The big art sell-off

The effect of David Cameron’s “big society” will be to drive artists and performers into the arms of

Apparently, we must all tighten our belts. That's easy for David Cameron to say, cycling and being all trim. I've put on two stone in the past three years of touring, but it's not only my waistline that needs squeezing.

If you read between the lines of the "big society" manifesto, Dave seems to be encouraging charity organisations to take on many of the social services currently provided by the government. There may be some logic in getting us to take responsibility for ourselves; Dave himself is a good example of someone who has made it to the top of society on his own initiative despite a difficult start in life.

But the problem with expecting charities, philanthropists and religious groups to pick up the slack is that they often have their own agenda. I remember a local London news moment in which an evangelical church coalition, encouraged by the mayor to help tackle gun crime, cited homosexuality as one of its causes. Those gays! Shooting everyone up. With their guns.

Obviously, compared to the Uzi-fuelled turf war raging outside my Hackney window, the future of the arts in the big society is not terribly important. But as arts budgets are slashed, it seems that we artists (and I use the word loosely, as I am a stand-up comedian) will have to get used to making Faustian pacts with private donors and big corporations.

This is not as simple as it seems. An arts charity of which I am a patron (have I mentioned that I do secret, behind-the-scenes work for charity?) recently asked me if I'd meet someone from a big supermarket about funding. But when the writs hit the fan over Jerry Springer: the Opera, a multi-award-winning live piece I co-wrote the words for at the National Theatre, the same supermarket withdrew DVDs and CDs of the show from its shelves. Right-wing religious groups had threatened a boycott. (As a result, I make a point of shoplifting one small item whenever I visit the store.)

How would this big backer react if the going got tough? Art can be a slippery thing, its meaning often opaque, its intent sometimes unclear. It's not necessarily compatible with shifting baked beans, even the low-fat ones that we all must now eat.

Artists are sensitive creatures who may feel compromised by sponsorship. At a Tate Britain party this summer, protesters celebrated the gallery's 20-year relationship with BP by sloshing around treacle (doubling for crude oil), as arts grandees politely applauded their right to do so and munched their globally warmed canapés. In the fallout, Grayson Perry said that corporate funding for the arts was vital. But Mark Ravenhill, the former enfant terrible and current homme terrible of British theatre, proposes a big-society-type audit solution to arts institutions' corporate development departments: slash them if it can't be proven that the money they raise outweighs their running costs. The Raven suggests that corporate arts culture means artists hear more feedback from bankers' spouses than from consumers of culture.

In stand-up, we have our own teacup-tempest version of this debate. For the past 30 years at the Edinburgh Fringe, there has been an annual award for comedy. This year, Foster's lager has picked up its sponsorship. Foster's also recently became the sponsor of Channel 4 comedy. In June, the beer's logo appeared before a Jack Whitehall routine in which the young comic questioned the point of paying for the surround-sound experience of the South African World Cup, making it feel like you were there - as it would just mean you got Aids and had your TV nicked. Technically, it's a neat enough joke. But I used to like Foster's. Now, it makes me think of babies with Aids.

Divine consternation

Attempting to link the Fringe comedy awards with the Foster's brand, the organisers have invited the public to vote online for a "Comedy God", drawn from nearly 200 past nominees, with little video evidence of the majority of them for the benefit of the conscientious voter who didn't attend the past 30 Fringes. Pre­sumably, no one was asked if they minded their name being used to drive traffic to a Foster's website.

It's just a bit of summer fun, said the organisers, after I sent them a rude 12.30am email in a fit of rage. But it isn't. The way public polls work, whoever is now the best-known comedian in Britain among internet users - Michael McIntyre, say, or Russell Howard - will probably win, and the sponsor will be happy to its profile raised by association, at the expense of hundreds of other artists who never agreed to be part of a Foster's marketing exercise. I suggested that Frank Chickens, a Japanese performance-art duo nominated in 1984, might be the best act on the list but would not get any votes because the public hadn't heard of them.

And yet, in the age of Twitter, Frank Chickens are now leading the field. It's not impossible, come 25 August, that corporate money might be used to highlight Kazuko Hohki's three-decade career of idiosyncratic multimedia live art, rather than an already wealthy, chat-show-friendly stand-up who might have been an easier fit with the Foster's brand. If state funding is to fall and the corporate money is out there, the question is: can we find some way to use it for our own ends?

Stewart Lee will perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival from 4-30 August. His new book, "How I Escaped My Certain Fate", is published by Faber & Faber.

This article first appeared in the 02 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Politics and comedy

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.