This election could decide whether arts win big, or get the boot

Your PM, painting by numbers. The Prime Minister's Office/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

When survey organisations ask the general public about the most important issues facing the country, arts and culture don’t appear on the list. While you’ll consistently find immigration, the NHS, and the economy at the top, arts and culture don’t even appear in Ipsos Mori’s tables, coming behind bird flu, foot and mouth, and constitutional reform.

And although arts don’t appear on the headline summaries of the major party manifestos at this election, they do appear in the manifestos themselves, and at greater length than in 2010. Given the existence of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DMCS), it’s reasonable that the parties explain what they’d do with it. Indeed, the Arts Council for England has already summarised the major manifesto pledges, and The Stage has interviewed spokespeople from seven political parties.

Populist policy

What’s striking about the 2015 manifestos for the three main parties – Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats – is that they all pledge free admission to national museums near the top of their arts and culture sections.

This is a popular policy that only has mixed empirical support: while some literature suggests that free admission broadens the base of people who visit museums and galleries, other evidence suggests that free admission merely increases the number of visits from people who’d have gone anyway.

The Conservatives and Labour also both allude to regional inequality: Labour states that one of the goals of free admission to national museums is “to ensure that our great works of art and national heritage can be enjoyed in all parts of the country”; the Conservatives state that “we have made sure that arts funding benefits the whole of the UK.”

Recent research shows that London receives far more cultural subsidy than any of the other English regions. And yet, of the two new buildings promised by the Conservatives, one is in London (“a modern world class concert hall”) and the other is in Manchester (“a new theatre, The Factory”). These investments are likely to reinforce geographical cultural inequality, rather than mitigate it.

Gather round, London crowds – there’s plenty for you to see. Andrew and Annemarie/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Arts for all

But the manifestos are not all identical. Labour’s manifesto is distinctive in addressing the current inequalities in access to working in arts and culture, highlighted by the debate over James Blunt and Eddie Redmayne as our exemplars of success. Following on from the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value, and Ed Miliband’s “arts for all” speech, the Labour party addresses the issue in its manifesto by promising “a universal entitlement to a creative education”.

It adds that “institutions that receive arts funding will be required to open up their doors to young people, and we will work with public bodies to rebalance arts funding across the country”. How this will fit with arts subjects’ absence from the English Baccalaureate remains to be seen.

There are echoes of this in the Lib Dems’ manifesto. They believe that “the arts have an essential role in the education system”. Their manifesto is the only one that addresses the arts outside of the arts and culture section, saying in the health section that they’ll “promote evidence-based ‘social prescribing’ of sport, arts and other activity to help tackle obesity, mental health problems and other health conditions, and work to widen the evidence base”.

This ties into existing measures such as the What Works Centre for Wellbeing. Beyond this, the Lib Dems’ manifesto has little on cultural matters to distinguish itself from the Conservative one.

The Conservative manifesto’s focus is more on funding. Beyond its promises for tax relief for the creative industries, the party’s claim that the coalition has sustained arts funding over the last parliament has been disputed. This makes it difficult to credit the remainder of this section of the manifesto.

Beyond their capital pledges, what’s distinctive about the Conservatives’ position is their focus on digital issues. In particular, they focus on what’s available through public libraries, and presenting ISPs with filtering and blocking requirements.

To spend or not to spend?

While the SNP doesn’t address issues of arts and culture in its manifesto at all, it’s not fair to infer that these aren’t priorities for the party. Arts and culture are devolved in Scotland, and so arguably they are not appropriate content for a Westminster manifesto.

The Plaid Cymru manifesto has a lot in common with the other parties. It includes promises for access through education, free admission to national museums, as well as Welsh-specific pledges such as supporting a Cardiff bid for European Capital of Culture.

UKIP provides the most abrupt answer to questions about the arts: it would abolish the DCMS. UKIP’s manifesto pledges to abolish government departments when their essential powers and functions can be merged into other departments. The DMCS, along with others like the Departments for Energy and Climate Change, and International Development, are earmarked for the chop. The remainder of the cultural part of their manifesto focuses mainly on heritage: how they would establish a minister for heritage and tourism, how they’d regenerate seaside towns, and how they’d “save the pub”.

Finally, the Greens’ manifesto is the only one to include specific numbers that would be spent on the arts. The party pledges an increase of £500 million a year nationally, and reinstatement of funding at local authority level. Given this, the lack of detail on how this money would be spent, beyond “helping to keep local museums, theatres, libraries and art galleries open” is surprising. Their pledges focus on broadcasting and media, rather than what’s covered in other party manifestos.

Yet the Greens’ position on the cultural industries has had the most scrutiny of any party. Their manifesto states they’d “make copyright shorter in length, fair and flexible, and prevent patents applying to software”. Documents on their website suggest copyright would be limited to 14 years.

This plan has been attacked by artists and writers, who point out that this would have major effects on their income. Other authors have suggested it sits inside a broader approach to freeing artists from commercial forces. More immediately, Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, has indicated that this isn’t a core policy and is likely to be changed.

How much this matters remains to be seen. The fact that, relative to 2010, arts and culture have had so much prominence in the manifestos is striking. Given that the result after May 7 will almost certainly be a hung parliament, it is unclear how many of these policies will remain through coalition agreements.

On the one hand, it is unlikely that arts policy is a red line for any party. But on the other – with a handful of exceptions – these policies are hardly so far apart that agreement is impossible. What seems most likely is a raise in profile of the role of arts in education. But as everyone keeps saying, anything could happen.

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