain cultural production, delivery and consumption. We are witnessing the insidious and often hidden growth of corporate influence and control over cultural institutions – not only institutions like Arts Council England, but also social media platforms, broadcasters, sports clubs, pubs and clubs, and supermarkets.

These cultural institutions, which are of such importance to the everyday lives of so many people, present a major challenge for a socialist cultural policy seeking to implement shared ownership and democratic accountability into the cultural landscape.

What’s wrong with current popular cultural activities?

For the many, massive problems flow from the unequal and undemocratic ownership and control of cultural activities.

In sport, owners and management bodies are failing to make sport accessible, affordable and enjoyable for everyone, through sky-high ticket prices, undemocratic, ineffective regulatory authorities, and subsidies for elite sport at the expense of school sports and grassroots sports. Commercial pressures mean that capitalist ideologies of individual excellence and competitiveness – rather than the social and co-operative nature of most sport which is its most essential and appealing characteristic – cause regular scandals in most sports, involving drug-taking, cheating and corruption.

In the media, private ownership of large swathes of the means of communication by gigantic corporations like Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook prevent us enjoying human interaction without being watched, manipulated and influenced by commercial capitalist interests. We face privately owned media companies like Sky, Netflix, Disney and Fox, dedicated to making profits rather than meeting human need. And we face state-controlled media like the BBC, designed to support and legitimise the economic and political status quo, and institutionally biased against radical politicians, newspapers and ideas.

Our daily activities of eating and drinking are also cultural activities, as well as biological necessities. We do so in company with family and friends, for pleasure and to express and enhance our common and social natures. Yet corporations produce and sell us food and drink loaded with too much sugar, salt, and fat, and we are pressurised into consuming unhealthy amounts and types of of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Children and other vulnerable, poorer members of society are particularly at risk in a system where corporate profits depend on obesity and drunkenness.

Religious institutions own and control huge resources - land, buildings, capital - which do not always meet and serve the needs of many people for collective gatherings to express and strengthen shared beliefs and a commitment to the common good, and for refreshment, comfort and inspiration. Most religions have a powerful strand of concern for the poor, the vulnerable, the oppressed and exploited, yet their vicars, priests, bishops and other leaders often fail to call for and to practise social justice.

In the arts, the situation is not much better than when Raymond Williams said, in a Guardian Lecture in 1985:

The central socialist case, in matters of culture is that the lives of the great majority of people have been, and still are, almost wholly disregarded by almost all arts.

What’s wrong with the arts, and Arts Council England’s ‘Cultural Democracy in Practice’?

Problems with cultural institutions mean that we face inaccessibility, obscurity, and vapid spectacle, as does the fact that state funding is so unequal. Money that comes from our taxes and our Lottery tickets is overwhelmingly focused on cultural provision in the London area, which benefits mainly the already well off, and tourists.

MQ pi 04 2016 map

The continuing, monumental failure of Arts Council England to develop and sustain fair allocation of the massive increase in resources it has received from the taxpayer and from Lottery funds over the last 20 years or so is truly appalling. Imagine the outcry if there were far more hospitals per person in the London area than elsewhere, or far more schools for the better off than for the poor, everywhere. Yet this is broadly the situation in the arts, and one which ACE is not even planning to tackle.

Clearly fearful of the true implications of implementing cultural democracy in a class-based, unequal society, which would obviously involve replacing their current structure, funding and mission to subsidise culture for the rich, ACE have attempted to co-opt the language and the concepts in the recent report which it commissioned on ‘Cultural Democracy in Practice’. This document has come under heavy criticism, including this statement from the Movement for Cultural Democracy:

We are agreed that the Arts Council report has almost nothing to say about Cultural Democracy – in practice, in principle or as public policy. It is a crude, historically whitewashed and politically inept attempt to co-opt to its own cause a long standing and now re-emerging strand of radical cultural debate, policy and practice that fundamentally challenges its record and its structure – particularly its use of lottery funding.

The MCD has now published a new statement on rebalancing funding of the arts.

There are other problems apart from funding. For working-class people wishing to have an arts career, it is getting harder to become a musician or actor or writer without rich relatives to support you. As Jeremy Corbyn has said:

There is a poet, author, singer, pianist, actor, playwright, and artist in every single person.

But cuts and curriculum changes in education mean our children are being deprived of the chance to learn how to appreciate and participate in artistic, sporting and other cultural activities at both primary and secondary school stages, as well as facing exclusion and discrimination when they attempt a career as writer, performer, musician, actor or artist.

The Government’s politically-driven austerity policies have led to huge cuts in cultural facilities, including libraries, community centres, youth facilities and sports facilities. These cuts are set to continue for years to come, and have been knowingly targeted at the least well-off sections of society.

