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Looking Back on Culture for Labour

ECOLOGIES | Culture Is Ordinary  }

Juliet Jacques / October 16, 2021
If the last year and a half has shown us anything, it’s that conditions of artistic production are shaped by politics. It is only by remaining involved with politics that we, as artists, can hope to change them. 3067 words / 12 min read

Image: Birds by William Morris.


One cold, wet Saturday evening in November 2019, my friend Kit Caless and I sat in our local pub with a pen and paper, drafting an open letter that we called Culture for Labour. In it, we wrote that ‘a Labour victory is crucial, not just for the future of the United Kingdom, but as a message to show the world that positive change on the environment, workers’ rights, migration, inequality, education and cultural policy is possible.’ We endorsed Labour’s manifesto pledge to restore funding to museums, galleries and libraries ‘to reverse a decade of austerity’, and to invest £160m per year in an arts pupil premium for primary school children, as well as to set up a National Education Service, abolish tuition fees and democratise access to the media – all policies we thought would broaden participation in British cultural life. At a deeper level, we were excited by the idea of a Prime Minister ‘who respects the intelligence and creativity of everyday people, and values the arts and education not just for their role in the economy, but for their capacity to enrich people’s lives’. This principle translated into the manifesto, which moved beyond the technocratic tweaks of the 2015 offering and the social democratic position of 2017, integrating a wide range of ideas into its vision of transforming society. In this, we felt, Corbyn’s Labour were not just aiming to unleash the creative potential of the British public (and especially the young), but were treating politics as an art, repurposing the socialist policies, aesthetics and traditions discarded by the party in its Thatcherite turn and using them to inspire people to participate in a mass movement against neoliberalism.

Corbyn’s Labour were not just aiming to unleash the creative potential of the public, but were repurposing socialist policies, aesthetics and traditions to inspire people to participate in a mass movement against neoliberalism.

Over the next week, we persuaded 500 artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians, architects and other creative figures and cultural workers to sign. Some had long supported the Labour Party, or been vocal in backing Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership: Billy Bragg, Brian Eno, Maxine Peake. Plenty were not based in the UK, but saw the international significance of a radical left-wing government taking power in a historically conservative country, when the far right had been in ascendancy all over the world. Many of the London-based signatories had been canvassing, often with me, and I felt their diversity – of age, background and profession – captured a wave of enthusiasm growing throughout the campaign, as in 2017. As well as door-knocking, where I was amongst thousands who were trying to change the ideas held by the British public, one conversation at a time, I did voluntary data entry and wrote about The World Transformed and Labour’s arts policies, but this co-authored letter, demonstrating the depth of support for Corbyn’s programme in the cultural sector, felt like my most important contribution to the election effort.

We all know what happened next: we lost, catastrophically. I wrote about the day in a piece entitled ‘In the Intense Now’ (after a documentary about the failure of May 1968) to reflect the urgency so many of us had felt, and my immediate awareness that the left, and especially its more radical or utopian elements, now faced an avalanche of reaction and suppression, pushing us back into the margins. There would be no National Education Service or arts pupil premium; no change to tuition fees, the marketisation of universities or the gutting of their arts or humanities departments; no reversal to arts funding cuts and no investment in libraries, nor galleries or museums besides those pushing the most right-wing agendas; no democratisation of the BBC or media more widely; no more of the freedom of movement that brought many of the creative people I knew into contact with each other. There would be no change to the gentrification processes that were forcing artists out of cities, closing music venues, and filling the cultural industries with the privately educated. All I could hope for was that whoever succeeded Corbyn as party leader might retain some of the policies, but given how loudly the Labour right were already shouting about how disastrous the last four years had been, I wasn’t optimistic.

I spent the next few weeks mourning – a process beautifully captured by my friend and fellow canvasser Ed Luker in his long poem ‘How Did You Survive January’ (published in his new collection, Other Life). Of course, I reflected on Culture for Labour, and how little might be built from the huge but short-term alliance we’d built. I had a form of political PTSD, as the result put a different spin on recent years and decades; memories of things I’d thought unimportant bubbled back up. In particular, I recalled UKIP’s party political broadcast for the European Parliament election of 2004, in which “the voice of the people” (a cross between Garry Bushell and Al Murray the Pub Landlord) talked about how much the EU spent on moving between Brussels and Strasbourg every year, over footage of removal men taking furniture out of a van, sped up and set to the Benny Hill music. My flatmate and I had laughed it out of the room: who was it for? Now, I knew. Looking at Wikipedia’s list of individual endorsements in the 2019 election, I recognised just one cultural figure in the Conservative section: Roy Chubby Brown, the 75-year-old stand-up comedian whose routines are rarely broadcast on television due to their racist and misogynistic content, but are frequently found in bargain buckets at petrol stations. The people who bought them were those we had asked: “Socialism or barbarism?” In hindsight, it’s hardly surprising so many literally slammed their doors in our faces: the right had comprehensively won the long-term culture war, partly through leveraging their resentment about not seeing the likes of Hill or Brown on prime-time TV any more.

