Which Party Is Best For The Arts?

Arts issues are crucial, but do the main parties have anything of substance to say about them?

Art Culture & Anarchy Politics UK Politics
No cultural collapse: Visits to directly-funded museums like the National Gallery are rising (photo: Morio, via Flickr)

A couple of years ago an actress friend told me plainly that she voted Labour “because she was in the arts”. To her—and I suspect many like her­­—voting for any other party would be unthinkable. People in the arts vote Labour because they believe the party tends to give them money for their theatres, orchestras, films, galleries and dance troupes, whereas the wicked Tories offer only wicked Tory cuts. The supposition is that if the state doesn’t pay handsomely towards the arts there won’t be any arts—or at least as we know them—and that, as the arts are good for people, it is bad to support any party that won’t lavish money on them.

With an election imminent it is worth looking at what the main parties plan to do with our cultural life. On February 23 Ed Miliband said it was Labour’s intention “to put policy for arts and culture and creativity at the heart of the next Labour government’s mission”. Mr Miliband seems to have been concerned, and rightly so, at the fall in the number of children at primary school who learn a musical instrument and, in wider terms, of the small percentage of young people—just 8.4 per cent—who combine arts and science subjects at AS level. Mind you, it is only about a decade since a Labour Education Secretary, Charles Clarke—himself the beneficiary of a fine public school and Cambridge education—asked what the point was of Latin, seeming to imply that unless one studied something relevant to the use of computers one was wasting one’s time.

Labour boasts about trebling Arts Council funding when in power, but understandably says less about how funding had to be slashed by the present government to patch up the horrific mess Gordon Brown made of the economy. What the specifics of its policy will be we shall have to await the manifesto to discover. Last year Harriet Harman, who expects to be Culture Secretary if Labour wins the election, announced that there would be “a bold policy for the arts”—whatever that means. Chris Bryant MP, speaking on March 3 to mark the 50th anniversary of Jennie Lee’s policy to bring the arts within reach of everyone, told an audience in Birmingham that “I cannot stand before you today and promise the same doubling and trebling of budgets because we live in a different world at the moment.” He did however promise there would be “a time of love in a cold climate”—forcing the payment of the living wage to those working in the arts, ending zero hours contracts, doing more in education. He also promised an end to “artistic feast and artistic famine”, by which he meant that the arts are subsidised to the tune of £68 per head in the capital, but only £4.58 in the provinces: not a sensible comparison, given the concentration of national museums and other important institutions in London.

At least the Labour party has plenty to say on the subject. The Tories say very little, other than being judged on their record. And for all Miss Harman’s and Mr Bryant’s protestations, Labour cannot in all honesty promise to bring the gravy train out of the sidings. When, in January, the Tories accused Labour of being prepared to reverse the £83 million cuts to the Arts Council budget made as part of the deficit reduction programme, Labour flatly denied the charge—prompting its supporters in the arts world to howl with outrage.

Under the Coalition cuts there has hardly been a collapse in national cultural life. More than 49 million people visited directly-funded museums last year, up two million on the preceding year; and that included 3 per cent more children. Free museums were a cornerstone of the arts policy in the Lib Dems’ “pre-manifesto” of last year. The party also said it would support libraries and ensure that those threatened with closure “are offered first for transfer to the local community”; again, whatever that means. The Lib Dems also promise to protect the independence of the BBC through maintaining the licence fee, and to “support growth in creative industries”, “modern and flexible patent, copyright and licensing”, and “addressing the barriers to finance faced by small creative businesses”. Again, more detail, please.

The renewal of the BBC’s charter is one of the big arts issues facing the next government. Before the last two or three renewals there has been debate about whether the licence fee should be removed, only for the status quo to be maintained. The advance of digital technology has changed the old certainties, and this time there will need to be a serious discussion of funding methods. As for the rest of arts policy, it is hard to see there will be much difference between the parties whichever of them end up in government, because there is no money. And those in the arts world who think they have a divine right to live off the taxpayer, just because cultural life is so important to our society, may have to think again.

What should the policy be? I share the presumption that the arts are crucial, and need to be brought to everybody who wishes to share in them. I’d start at school, bringing back peripatetic music teachers, dismissing ideas of cultural elitism by ensuring that every child was exposed to what is supposedly culturally elite, and ending the prejudice towards science subjects in the curriculum by emphasising that a trained mind can be achieved through a study of literature, languages, music or history just as it can by maths or physics. If there is to be an Arts Council, and it is to hand out money, it needs to have rigid quality control. I should prefer the private sector to be encouraged to support the arts, especially outside London, in return for significant tax breaks, rather than the taxpayer give the handout direct to the institution or performers. If that means some institutions and performers have to up their game, so be it.

But the BBC’s future must be the main priority for the new government. Radio 3 alone is worth my licence fee; the rest comes with varying degrees of dispensability and in some cases carries with it a presumption of stupidity on the part of the audience. If the BBC is not brought into the 21st century, the next government will have failed.