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.
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John Prescott on Labour: “This must be the worst operation I’ve ever seen”

The Labour peer and former deputy prime minister laments his party’s “civil war status”, saying “I wish Momentum would go away”.

I’ve attended a thousand PLP meetings. This must be the worst operation I’ve ever seen. It is more about personality politics than in the past.

The [last] Labour government was successful in most of the issues that we always thought was important to Labour: in the growth of the hospitals, the education system, the economy, people at work. All that was a successful record.

Not that it’s ever mentioned now. It was soured largely by Iraq. That period is almost obliterated by that. So you find present government, or even present leadership, in no way refers to that period of the Labour government. So the real problem is, if you’re disowning the most successful three periods of a Labour government, then you’re in some difficulty as to what you’re replacing it with.

It’s never happened before – it’s open war, civil war, inside the PLP. Some members in the PLP sit there with their social media, already typing out the fight going on to the mass of reporters who are amassed outside and told to come along and report because there’s going to be a big row. All that means we can’t really have unity. The division now is the attack on the leadership. A core who sit in the same places, make the same accusations against the leadership, right or wrong, every bloody week. They do it by a death of a thousand cuts – keep on making the same complaints.

I just think that the PLP is in civil war status. It’s not carrying out what it should do – that is, project Labour’s policies and be supportive of our people in the field.

All this criticism is about removing him. And then what adds to that is when Tom Watson comes along and joins in with this criticism. He’s entitled to do so, but he is the Deputy Leader, for God’s sake – quite different from the way I saw the role as defined; to support the party in a positive way, right. Get out and increase his membership, etc.

And the Leader, he's faced with a really difficult position, because he was elected and had never been a minister before. My heart went out to him when he had to deal with PMQs. Even with my 50 years, I found it impossible and fell on my face a few times.

We have a shadow cabinet now – cor blimey, you can be in the shadow cabinet in 12 months! You do need to have a bit of experience. So that does affect it, without a doubt. Then you get people on one side who refuse to serve in the shadow cabinet criticising the shadow cabinet. If you join the shadow cabinet, you’re a traitor to one cause or the other.

It's how you manage that division. The leadership is critical – for Jeremy to go out and do all of these things when he’s not been a minister is difficult. I think he’s been improving in doing the job. But frankly, it gets into people’s minds in a very short period of time, whether they think you’re the leader or not. And we do have a dilemma. It’s difficult for him – he’s reaching out a bit now, but almost the list has been drawn. I can’t see these people coming across now and uniting in the name of the party, supporting our people out in the elections. If you can’t unite the party, how the hell can you carry the country?

There are problems on the left and problems on the right, but we’ve always managed them – especially in the PLP. Robust arguments. But now it’s the battlefield, and all that comes out is a divided party.

I’m an old Labour man, right, I’m Labour to the core. To sit and watch it waste away its great reputation, what it’s done for our people in the country, and then when our people start stopping to vote for us, you’ve got to ask what’s bloody going wrong.

What Jeremy does is his decision. But he’s made clear he wants to stay. Now, if that stays the same, and the others stay the same, we’re going to have a stalemate divided Labour party – it’s disastrous.

So on the one hand, the PLP could try to be a little bit more supportive, and to recognise the party’s elected a leader, or they can go through the same process come June and call for another election, put it to the vote. They’re the options given to us by our party.

Our bloody country is decimated and we’re talking about the fucking sponsorship rules for the election of leader! I wish Momentum would go away, they’ve given us the same problems we had with Militant. I don’t think they’re as powerful as Militant, but they’re dedicated to the same cause. Their debate is how you change the Labour party.

By Christ, we can't win like this! I’m an old-fashioned type, and I’m proud to have belonged to a team that did win three elections. There was no other leader who did that before. But I don’t put it down to leaders, I put it down to the nature of the party. We’re responsible, not the leaders.

John Prescott is a Labour peer and former deputy leader of the Labour Party.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition