Illustration by Polly Nor via @creativity4change’s Instagram
Stars converged on Stratford’s Theatre Royale on Sunday evening as Labour launched their Arts manifesto. Feeling far away from the drudgery of political discourse outside, the event was funny, enlightening, and heartwarming as Labour’s plans received resounding support from the likes of M.I.A, Jamelia, Emeli Sandé, Maxine Peak, Ken Loach, and Clean Bandit (Lily Allen was also beamed in via satellite).
The recurring phrase from the night was “bread and roses”, a political mantra that runs through this Arts for All blueprint. The saying comes from a speech made by factory inspector and suffragette Helen Todd in 1910 – it’s a call for an existence where you don’t just survive, you thrive. As Dawn Butler explained to gal-dem: “What it means is yes, we need to feed people and give people the basics, they need bread. But, they also need joy in their life. There’s nothing too good for the working class; they deserve Shakespeare and to paint, and draw and tell stories.” She said that through the art people can express their most authentic self. After seeing Dawn dance with British R&B singer Jamelia at the event, I can confirm she’s joyfully expressive.
Labour’s promises aim to reverse a decade of undermined arts funding. As a “creative” you often hear the same gripes. Talented photographers, artists, musicians, and writers grew up feeling like their skills would never be enough to support them financially in life. Even now, creatives are still being made to feel lucky to be paid for their craft at all. Many creatives will be familiar with the concepts of “insecure self-employment, in-work poverty” and “exploitative” bad bosses Labour denounce in their plans for creative jobs. That’s why they’ll be happy to hear how they want to give freelancers more workers rights, including parental leave, holiday pay, and better pensions. In short, their vision is a diverse and thriving industry where artistic work can “provide a decent life”.
During the evening Labour’s inspiring leader Jeremy Corbyn waxed lyrical about the healing qualities of poetry, and theatre, and how these mediums help people tell their stories. Comedian Rob Delaney spoke of how drawing helped his young son come to terms with the death of his younger brother. And, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell revealed that until he was eight he’d dreamt of being a musician until the strongest boy in school straightened his triangle in a music lesson. But, he also admitted he’d never forgive the Conservatives for what they’d done over the last 10 years as they’d denied people “hope” and “the ability to dream.”
“The key issue for us is that we’ve got to recognise that people’s lives are more than just going to work and going to bed,” John explained to gal-dem. “It’s also about enjoyment, the quality of life is about music, literature, dance, theatre – all of those aspects that enrich us overall. It actually brings people together as well. They learn about the world, learn about relationships, learn about each other.”
Battling the Tories in an election that comes a decade after they first unleashed austerity on Britain must be a tiring and frustrating task, and when asked what art John focuses on to unwind and recharge his answer is unexpected. “Clean Bandit,” he said. “It’s great music, but also social conscience as well. Their song ‘Rockabye’ (featuring Sean Paul) is about a single woman bringing up a youngster bringing up a child. They’re singing about real people.” The love is certainly mutual as Clean Bandit has been vocal in their support of the party.
“The key issue for us is that we’ve got to recognise that people’s lives are more than just going to work and going to bed. It’s about enjoyment.”John McDonell
While some of these stars, (who I’m sure will be labelled champagne socialists by the right-wing), are admittedly now quite privileged, they all shared the same sentiment. Jamelia found her voice in the Birmingham-based arts centre her mum ran, while M.I.A said she owes a lot to the government funding for recreational activities during her youth. She explained how her school, lunch and uniform were paid for, while it was government funding that put her through Central Saint Martins art degree.
“I was constantly trying to drop out and during those times I spent a lot of time in youth clubs, especially around east London,” M.I.A added. “Those really helped me, you’d come across people who were social outcasts but because of government funding, they were able to rehabilitate themselves. For example, ex-convicts who would come and help crazy teenagers like myself.”
It’s a story that mirrors the pivotal moments in many creatives’ lives in the UK, as the nurturing they received came from government-funded schools, youth clubs, art centres, and schemes that are since becoming defunct. Speaking to Saskilla, a rapper and key organiser of Grime4Corbyn, he remembered Simba youth club in south London that is now closed down.
“When I was about 14 that youth club had So Solid in there judging a competition and I won – that changed the course of my entire life,” Saskilla recounted. “Just the fact that Romeo said I was good made me go home and say ‘You know what? I am good.’ I learned DJing at that youth club, I learned how to MC there.”
“It’s just sad that those things don’t really exist now. I don’t know if they expect kids to be on Play Station or lie in these days but it robbing them of the chance to be creative,” he added. “The arts need investment.”
He confirmed that the Grime4 Corbyn concert will return to Corbyn ahead of the 12 December election. “Grime4Corbyn is trying to encourage the youth,” he said. “It’s more to do with a ‘tribe’: there’s a tribe of people who listen to grime just like there’s a tribe of people that like football. Support for the arts is support for grime, I would be a dickhead to not support a manifesto that supports what grime is. If I didn’t come and show up, what am I doing… supporting Boris?”
Labour’s Arts for All plans include funding for arts and music therapies, upgrading and building new libraries, museums, galleries and arts venues, and more investment in youth services. As someone who grew up dreaming of being a writer in Manchester (and at times was told to manage my expectations) the commitment to evenly spreading spending between all communities and regions is one of the most intriguing considerations of the manifesto. The majority of funding and opportunities reside in London, contributing to the brain drain where young ambitious creatives flock from their home towns. This new charter outlines a new Town of Culture competition which should encourage people to travel around the UK and focus on other scenes.
“(My) youth club changed the course of my entire life. I learned DJing at that youth club, I learned how to MC there. It’s just sad that those things don’t really exist now”Saskilla
This is just one aspect of a manifesto that seeks to invest in the many skills UK’s youth has to offer. This charter for arts and culture, along with more provisions in education across the board opens up opportunities for people to find new avenues for their career. It has the potential to create new scenes and creative communities outside of the dominant London bubble.
Ione Gamble, editor-in-chief and co-creator of creativity4change, said it’s encouraging to see Labour “take the arts seriously”. “Growing up I massively benefitted from low-income grants, EMA, and other things that have now been scrapped. These helped me pursue a career in journalism. Kids aren’t able to find their place in the world unless they’re given access to a variety of options.” As such, she’s started an art project in support of Labour which crowdsources political imagery from her UK-based peers.
Overall, the evening proved that Labour’s plans for society aren’t one where we all live in a continued state of fear and anxiety, and it was a breath of fresh air. Why shouldn’t we build a society where we feel comfortable expressing ourselves and communicating our circumstances through creativity?
“They say that this manifesto is not deliverable. They’re partly right,” concluded Dawn. “This manifesto is not deliverable under a Tory government. This manifesto was only deliverable under a Labour government. This is a manifesto of hope.”