Labour slams coalition’s ‘brazen’ lack of arts support

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Shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman has accused the coalition government of a “brazen and wholesale” retreat from public support for the creative industries, in a keynote speech this week.

Harman pointed to former culture secretary Jeremy Hunt’s decision to reduce Arts Council England’s overall budget by 30% and education secretary Michael Gove’s plan to “kick arts out of the curriculum” with his now dropped English Baccalaureate reforms.

In addition, she referred to the “crushing” of local government’s ability to support the arts by communities secretary Eric Pickles, and arts patrons being “stigmatised” as tax dodgers by chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne. She also questioned why culture secretary Maria Miller “doesn’t realise” that it is her job to “fight back against this”.

Harman was speaking at an arts policy event co-ordinated by Labour politicians including shadow arts minister Dan Jarvis at the Soho Theatre this week.

The event was chaired by Young Vic artistic director David Lan and attended by leading figures from the arts world, including the Southbank Centre’s artistic director Jude Kelly and Sadler’s Wells artistic director Alistair Spalding.

Harman said: “My worry is that what we have here is a brazen and wholesale government retreat from public policy backing for the arts and our creative industries.”

Harman emphasised the importance of speaking up for the arts, but said that if the Department for Culture, Media and Sport failed to do this then the arts sector must continue regardless.

“You have the authority, the legitimacy, the commitment, to do that,” she said. “With the respect you command, you are a powerful movement.

“Gove’s backdown on the EBacc was in no small part due to the leadership you gave from the arts against it, so be encouraged by that to make further stands.”

She added that while arts organisations might think fighting cuts in funding from government was “biting the hand that feeds” them, doing nothing would result in further cuts.

“Make no mistake,” warned Harman, “if there is no fightback against the cuts that central government is making, then actually they will take it as a clear signal that you are ready to take more cuts. I’m afraid that is the reality of it.”

Meanwhile, alongside fighting the cuts, Harman encouraged cultural organisations to continue to remake the case for the arts sector and its reliance on public subsidy.

She said that there is a generation of the public who have “no idea” about the scale and importance of public funding in the arts, who have emerged during a time of “flowering” of the arts and now need to hear the case.

Harman said: “Go to any institution or read any programme, and the names of the donors are up in lights but the collective contribution of the taxpayer is all but invisible. So the irony is that the cuts have been made easier because most people remain unaware of the important role of subsidy in the arts.”

To help combat these problems, Harman said there needs to be a survival strategy for the arts, as well as a plan for future policy.

A network of Labour councillors has been set up to lend support to local representatives responsible for arts budgets, said Harman, to ensure that “while facing the biggest cuts to local government in a generation, they are able to continue to sustain the foundations for the arts in their area”.

The MP said Labour is working across the briefs in its shadow cabinet to assess treasury, business, local government and education issues to form its arts policy.

She said: “We hope to get back in to government – so now is the time firmly to re-establish the case for the arts in public policy and work up a clear plan for a 21st-century arts policy.

“2015 is when we want to start doing it – so the thinking and the planning must be now.”