Arts For Labour & Cultural Democracy


At last years World Transformed (2016) Alan Tomkins – once Senior Cultural Policy advisor to Livingstone’s radical GLC – urged attenders to seize the moment, agitate for the kind of radical cultural change the GLC had made and re-launch Arts For Labour as an agent of that change. Sadly Alan died recently but in the best socialist tradition friends gathered and decided not to mourn but to organise, Arts For Labour was reborn and its stewardship passed to Lorraine Leeson, artists, academic and author,

This is the first time in several decades that socialism has returned to the popular agenda, and where the Labour Party is proposing that culture should be at the heart of its policies. It is also a moment where people are seeing that there are alternative ways of conducting the way our society is run. Artists are increasingly interested in how their work relates to people beyond the art world and its influence on the wider society”.

Arts For Labour sees its new role as being more than a vehicle for “celebrity” artists to show support at election time, but as an effective lobby that uses the opportunity created by Corbyn’s willingness to engage to open up communication between grass roots artists and cultural policy makers. Lorraine Leeson, “This offers opportunity for a re-thinking of cultural policy, which has become moribund over recent decades, with increasingly top-down, target-based approaches to policy and funding”.

Labour’s approach to cultural policy has been rooted in Social Inclusion, top down interventions requiring those in receipt of state funding to address wide spread discrimination in the cultural sector. In practice little changed, the institutions become adapt at saying or doing what was required to secure funding without making any fundamental change, at the same time privatisation began to close down the spaces and places that were at the heart of popular culture. As The Equality Act turns inclusion into an enforceable legal obligation, Labour can find its focus elsewhere.

When grass roots artists began to wrestle with the widening gap between the reality and the rhetoric of inclusion they asked some fundamental questions, such as into what and for what purpose were people being “included”, and ideas such as Cultural Democracy were revisited. In 1985 Karen Merkel was part of the co-creation A Manifesto for Cultural Democracy.

We were doing it on behalf of what was known as the Community Arts movement in the UK (although we were not especially comfortable with this labelling as it felt marginalising and somehow anti-art in how it became to be understood and used against us).  We first discovered the concept of Cultural Democracy from cultural organisers in the USA who had an organisation called, the Alliance for Cultural Democracy. It was inspirational yet seemed to us, somewhat Utopian. On reflection, we felt that we could have access to local power more meaningfully – it was more easily accessible to us and/but with that came decision-making and responsibilities – out of range for our comrades across the pond.

That Manifesto offered us this definition;

The ideas that constitute cultural democracy both enable and depend upon direct participation, and take as their aim the building and sustenance of a society in which people are free to come together to produce, distribute and receive the cultures they choose.

In 2004 the Cultural Policy Collective in Scotland moved these idea forward by including an explicit critique of the links between the then Labour Government’s social inclusion policy and its neo-liberal economics.

Cultural democracy refers to a set of political arguments addressing inequalities in cultural provision and challenging the destructive influence of the marketplace. It has informed grassroots arts projects and radical approaches to cultural policy. By contrast, present government initiatives are premised on the top-down ‘democratisation’ of culture, a process aimed at engaging members of ‘excluded’ groups in historically privileged cultural arenas. Such a policy neither reforms the existing institutional framework of culture, or reverses a process of damaging privatisation.

Having accepted that there was no economic alternative the best Labour could offer were tributaries (like Social Inclusion) down which some of the world’s wealth might trickle. Labours policy of turning over responsibility for the public sphere (including housing and health) to the private sector, has been adopted with renewed vigour by subsequent administrations, less profitable spaces (such as pubs, clubs, parks, arts and community centres and even football grounds) continue to decline being replaced by more profitable but often unaffordable and so exclusive alternatives. Academic David Stevenson comments,

Although there are ever greater ways in which some can express themselves culturally, social inequity means that such possibilities are denied to others, leading to a culture-gap between those who can express themselves freely and those whose cultural expression is mediated and controlled in the same way as their social and economic freedoms.

Corbyn’s break with the economic pessimism of New Labour and his stated ambition of placing culture at the heart of government offers new hope and space to imagine. I asked David what Cultural Democracy might look like today

A cultural democracy is, for me, a society where all of the citizens have the time and economic security to explore and express their cultural values. It starts from an assumption that all humans are cultural and that having the freedom and security to make manifest those cultural instincts are the hallmarks of an equitable and civilised society. A cultural democracy does not seek to make value judgements about the form which anyone’s cultural expression may take, instead recognising that is the right to a cultural life that we all share, and that heterogeneity of this cultural life should be indicative of the society’s diversity.

There is a discussion to be had about what culture and democracy is, but there is also a body of research and considered practice amongst artists who position themselves outside the “mainstream” who know from experience of the cultural capabilities that are in us all. Culture is central to our personal and societal well being, through it we express identity, share our hopes and aspirations and build the empathy necessary to create a compassionate world – for the many and not the few to live with dignity. New Labour became ensnared in its own trap of having to prove economic value. We can turn the world upside down if we hold to the simple socialist principle that the economy is here to serve culture, not culture to serve the economy, and that the right to a cultural life is the right of us all.