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Would Labour be any better for the arts?

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Shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman delivered an excellent, rabble-rousing speech at the Soho Theatre this week, in which she took aim at the coalition government and its “brazen” abandonment of arts funding, while encouraging the assembled arts grandees to “fight back against the cuts”.

It was a well-judged attack and played on all the (sometimes justified) prejudices that the arts world holds about any Tory-led government.

She gave ex-culture secretary Jeremy Hunt a good kicking, before refocussing on Michael Gove, George Osbourne and Maria Miller. She then massaged her audience with compliments (“You have the authority, the legitimacy, the commitment, to do that and with the respect you command, you are a powerful movement”), before reminding them of the halcyon days under New Labour (“I think it’s right that you are remaking the arguments for the arts. The case has always been there – we made it, together, in the run up to 1997. It was the reason we trebled the budget of the Arts Council, strengthened the DCMS, empowered artistic renaissance in the great cities of our regions”).

The full speech is available here and it’s well worth a read.

On many levels, of course, Harman is right.

The coalition government has not been good for the arts: Jeremy Hunt’s big idea of extra philanthropic support (continued by Maria Miller) has been exposed as empty, wishful thinking; the arts council has been cut by 30% and, in turn, has had to pass on cuts of 15% to the organisations it funds; meanwhile, the pressures on local authorities created largely by central government policies are meaning that councils across the country (including those of a Labour persuasion) are hacking back at arts funding.

She’s also right to remind us that New Labour was responsible for many enlightened policies when it came to culture – free entry to museums, the extra £25 million pumped into regional theatre following the Boyden report and the way the party encouraged the arts as a tool in regeneration, to name but a few.

[pullquote]The wind was already blowing in the direction of cuts by the time the coalition government came to power[/pullquote]

But, before we all get too carried away, we should also remember that that was all a rather long time ago. Towards the end of their last term, it was also a Labour government that enforced the 2009 Arts Council ‘restructure’; it was a Labour government that redirected huge swathes of arts money from the Lottery (an invention of the John Major government) to help finance the Olympic games; and it was a Labour government who started us down the road of in-year cuts to the arts budget as the economic situation worsened.

We shouldn’t make any bones about it – the wind was already blowing in the direction of cuts by the time the coalition government came to power. How different the outcomes for the sector might have been under a Labour government is a moot point.

Going forward, what matters is money – and for all Harman’s talk of developing a cross-departmental policy within Labour when it comes to the arts, she’s not actually promising that culture will be any better off under a Labour administration.

Until she’s willing to commit to that, I wouldn’t hold your breath.

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