MQ library closures

We also face the possibility of an expansion in leisure time in the next few decades, as labour-saving technology generates more unemployment, under-employment and free time. Again, this will impact more on the working class generally, and on less skilled workers, younger people trying to build careers, and people who are already socially excluded and discriminated against for various reasons. Over time there will thus be an increasing need for accessible, relevant cultural activities for large numbers of people who are currently excluded from participation

What would a better culture policy look like?

To tackle these problems, what should be the general principles for a Labour government’s culture policy, a policy to implement genuine cultural democracy?

Firstly, acceptance that culture is ordinary and everyday, and that it is essential and not marginal to working people’s lives. Both spectatorship and engagement in cultural production and consumption are fundamental to human fulfilment and flourishing, and therefore central to any progressive political programme. It is not just an aid to ‘economic regeneration’, still less a sticking plaster to mask the deindustrialisation, decay and worsening health of many working-class communities, particularly in the North.

Secondly, we need a more inclusive approach to culture and culture policy, covering cultural activities which matter to most working people, and which can attract the support of the labour movement. We need to start promoting culture as part of the ‘social wage’ for everyone, like health, education and welfare benefits, not an exclusive extra for the better off. We need to break down long-established hierarchies between different kinds of cultural activities and practices, which often reflect and perpetuate class divisions, and which again point to the importance of integrating the economic, political and cultural struggles in our attempts to build Blake's new Jerusalem, a classless society.

Thirdly, we need to develop democratic, inclusive and bottom-up cultural policies in which communities of practitioners and audiences are empowered, through various structures of shared, social ownership and democratic control, to direct culture towards their own defined ends. Those ends should be self-determined, and could be entertainment, personal fulfilment, self-expression or as a contribution to the struggle for a better world.

More broadly, we need to think about ways of facilitating and encouraging grassroots cultural formations and activities. There are some very good examples of people working together at various forms of cultural activity – whether learning to play a musical instrument, paint, write poetry, cook, play football or make films – for enjoyment, education or the value generated by doing things in a social environment. These activities may not be explicitly political, linked to any defined progressive thinking or located in the trade union and labour movement. But by providing platforms for people to share their work and ideas, and by encouraging people to do things socially and collaboratively, they build confidence, promote learning and open the doors to deeper levels of cultural and political engagement.

Specific policy proposals – some examples

It would be inappropriate to construct a detailed blueprint for culture policies, as there is a prior need to consult, discuss, and democratically decide on priorities. But there would surely be a consensus on the left about the following priorities for an incoming Labour government:

- Dismantling the barriers of class, cost and geography that stop working people from accessing culture, as consumers and as practitioners;

- Embedding cultural education – both appreciation and practice – into the national curriculum;

- Reclaiming the media – newspapers, online platforms, TV and radio – by reforming its funding, ownership and control and providing space for working-class voices and truly diverse, community-based providers. Facebook, Google, Amazon, broadcasters and newspaper publishers all require radical reformation, taxation and regulation, to lessen and ultimately abolish the influence of billionaire private owners;

- Radical shifting of public spending on the arts and sport, towards more support for grassroots participation, working-class communities and provision outside London;

- Increasing the representation of the working class in all cultural institutions, especially the arts, sports, and the media, in terms of content, audiences and practitioners;

- Developing partnerships between secular and religious authorities, so that as congregations dwindle and resources lie unused, local communities - particularly the poorest and most oppressed sections of those communities - can be empowered to access and benefit from their material and non-material resources;

- Regulating, taxing, and democratising other relevant cultural institutions, including food and drink corporations, breweries and pubs, supermarkets, arts facilities and sports clubs. All these institutions have potential to be specialist hubs in a common socialist project to meet need (rather than make profit) across the whole span of cultural activities. Various kinds of social ownership models and democratic management arrangements need to be applied to cultural institutions including ownership by the state, local authorities and local community co-operatives.


Cultural activities often reflect and serve the needs of the dominant class, in a class-divided society such as ours. At the same time they can also provide the space to resist the status quo and overcome alienation and oppression. They can help people envision better, fairer ways of organising our society, as well as promoting our physical, mental and spiritual well-being. To help culture works its magic on the many, not just the few, we need to imagine a world in which we have a stake in all the cultural activities available to us, and they are organised and delivered to meet our needs as human beings and not to make profit or to reflect and legitimise a set of exploitative and oppressive econmic and political institutions.


The Labour manifesto of 1945 contained these words:

We desire to assure to our people full access to the great heritage of culture in this nation.

Cultural democracy was promised in 1945 and is long overdue. Now is the time for the Labour Party to present a new democratic and socialist culture policy in the next manifesto, and to develop local, co-ordinated campaigns involving CLPs, trade unions, and activists, across all the cultural areas. Why? Because culture matters to the many, not the few.

This article is an extended version of an article first published in New Socialist. With thanks to Roland Boer, Theresa Easton, Chris Guiton, Sophie Hope, and Jack Newsinger for their inspiration, assistance, comments and contributions to this article. Further contributions from writers, activists and artists on the detail of a socialist culture policy, are welcome, please send them to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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