In truth, our letter barely cut through anywhere. Of the national newspapers, only The Guardian gave it a few paragraphs, at the end of an article about the Grime4Corbyn relaunch. The New Statesman did not cover it; arts publications to which I regularly contributed did not return my emails. Between July 2017 – when we’d rejoiced in the pundits getting the election completely wrong – and December 2019, we’d learned the hard way that the media retained more power than we thought, as its tactic of hammering expedient stories and perspectives while excluding others proved brutally effective. Building a culture – and a media – able to support a socialist project was going to take far more time and effort than we’d anticipated, and we still had little idea of how much worse things were going to get.

We’d learned the hard way that the media retained more power than we thought, as its tactic of hammering expedient stories and perspectives while excluding others proved brutally effective.

The first glimmers of optimism I felt after that exit poll dropped were at Bristol Transformed in March. The crushing defeat (and the news that Bernie Sanders was out of the Democratic primaries) hadn’t had an adverse effect on either attendance or atmosphere, with every event being full of people, young and old, eager to share their ideas: we still had our networks and the institutions we’d built over the last few years, even if, just one month before the leadership contest was due to end, the Labour Party was barely mentioned. It was certain Sir Keir Starmer QC was going to win; we couldn’t tell exactly what this would mean in policy terms, but we all suspected he wasn’t on our side, and I already felt like he’d been grown in a laboratory to suck the life out of a political movement. I spoke on a panel about Art, Power and Ideology, discussing my radio programme/podcast Suite (212) and the need to build institutions that weren’t reliant on Labour, and the return to our tactics of the 2000s, when the left was in the wilderness, using culture to slowly disseminate our ideas through society and perhaps provide an organising pole for like-minded people while we regrouped. Even though the event made it clear the left wasn’t going away, there was still a sense of dread: our discussions on our way back to London were all about the coronavirus, and we decided not to hug each other goodbye.

The national lockdown was announced two weeks later, and Starmer’s victory another fortnight after that: the scale of the Thermidorian reaction may not have been a surprise to everyone on the left, and has doubtless been faster and more brutal than it would have if we had been able to organise in physical spaces, rather than just online. The animus against Corbyn supporters has been clear, and the extent to which both the “soft left” former Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds and her more right-wing replacement, Rachel Reeves, have spoken about the post-pandemic debt suggests that if we’re in for another age of austerity, Starmer’s Labour are going to acquiesce to it, having internalised the logic of Cameron’s Conservatives as thoroughly as Blair’s internalised Thatcher’s. Given how many of Starmer’s ten pledges have already been watered down if not outright abandoned, my hopes that the next manifesto might retain the commitments to democratising the media or abolishing tuition fees, let alone introducing the National Education Service or arts pupil premium, are not high.

Tom Watson, the Shadow Secretary for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and biggest barrier to an even more transformative cultural policy in the Corbyn period, has moved on to become a novelist. Current incumbent Jo Stevens has (understandably, to some extent) focused more in parliament on the need to reign in large online platforms and the implications of high-level sports continuing throughout the pandemic, seemingly animated more by the impact of Brexit (which, again, is worth taking seriously) than by the massive cuts being made across the arts over the summer. Certainly, there has been little coming from the new front bench to provide inspiration to the hundreds who signed the Culture for Labour letter, as the New Management have provided as harsh a rebuke to the prospect of bringing artistic vision into a transformative political programme as the election result. As an aside, the diminished place of aesthetics in Starmer’s Labour is visible from their vapid slogans and abysmal graphic design, suggesting a regime who see politics not as an art, but the most joylessly technocratic form of science.

The task of fighting the cuts, and arguing for the role of culture in enriching people’s lives, fell once again to Jeremy Corbyn, the most high-profile speaker at the Tate United protests against the 330 redundancies announced across Tate Enterprises in August 2020. (I spoke just before he did, and persuaded him to appear on Suite (212) to discuss these ideas in a depth never given to him by any mainstream media platform.) Corbyn lost the Labour whip not long afterwards – another indication that resistance to the Conservative assault on the arts, and efforts to restore the idea of cultural democracy, would happen outside the party. The Tate United events sought to bring artists and unions together for this cause: that more than 100 art educators signed the biggest open letter of its type since the election was encouraging, as was the presence of so many unions, including the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS). It felt obvious that those involved should connect with the UCU, who went on strike in February against falling pay and pay gaps, unsafe workloads and casualisation, with arts universities involved; and the London Renters’ Union, with which some of the capital’s most passionate Labour campaigners had become involved after the electoral losses of December 2019 and April 2020, knowing that ongoing gentrification was having a disastrous effect on the city’s cultural life.

