Jeremy Corbyn’s Arts Plan

In recent years, the UK government’s cultural policy has been formulated on the basis of market failure – the grudging acknowledgement that certain artistic endeavours are not supported by the market and must compete for ever-shrinking subsidies. Beyond this, the arts have been rendered subordinate to economic logic in two other main ways. The first of these is through their evaluation according to the tenets of HM Treasury’s Green Book, which insists on ‘attributing monetary values to all impacts of any proposed policy, project and programme’. This means that the economic value of all cultural endeavours must be calculated and accounted for, which denigrates individual and social value and militates against experimentation and creative dissent.

The second way in which the publicly funded arts have been shackled to the market is through creative industries rhetoric. A brainchild of New Labour which has been enthusiastically adopted by subsequent governments, the creative industries are defined by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport as ‘those industries which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of economic property’.[i] In the case of fine art, creative industries doctrine refers exclusively to the market and urges that ‘Attention should be paid to the range and availability of stock to ensure that buyers continue to be given choices’.[ii] This statement could be applied to any number of consumer goods, but it does not lend itself to the creation of great works of art, the vast majority of which have historically been made without the market in mind. On Twitter, the Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Chris Bryant, insists that the non-commercial arts should be lumped together with their profitable cousins video games, architecture and ‘broadcast’. He also deems any attempt to distinguish artistic projects on the basis of their need for state support – the essence of policy developed on the principle of market failure – ‘dangerous’.

At the last election, the UK Labour Party betrayed a generation by refusing to either abolish university tuition fees or reverse damaging cuts to the culture sector. The next likely leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, recently outlined plans for a National Education Service that can be accessed by people of all ages. On 1 September 2015, Corbyn unveiled a comprehensive national plan for the publicly funded arts, culture and heritage sector. This holistic plan proposes a total overhaul of the arts funding system at every level; it recognises the intrinsic individual and social value of cultural participation and the areas of overlap between culture, health, education and community. Perhaps most importantly, it advocates the kind of sustained, long-term approach that has been conspicuously absent from policymaking in recent decades. If Corbyn’s vision was realised, government grants for the arts would be reinstated to supplement (rather than completely reverse) contentious cultural dependence on lottery funding; regional imbalances in arts funding would be heeded, taking care to devolve lottery funds far beyond the capital, while London would be fortified as an international (grant-funded) cultural centre; local authorities would be given more autonomy in disbursing arts funding, possibly bolstered by European sources; publicly funded cultural organisations would be prevailed upon to provide extra-curricular arts activities, alongside a systemic overhaul of arts education in schools; digital technology would be embraced by producers and consumers of culture alike; those working in the cultural sector would be adequately remunerated for their contribution to society; neither ethnicity, gender, class nor disability would impede involvement in the arts. Taken together, this represents the commendable and much-needed reform of an otherwise ailing sector.

At first glance, the most obvious downside of the plan is a semantic one. On the one hand, the plan explicitly refers to cultural policy being developed alongside the work of the Creative Industries Federation, rightly distinguishing the arts from more commercial branches of creativity. On the other hand, the plan reverts to the language of the creative industries to make an economic argument for the continued support of the arts, which runs along the following lines: The creative industries make money for the economy, despite modest governmental investment; we should protect and sustain this economic contribution, ergo we should support the arts. This is rather like saying that motorised vehicles have been shown to boost productivity, which is great, so everyone should have access to a bicycle. Instead, new arguments are needed about the individual and social value of the arts, which will hopefully be forthcoming when the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Cultural Value Project reports back later this year.

The problem with semantics is that they can easily tip over into ideology, like insisting on artists’ resale and intellectual property rights, thus reinforcing a market economy for the arts.

The second semantic–ideological flaw in the plan is to be found in the statement that ‘Arts Council England’s grant in aid has disproportionately and ruthlessly been cut in tackling the deficit’. This echoes the generally accepted view that the financial crisis of 2007/8 led nation states to increase their borrowing to an unprecedented level, to bail out the banks and otherwise rebalance the economy, and that, in order to repay these large national debts, governments need to reduce public spending. Under the market system, the practice of nation states running up debt to keep markets flowing is business as usual. The main way in which states raise the money to fund investments in the market – such as transport and IT infrastructure – is not through tax revenue (from which public spending is drawn) but by issuing bonds..[iii] A bond is essentially a promise that the government will repay the value of the bond, plus interest, after a fixed period. These bonds are generally sold to private companies – banks, pension funds and the like – thereby leaching more money from government to market over time.

The austerity myth – that reductions in public funding are the route to securing economic growth – has repeatedly been debunked by Corbyn. But acknowledgement also needs to be made that there is no connection between cuts in public funding and the stated desire to diminish the deficit. In fact, the national debt has been climbing since austerity measures were introduced, and there still seems to be enough public funding flowing through the system for the UK government to consider renewing the Trident missile defence system, estimated to cost anywhere between £15 and £100 billion.

In his book, The Establishment and how they get away with it, Owen Jones justifiably claims that ‘the Establishment is bound together by common economic interests and a shared set of mentalities: in particular a mentality that holds that those at the top deserve ever greater power and wealth’. Alongside the political and media elites that Jones exposes, the mentality he describes is rife in the cultural field. One only has to look at the boards of the main museums and galleries to see how the captains of industry reinforce the capitalist consensus through their involvement in cultural philanthropy. While Corbyn’s Arts Plan is a welcome first step in tackling elitism, care should be taken to furnish arguments for state support of the arts that are free from the tyranny of the market.

This text was originally posted on Metamute on 2 September 2015.


[i] Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Creative Industries Economic Estimates, 9 December 2010.

[ii] Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Art & Antiques Market, 2001.

[iii]  For a compelling explication of sovereign debt, see The Wine and Cheese Society of Greater London, ‘Sovereign debt and the crisis in the Eurozone’, Kittens, issue 3, April 2012.