I’m going to tell you a story. I did just check it and it goes to show how 40 years of memory can possibly embellish, but anyway I’m going to give it a shot.
As a student I was dragged to a place called the Oxford Union (and for those of you who don’t know that’s not the good sort of union it’s the other sort of union) for a comedy night, to support my housemate who was the warmup act I think – he was a bit rubbish, we knew that.
After he finished, on comes this geeky Scottish post-grad.
He had us on the floor laughing. And remember it as a sketch of Margaret Thatcher, skinny-dipping. I’ve been informed that actually it was being eaten by a giant pike, but I swear there was skinny dipping, and that she was singing Rick Astley, ‘Never Going to Give You Up’. I can still remember the swimming.
Now normally when I tell this story, which was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, I then do an impression of that comedian doing an impression of Margaret Thatcher, doing an impression of Rick Astley.
But I can’t do it this time, because he’s right here. So thank you Armando for that. And for The Thick of It, obviously.
And 40 years on, I remember the joy of the performance. The importance of venues that include, not exclude, as this one definitely did. But I also remember the value of storytelling, which can encapsulate a national moment in an expression of art, such as think Margaret Thatcher being eaten by a giant pike whilst singing Rick Astley.
So I’m going to pick up on some of those themes now.
They were relevant 60 years ago, when Labour’s Jennie Lee, Minister for the Arts, great heroine of mine, published her era-defining White Paper, A Policy for The Arts.
In it she wrote:
In any civilised community the arts and associated amenities, serious or comic, light or demanding, must occupy a central place. Their enjoyment should not be regarded as something remote from everyday life.
Now, reading through Jennie’s White Paper today, even at a time of huge technological advances, there’s so much that’s still relevant.
A reminder of what Labour does for the arts when Labour is in power.
In 1946, we set up the Arts Council. Yes that was us.
In 1969, the Open University.
In 2001 my friend Chris Smith did free museums and art galleries, throwing open the doors of our cultural institutions to all. Such a Labour idea.
The Tories have failed, people want change
But now we’re faced with a similar situation to the one Jennie faced in 1964.
The Tories had been in power for 13 years. The arts had been starved, famous companies were in debt, infrastructure was crumbling.
Does it sound familiar?
And since 2010, the Tories have overseen the degradation of cultural life in the UK. Arts, culture and the creative industries have been undervalued, dismissed, and savagely attacked.
12 Culture Secretaries in 14 years shows the disdain with which successive Conservative Governments treat the people who create and enjoy arts and culture.
Jeremy Hunt started it. £19m cut from Arts Council England in 2011.
The Culture, Media and Sport department had its budget cut by a quarter between 2010 and 2015.
Brutal Tory and Lib Dem cuts to local authorities ripped the roots out of the cultural life of our country.
Putting up barriers with our friends and neighbours in Europe.
Telling ballerinas to retrain in cyber during the covid crisis. Remember that one?
None of this has been about what’s right for the country.
It’s about a perverse ideological decision to focus on culture wars over culture. To divide.
This has damaged not just the sector but the country.
It’s a testament to everyone who works, enjoys and values arts and culture that so many of you are here today with – I hope – hope in your hearts yearning for change.
Valuing arts and culture
When the Tories are in power, the cultural life of this country suffers.
When Labour are in power, arts and culture are made central. That’s what Jennie did in 1965.
She became the first ever Minister for the Arts. Now Wilson had just given her a role in the Ministry for Public Building and Works. She suggested that her role be expanded and responsibility for the arts be taken out of Treasury and given to a specific minister. Her.
And the white paper touches on issues far beyond the remit of her department. And that’s because you don’t sustain the arts by focusing narrowly. You sustain them, you help them thrive, by focusing on infrastructure, education, skills, health, finance, and perhaps above all else, on diversity and equality.
Amongst other things she looked at housing the arts; the importance of education; of working with local and regional authorities; and the range of possible financing (which I’ll return to).
Beginning in the schools, and reaching out into every corner of the nation’s life, in city and village, at home, at work, at play, there is an immense amount that could be done to improve the quality of contemporary life.
And if our hard work pays off and we win the general election, you will have in me a Culture Secretary who knows the arts are not optional, they are essential.
And that’s because above all else, arts and creative industries bring us joy.
And it’s joy makes life worth living. Whether it’s the song at your wedding or the first film you took your kid to see. And in Labour, we think everyone, everywhere, should be able to share in that joy.
And arts and culture have suffered under the Tories. Yet the sector has carried on. So imagine what they could do with a national champion, in their corner, fighting for them.
My vision is that every single one of us, no matter where we live, is able to experience the very best art and culture we have.
The arts are one of our greatest exports.
They should be treasured.
They should be loved.
They should be an integral part of everyone’s life.
And this means valuing the ecosystem as a whole.
I don’t want arts and culture to be seen as over here and the creative industries over there.
Because the publicly invested sector feeds the commercial sector, and vice versa. And by the way I use the term investment because it is, it’s not a subsidy, it’s R&D. The creative industries are an essential part of Labour’s plan for economic growth.
And of course, that means we need more money in the arts and creative industries. And I am constantly thinking about options to achieve this, I welcome all suggestions by the sector and all of you. And one of the first things I will do if we get into government is put in place a plan for the widest possible range, the widest amount of finance, to go into arts and creative industries. Yes, more money.
When people go out of an evening, most audience members don’t ask themselves am I somewhere that’s had an Arts Council grant? Is this a play that started life in the National Theatre?
No, they don’t. Because that question’s not necessary.
Because it’s all part of the same ecosystem.
And in Labour we don’t see arts and culture as elitist.
Because if it is elitist then you’re doing it wrong. That’s the Tories who do that. They like it that way. They don’t want to share it.
Now, do you remember “Every Child Matters”? Yeah, we had three-word slogans before they did.
And because every child matters, we believe quality creative education for every child is essential.
So I want every child to have the best music, art and drama, the lot.
Because the creative industries need workers equipped with the skills to take on the dynamic jobs of the future. And everyone else, whether they’re architects or teaching assistants, needs creativity.
Creative education is about the joy it brings into young people’s lives.
Setting them up for a lifetime of enrichment whether as a creator or a consumer.
So, I’m working with Bridget Phillipson, Labour’s brilliant Shadow Education Secretary, absolutely committed to this.
Because, we know, there’s no biological reason why a young person born in the poorest part of my constituency has any less talent than those born in the richest part.
I want to tear down those barriers to opportunity. That’s the mission. That’s the Labour way.
Because in Labour we know that where you were born, who you go to school with, who your parents are, who you know should not determine your future.
And a creative education is too important to leave to chance.
So finally, following on from that, diversity and equality in the arts, they make better art. They just do. More people using their imagination. More perspectives. More audience members interested.
So. I’m always going to ask the tough questions.
Are we drawing on everyone’s talents?
Are we giving everyone a chance to develop their interests?
How do we all share in the joy and the jobs?
Where are the women?
Where are the people of colour?
Where are the people from working class communities?
And I’ll keep asking those questions, if we’re in government, of every creative organisation.
Because we are all better off when we draw on everyone’s talent.
Because we are the party of equality.
That’s who we are.
Keir is ambitious for this country and for the arts. I’m ambitious for this country and for the arts.
He will lead a decade of national renewal.
And arts and culture will be central.
Because Keir wants us to turn the page. And he’s right. Because it’s time to put 14 years of Tory government behind us. We will together paint, perform, film, sing, dance, design and write a new more prosperous and joyous story for Britain.