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Jeremy Corbyn: Hopeless case or saviour of the arts?

3 September 2015

‘Jeremy knows people from every lost cause in every part of the world; he’s better known by prisoners on death row than by members of the Labour Party.’ Cue laughter for comedian Jeremy Hardy’s warm-up act for Jeremy Corbyn’s arts policy launch at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston on Tuesday.

Despite being blessed with the initials JC, the frontrunner in the Labour leadership race was presented to his partisan audience as less Messiah than latter-day St Jude, patron saint of hopeless cases. And so hopeless, apparently, is the case of the arts in austerity Britain that Corbyn is the only contender for the Labour leadership to have thought the subject worthy of a policy document. As another introductory speaker, Michaela Crimmin, commented, it was ‘a cause for celebration in itself…to have a prospective leader issue an arts policy statement of this nature’.

Having read the pre-launch summary posted online, I was feeling faintly optimistic myself. It made all the right noises about the underfunding of local arts projects, slashing of arts provision in state schools, regional inequality in the distribution of funds, threats to the future of the BBC, the need for an end to ‘Treasury value measurement methodologies’ that represent ‘a dangerous retreat into a callous commercialisation of every sphere of our lives’ and a general promise to ‘prioritise the need for more investments in the arts.’ But there was almost no mention of the visual arts and only a passing reference to museums, galleries and libraries, an omission repeated in a vox pop video introducing the evening’s proceedings, in which a succession of nurses, doctors, teachers, actors – and one investment banker – dilated on the social benefits of self-expression.

Corbyn’s speech, delivered fluently without notes, appeared to betray a similar bias: his one complaint about the state of the visual arts was that ‘the most radical galleries are under threat’. At this point, my glimmer of hope began to fade. Where was the mention of all the galleries up and down the country – not hotbeds of radical self-expression necessarily, but conscientious guardians of historic collections – that have been forced by cash-strapped local councils into cutting staff and opening hours, contemplating entrance charges and even selling off treasures?

When I confronted him with this question from the floor, I was pleasantly surprised by his response. He condemned regional galleries ‘with amazing collections’ that ‘seem to think they have an opportunity to sell them off, which I find very sad – if someone leaves something to a gallery it’s so that people can see it’. He proposed to ‘ring-fence levels of expenditure for arts and culture by local government so that they don’t sell off collections and they keep galleries open.’ And he ended with a personal message for the National Gallery: ‘Please don’t privatise your staff – they’re doing a great job of looking after our collections’.

It was reassuring, but is it workable? There are only so many miles of ring-fencing a strained budget can stretch to. Still, however creaky his Corbynomics, one thing is clear: the MP for North Islington is that rare thing at Westminster, a politician who is actually interested in the arts. In answer to another question, he confessed to writing ‘bits of poetry’ and producing ‘totally random paintings which are abstract beyond belief’. If he becomes a frontline politician he may be the first since the former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Chris Smith, one-time MP for Islington South and Finsbury (is it just something in the air?) with a genuine enthusiasm for art.

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