It seems obvious, too, that the next few years for the arts in Britain are going to be dominated by industrial action, involving many of the people who signed the Culture for Labour letter and building on the solidarity seen on the summer’s picket lines and protests. Obviously, it remains hard to say what the post-Covid world will look like, or even if such a thing is possible, although French novelist Michel Houellebecq will likely be right to say “the same but worse” – unless we fight. Certainly, government decisions to divert university funding away from arts and design courses, and to reject a scheme to allow musicians to tour in the EU without visas, customs waivers and work permits for each member state after Brexit, and confirmation of a post-Brexit “review of workers’ rights” suggest this will be the case. Many music venues, theatres, cinemas, galleries and other spaces got emergency funding in the hope that the vaccine would permit them to function normally before too long (a hope that, for now, does not seem to have been unrealistic) – a result of pressure put on the government by arts workers – but there will still be incalculable losses to a scene already ravaged first by a wave of Arts Council cuts in 2008, and then more than ten years of austerity.

The next few years for the arts in Britain are going to be dominated by industrial action, involving many who signed the Culture for Labour letter and building on the solidarity seen on the summer’s picket lines and protests.

We all know that the right hate and fear any art – hence their forty-year quest to ensure that the counter-cultural explosions of the second half of the twentieth century never happen again. We know, too, that the right has been adept at channelling resentment through culture for political ends, but we shouldn’t be too defeatist about this. After all, they had a massive, extremely well-funded media infrastructure to manufacture and amplify concerns about, say, which comedies can still be shown on the BBC. We had little more than a few crowd-funded media start-ups, a few hundred signatories and a bunch of volunteers banging on doors in the hope of getting a hearing, underestimated the extent to which four years of relentless demonisation of Corbyn and his supporters had cut through with a certain section of the public.

Corbyn’s Labour tried to get around the right’s ‘culture war’ approach to politics by shifting the conversation onto socio-economic issues. Like much of ‘the project’, this was ethically the right thing to do, but too easily defeated by the media just lying about it – both about the cost, plausibility and levels of support for the economic programme, and by claiming that the party as a whole was waging war on “British values”. The decades-long absence of ideas of socialism, and of solidarity from mainstream media cost us dearly. Our opponents had set the terms of discourse for so long that any attempt to talk about redistributive policies or democratisation immediately got subsumed into bad-faith debates about the “wrong” people benefitting from universalism (cf Progress director Richard Angell tweeting about ‘Care, Not Car Parks’ during the 2017 campaign), or long-standing tropes about corrupt union barons. In the end, all of our diagnoses of the country’s ills and suggested remedies for them were drowned out by the words ‘Get Brexit Done’, yelled at us through a foghorn until we were defeated. One of the most painful lessons of “the Corbyn project”, and especially its inglorious end, was that we cannot hope to go through such media, and that trying to go around through brief conversations on the doorstep at election time isn’t going to be sufficient; we need to do more to build up our own journalists, networks and publications – and our own artists, filmmakers, designers, musicians and writers.

Our opponents had set the terms for so long that any attempt to talk about redistributive policies or democratisation immediately got subsumed into bad-faith debates about the “wrong” people benefitting from universalism.

In light of this, I think Walter Benjamin’s famous line about how we should respond to the right’s aestheticisation of politics by politicising aesthetics remains useful. Corbyn’s party did aestheticise politics quite successfully, gaining emotional resonance by drawing on a long line of British socialist iconography from the early 20th century labour movement to the films of Ken Loach, inspiring contemporary artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers to attach their names to it. This idea of putting ourselves at the service of a left-wing movement is worth retaining, even (and perhaps especially) if our art does not express an obvious ideological position. We can use the coalition of young and old not just to expand artists’ unions, but also to hand down the idea of cultural democracy, focusing on creating spaces for emerging artists to work – and finding more outlets for the demands made in the 2019 manifesto, even if changes to the party’s direction since Sir Keir Starmer QC became leader suggest we may have to find outlets outside of Labour as well as pressuring for those demands to be retained.

Our problem now is not a lack of good art, nor of politically engaged artists making challenging work, but the long-term, deliberate and ideologically motivated destruction of the means by which they might develop their craft and communicate with the public. Building this capacity back up is the first task for politicised artists, and it is a huge one – it requires us to take on the assault on arts universities, state-funded education, the BBC and the public sphere, and the cultural sector at the same time, when we’re already financially and psychologically stretched, and no longer able to count on the party of labour to support us. But art is one of the most powerful tools we have in our long-term aim to shift the country away from the ideas that underpin neoliberalism – and it’s important not to forget, even as the human cost of the right-wing response to Covid-19 threatens to overshadow everything else, that the arts will always remain an essential site of struggle. If the last year and a half has shown us anything, it’s that the conditions of artistic production are shaped by politics, and it is only by remaining involved with politics that we as artists can hope to change those conditions, and their context, for the better.


Author:

Juliet Jacques (@zinovievletter)

Juliet Jacques is a writer and filmmaker based in London. Her books include Trans: A Memoir (Verso, 2015) and her short story collection Variations (Influx Press, 2021). She co-hosts Suite (212) on Resonance 104.4fm, which looks at the arts in their social, cultural, political and historical contexts, and teaches at the Royal College of Art and elsewhere.