Learning from New Labour

Kate Oakley

As we enter 15 months of electioneering, the legacies of the last Labour Government and the Coalition will be contrasted and fought over. The financial crisis and subsequent recession and cuts have dominated public debate and have shaped the Coalition’s cultural polices so strongly that it is difficult to determine what they have been, beyond retrenchment and some minor attempts to boost private sponsorship. But New Labour’s 13-year period in office left a clear imprint, for good and ill.

So what characterised it and how should it inform the next government’s policies? Though there are debates about the percentage, it was clearly a period of vastly increased spending, from Lottery sources and elsewhere. It left us with a much-improved cultural infrastructure, attracting more audiences and participants; but one that remains badly distributed across the country.

There were a variety of institutional innovations – the UK Film Council, screen agencies, Nesta, Creative Partnerships and RDAs – which made significant investment in the creative economy. But what’s striking about these is how little traction they had. Almost all of them have been scrapped or restructured without any great political backlash. Only Nesta remains, having shaken off the arts and moved towards an uncritical, and more politically palatable, championing of innovation.

And then there are the creative industries. Hugely successful as an idea; indeed the DCMS model of creative industries was one of New Labour’s greatest policy exports. But behind the promise of new jobs and revitalised regions lie the continuing issues of precarious and poorly paid work, the exploitation of new entrants, growing inequality and lack of diversity. Many commentators including UNESCO have characterised the model as neoliberal, elevating market goals above all others and in the process draining away much of what people value from cultural activities.

In the later New Labour period, the economic role of culture became increasingly paired with the goal of excellence. Yet this concept has proved to be not only harder to measure but equally problematic in its implementation. As highlighted so dramatically in the Rebalancing our Cultural Capital report, the McMaster Review of 2008, Supporting Excellence in the Arts has been a fig leaf covering up the concentration of funds in our national (i.e. London-based) institutions. Nor is it just a case of the regions losing out – the community and voluntary arts sector have faced similarly deep cuts.

In recent years policymakers have exclusively valued either economic success or elite forms of excellence; and those who have worried about these notions have often seemed reluctant to make judgements altogether. It seems to me correct to make judgements about culture, but also to pay attention to the grounds on which those judgements are made.

In moving beyond notions of artistic excellence or economic growth, perhaps the next government should instead pursue quality; in productions and exhibitions, of the audience experience, in facilities and venues; of jobs and work, and of education and skills. Quality should be considered across the sector as a whole: for too long, the arts has tolerated bad work (for workers) in order to produce good work (for consumers) and that has to change, not least if the current marginalisation of all but the wealthy and well connected in our cultural life is to be halted. In an era of reduced public funding, small and local are likely to be the buzzwords of such an approach and that is no bad thing, if it involves looking at new models of cultural organisation and how they can provide sustainable livelihoods and great cultural offerings.

Perhaps the best instance of exactly this kind of cultural policy was also one of the most enduring and popular legacies of the last Labour government – the decision to make entry to museums free. Not because it increased visitors (it did) or diversified the visitor base (it didn’t much), but because, along with the right to roam in the countryside, it was one of the few decisions that New Labour made that viewed us as citizens, not consumers. And that seems like a good place to start any policy, cultural or otherwise.

Kate Oakley is Professor of Cultural Policy at the University of Leeds

Together with Dave Hesmondhalgh, David Lee and Melissa Nisbett from the Universities of Leeds and Kings College London, Kate has completed “Cultural Policy under New Labour”, a research programmed funded by AHRC.

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