Labour’s performance in the general election – especially in its former northern heartlands – has resulted in a slew of think pieces asking the same thing: has the party lost touch with its working-class roots?
Similar questions are being asked of another traditionally left-leaning community that prides itself on being ‘for the people’: theatre and the arts. Working-class representation in the arts has been the subject of much research in recent years, all of which has painted a picture of an industry dominated by the middle class.
The Panic! survey, published in 2015, described the arts as a “closed shop” for people from working-class backgrounds, claiming 77% of the sector’s workforce was middle class. An update in 2018 claimed to find a “significant and long-standing lack of social mobility” in the creative industries; a 2017 report by the Labour party discovered “the systematic eradication of arts education in schools, sky-high drama school audition fees, chronic low pay and a lack of diversity behind the scenes are all contributing to a diversity crisis on our stages and screens”; more recently, Stage Directors UK reported that only 10% of directors are from a working-class background.
So it is welcome that Arts Council England will begin monitoring the socio-economic background of the workforce at organisations it funds with public money. But the results will provide only a small part of the picture. The question covers only employees: freelance workers who make up much of the theatre workforce will not be included. We will not have detailed information about the socio-economic background of, for example, actors or directors.
But, perhaps the biggest omission is audiences. ACE’s slogan is Great Art for Everyone, but I’ve never seen compelling data showing how the art it funds reaches everyone. A demographic study of how the average audience member at subsidised arts events compares to the average taxpayer would make for interesting reading. The socio-economic gap between this person and the average Lottery ticket buyer would, I suspect, be even greater.
It would also be worth asking how the background of audiences at funded arts events compares to commercial undertakings such as commercial musicals, pantomime or circus. Would this data support Equity organiser Paul Fleming’s assertion that current funding bodies are “inappropriate” to support art forms that are “valued by working-class culture”?
Or could this be the very reason why the question is not being asked?
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his weekly column at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith