Culture and money

No one should doubt that festivals have an economic impact - but are the claims made for them overst

At a recent conference to discuss the story so far for ‘Liverpool Capital of Culture’, Phil Redmond, its lugubriously amusing creative director and all-round TV deity, put it bluntly: "Culture is not just about people holding hands and singing songs. It’s about bringing people together. It’s about footfall. With footfall, people spend cash. With cash you get regeneration. That’s what it’s about."

A trot-through of the relevant statistics suggested that his city can indeed walk tall at the moment. An estimated £35m worth of worldwide media coverage on the back of the opening event featuring Ringo Starr; 800,000 visitors from 189 countries since January; more than 2.75m people have attended a cultural event in that time; plus a 25 per cent to 65 per cent increase in attendances at major attractions.

The list was formidable. If you think about regeneration in terms of a physical action - with more blood pumping into the system, and greater vitality reaching every bodily part - then, on that basis, Liverpool’s regeneration - as a direct consequence of Capital of Culture - has some of the miraculous properties of a reincarnation on Doctor Who.

How long-lasting the process will be, can’t be certain; the city looks set to withstand some of the recession’s worst buffeting as more people look closer to home for their holidays, but even if things tail off in 09, it looks safe to say that Liverpool’s transformation is beyond easy reversal.

The pattern of a surge in economic activity as a result of cultural festivities is discernible across the country. Take three of the festivals that have just been and gone: The Brighton Festival, Norfolk and Norwich Festival and Fierce! in Birmingham.

As at 2006, when an economic impact survey was compiled, Brighton Festival was estimated to contribute £20m to the local economy every year, while Brighton Dome and Festival employs 260 people, and attracts £750,000 in sponsorship per annum.

Jonathan Holloway, artistic director of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival claims that his festival’s cultural offering brings a calculable benefit to a deprived region of Eastern England. "With 20 per cent of the audience coming from outside the region, we estimate that in all about £4m is pumped into the economy." Last year there were some 70,000 visitors - this year he anticipates the number would approach 100,000. One startling indirect social benefit, he suggests, is that crime levels drop during street festivals.

Finally, although Fierce! is a modestly sized, cross-arts programme, the positives for Birmingham were defined starkly in 2004: 32 per cent of questionnaire respondents had travelled over 20 miles to the event, and nearly a quarter of respondents (23 per cent) came from more than 50 miles away.

The Arts Council’s research that year (Festivals and the Challenge of Cultural Tourism) found that festival visitors from more than 20 miles away spent on average £145.71 per day and stayed an average of 3.5 nights per visit. An estimated 100,000 plus people annually engage with the festival’s programme, we’re told. You don’t have to be a maths whiz to realise that Redmond’s equation about footfall applies here too.

So does that mean that any benighted urban - or even rural - location with a name, a car-park and a marketing strategy can set itself up with a festival and watch the regenerative cash flow in? Holloway, former events manager at the National Theatre, sounds a strong note of scepticism: "I do think there’s a tendency to put two or three events on one plate and call it a festival. Creatively, we should have huge expectations of festivals. I expect them to transform people’s lives for the better - I have no truck with the idea of festivals as a marketing tool."

All in all, festivals can bring tangible - and less tangible - benefits; you can’t measure things like civic pride and a greater sense of a collective identity but clearly the uplift that flows from a well-run arts festival isn’t limited to the satisfying ping of cash registers. When the planning and execution go well, you should get a virtuous circle of increased economic, social and artistic vibrancy. The motor of passion behind it, though, has to be the desire by artists to engage people - and, well, ensure they enjoy themselves.

The danger lies when the claims made on behalf of festivals become not only overstated but the very raison d’etre of the festival. And I can think of no better instance of this than LIFT (the London International Festival of Theatre) which starts this week. For the best part of two decades, LIFT played an invaluable role in bringing over the best work from overseas that its co-founders Rose Fenton and Lucy Neal could find. About five years ago, shortly before they handed their baby onto Angharad Wynne-Jones, the organisation became intensively introspective.

The artistic programme this year looks pretty thin. There are ‘four global reports from Australia, the Pacific, China and Canada’ - which translates as four dance and performance pieces by relatively unknown practitioners. It’s hard to work out what you’d rush to spend your money on. There’s little to catch the casual eye besides an insistent need on LIFT’s part to ‘get into conversation’ with people. At the heart of that is something called the Lift Parliament, described by Jude Kelly, artistic director of the South Bank as "one of the most important cultural developments for London in the coming decade". This is "a new concept in performance space where artists from around the world and the people of London can gather together to share stories, exchange knowledge and imagine and rehearse new futures".

Forgive the reliance of press-release quotes at this point but the Lift parliament, along with many parliaments one could mention, seems to have an instinctive love of hard-to-apprehend hot-air. Maybe I’ll be proved wrong when I step inside this strange vertical portable venue, when it pitches up at the South Bank - and get stuck into meaningful discourse with another dropper-by. But to pretend that dialogue around art can be as transformative as art itself and as empowering as political enfranchisement strikes me as a kind of evasive piety. To change the world you need to engage with the political system not hang out in a surrogate hive. To make a change, you’ve got to make the leap - not just catch a LIFT.

Lift Festival 2008 Stratford Park, Newham E15. 12–21 June. Tickets: 0844 412 4317 Lift

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times