As the North of England's arts and culture is gutted, the London-centric press looks away

Newcastle is to cut 100% of its art funding, but the southern-dominated media can't report it.

At the end of 2011, I signed on at Newcastle City Jobcentre Plus. Because of unusually high service demand, I was given a monthly seven-minute appointment on the fourth floor, halfway up an imposing building that teemed with the freshly down-and-out. Newcastle was grey, perpetually raining, and terminally pessimistic. Down on the second floor, two of my middle-aged relatives, recently made redundant, were signing on too.

For the next six months, I regularly stood in a long queue of fellow twentysomethings, all bemoaning the system that was demonstrably failing us with a poignant sense of camaraderie. That Christmas, I went round every shop in the city centre and dropped off my CV when they began to advertise holiday vacancies; out of 27 stores, not one even called me in for an interview. This stung not just because I’d just graduated from UCL and therefore considered myself academically overqualified, but because I’d spent my university years working part-time in retail. My CV had been constructed around a Jobcentre template for the sector and I didn’t mind the unspoken criteria (often actually voiced if you got to speak to the manager) of being easily laid off in January; I just wanted enough money to return to London, which I’d been driven out of, post-graduation, by skyrocketing rent.

This story was familiar to most of those twentysomethings in the self-styled Queue of Little Hope. Like me, they were northerners who had defected to the south and been left gobsmacked by the relative levels of opportunity there. Those of us who wanted careers in the media knew that the requisite networking, the schmooze-and-boozing, the right-place-right-timing, had to be done in the big city. Unemployment in the North East was high, and wages were low. A girl that I met in the Jobcentre line, who eventually found herself employment with an advertising agency, then reluctantly picked up sex work to supplement her wage. The full-time job she’d been shunted into left her with £15 per week after bills and rent – and strip clubs were stepping up their recruitment drives in the wake of so many disillusioned, penniless female "NEETs" (young people not in education, employment or training) returning home.

Recession tales like this are now, unfortunately, fairly commonplace. But Newcastle has made the headlines in the last few weeks for one very conspicuous decision: to cut 100 per cent of its own arts funding. This sticks out as a particular example of cruelty in a city which had only recently benefited from what many lauded as a cultural regeneration (in 2011, the Turner Prize was hosted by the Baltic Gallery on the local quayside.) Councillor Nick Forbes has already defended the contentious figures behind his reasoning for them in this magazine, and conspiracies about how his own ambitions affected his decisions have been rife. But all of this reporting and speculation has been done in a tone symptomatic of how the London-dominated media speaks about the north: with little actual outrage, and a lot of head-shaking and resigned passivity in its place.

Newcastle will be a "test city" for withdrawal of all arts funding, journalists have suggested; the capital of the North East, razed of its accessible culture and its previously abundant community projects, will be a physical scar on the face of austerity Britain. A commenter on one such article accused Forbes of "martyring a city to prove a political point" – and there’s no doubt that the gravity, the total and profound finality, of 100 per cent as a quantity has attracted attention. It speaks loudly and clearly of the reality of coalition government cuts across the UK, and their often disproportionate effect on the north. When it comes to proposing real action, though, the protests are left to individual institutions in Newcastle itself, bar a few Geordie celebrities who have attempted to generate national interest in a petition they created themselves.

A comprehensive breakdown of Newcastle, presented in statistics and wildly depressing pie-charts on the local council’s website, seems like the numerical manifestation of the old adage "it’s grim up north." Just under a third of Geordie children live in poverty, with 26 per cent qualifying for free school meals. The city’s own internal inequalities are stark: the difference in male life expectancy between the relatively affluent area of South Gosforth compared to the relatively deprived area of Byker is a staggering 12.6 years. In other words, this is no place for southerners’ apathy. It is the place and the time for those with the clear media advantage to stand up for their counterparts. Some publications have been kind enough to pick Newcastle up of late, dust it off, and wonder loudly whether the city will show us all how terrible our national economic situation really is. But the overall impression remains that these particular cuts are an unfortunate but interesting social experiment to keep a sympathetic eye on, rather than a cause worth championing. The apparently politically conscious and fairly diverse cross-section of Londoners I now rub shoulders with were mostly unaware of the North East’s arts situation when I asked them this week.

Part of the problem is undoubtedly that reporters themselves are very rarely from or living in Newcastle. Northerners have always been rare in the national press, and if publications have deigned to have an actual Geordie write a piece on the latest crisis, it has almost always been as a one-off piece rather than by a regular contributor. The Guardian has a blog entitled The Northerner, as if to hammer home how out-of-place that species is in a national newspaper. And the "call to arms" type of reporting that might have dominated front pages if such cuts had been made in London are replaced by vague conceptualising, amused celebrity-chasing, and comment pieces on whether Forbes really is really enacting a self-serving strategy. Meanwhile, High Heaton Library – where my mother became the first of her family to complete an A Level assignment, down the road from my grandparents’ cramped and overcrowded council house – prepares to close its doors.

In Newcastle, where the educational output is well below the national average, accessibility to the arts is vital. It bleeds into every area of life for children who, for the most part, don’t benefit from drama clubs, LAMDA courses, and extracurricular debating societies in their oversubscribed state schools packed with children from low income backgrounds. Down the road, Newcastle University now boasts one of the most academically prestigious - along with one of the most privately educated cohorts - of all higher education institutions across the UK. The wealthy area of Jesmond is now dominated by student housing that has become too expensive for most other residents to afford. In no other British city is such a discrepancy in socio-cultural opportunity more obvious.

Outside the galleries in Newcastle now, sad flyers that plead "NOT 100%" are fluttering in a cold February breeze. The fourth floor of the Jobcentre still boasts a lengthy queue. The north of England has always seemed strangely far away from the south, much further in the collective mind than it ever could be geographically – and it has never seemed so far removed. Will libraries in Heaton and Byker close? Probably. The council continues to hold its final consultations, but the local mood is changing. And sadly, it feels like it will be a very long time until the concerns or the achievements of the North East find their way into the national news again.

Photograph: Getty Images
Holly Baxter is a freelance journalist who writes regularly for The Guardian and The New Statesman. She is also one half of The Vagenda and releases a book on the media in May 2014.
Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.