Jeremy Corbyn is the only candidate with a distinct arts policy

It’s time to inject some substance back into arts policy. Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn has just published a widely praised statement on the arts. As in other policy areas, this sets out a pretty clear position that is distinct to the other leadership candidates. This is particularly significant because politicians’ statements on the arts and creative industries are so often bland, generic and interchangeable.

Indeed, it’s hard to think of another policy area in which there has been so little to distinguish what is said by players from the main parties. Take the following statements by way of example:

A. We want this sector to continue to thrive so it’s important that government and industry keep working together to foster the right environment for creative industries to succeed and inspire young people to follow in the footsteps of the many creative heavyweights that Britain has produced.

B. From film to video games, fashion to architecture, our world leading creative industries are a veritable powerhouse. They drive growth and outperform other industries, with employment increasing at around five times the rate of the national average.

C. The success of our creative industries is crucial to Britain’s future jobs and growth and to rebalancing our economy. And the contribution of our arts and culture cannot just be measured in pounds and pence, it enriches, entertains and expands our horizons.

These were written by Conservative Sajid Javid, Liberal Democrat Vince Cable and former Labour leader Ed Miliband. But can you put the name to each statement? (Answers at the end.)

John Whittingdale, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, isn’t seen as friendly to the arts. Hannah Mckay/EPA

Bland support

The same kind of language is used by the Labour leadership hopefuls. All the candidates have made bland statements in support of the arts at various times, often emphasising their vital social, cultural and economic contribution in one form or another.

We know that Liz Kendall likes hip hop, Burnham likes the Courteeners and Jeremy Corbyn likes John Lennon. But we know little about what might define their actual arts and creative industries policy. Andy Burnham’s manifesto, for example, doesn’t mention the subject at all (which is, perhaps, surprising considering that he is a former secretary of state for Culture, Media and Sport).

When asked by BECTU, the trade union for film and television workers, the candidates’ responses were predictably banal. Yvette Cooper, for example, mentions the economic contribution of the creative industries, but argues that:

We can’t simply see an economic case for the arts; we must defend the value and contribution the arts make to our lives … I see the arts as a fundamental part of our society and economy, and under my leadership they will be central to the party’s plans for government.

Andy Burnham’s as woolly as the rest. NHS Confederation/flickr, CC BY

Andy Burnham focuses on the importance of technical skills, training and education, telling us: “I know how important our creative industries are, not only to the UK economy, but as a vital part of our national identity.” And he has elsewhere praised the “the power of art and culture to regenerate people and communities.” So far, so generic.

For Kendall there is none of this touchy-feely community rhetoric:

We have superb technical skills in this country. They are in demand across the world. From those working in sound and lighting to our cameramen and women. As Labour’s first woman leader, I will ensure this talent can face the future with the confidence our cultural growth demands they must have.

Jeremy Corbyn is the only candidate to talk specifically of the arts and creative industries in a meaningful way. His statement goes much further than the others, advocating public funding for culture at the community and regional level and tearing into the “callous commercialisation of every sphere of our lives”. Corbyn particularly highlights the arts as sites of political and cultural dissent as something essential to democracy. In contrast:

This government has savaged arts funding with projects increasingly required to justify their artistic and social contributions in the narrow, ruthlessly instrumentalist approach of the Thatcher governments … The arts must never be the preserve of those with privilege but open to all. Access and diversity within the arts must be improved with greater equalisation of those who are able to benefit from public funding as well a more even regional allocation of funding.

It is not hard to see how he has won the support of figures such as Ken Loach, Maxine Peake and Josie Long.

Ken Loach has backed Corbyn but has been banned from voting. Andy Rain/EPA

The BBC

The future of the BBC is surely one of the most important things that a future opposition leader will have to contend with in the face of unprecedented Conservative attacks and all the candidates have made public statements in support of it. Trying to get to grips with what direction they might take, then, often comes down to a matter of emphasis and an acknowledgement of their wider politics and priorities. Cooper, for example, ominously talks of “defending a reformed BBC fit for the future”, while for Burnham, the Tory attacks are simply “wrong”.

Once again, it is Corbyn who presents the most clear and coherent sense of an opposition, saying that he wants “to see the Labour Party at the heart of campaigns to protect the BBC and its license fee”.

Corbynmania and the arts

The key theme of the Labour leadership campaign has been the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing politics among grass roots labour supporters and the intense hostility this has provoked in the Parliamentary Labour Party and the media. The big question is whether this popularity can become a movement strong enough to challenge the neo-liberal consensus that has dominated mainstream British politics since the mid-1990s. If it can, then it will certainly also challenge the constricting, conformist dogma that surrounds the creative industries.

This is desperately needed. A space for experimentation with new forms of cultural policy could raise hopes for new kinds participation beyond the metropolitan elite and catalyse a new infusion of politics into art. Most importantly it would create an argument over the respective roles of the state and business in culture. And culture badly needs a new argument.

If it can’t, then we are likely to get more of the same bland, generic conformism from all sides of the house.

Answers: a=Vince Cable; b=Sajid Javid; c=Ed Miliband.