Everyone agrees about the arts, a lot
For at least the first half an hour of this debate, it was virtually impossible to find any point of disagreement between the five parties taking part. Via the livestream on the BBC and Royal Opera House websites, we were able to watch as all five parties agreed – from the Greens all the way across to Ukip – that the arts are very important, that we should value them, that there should be greater diversity. Everyone was trying very hard to avoid saying that in a pervading climate of austerity, it’s hard to make the case for more state funding for the arts. Martin Dobson, Green Party culture spokesman, came closest when he called for a “much larger public sector” in general terms, but wasn’t able to mention any specific funding pledges his party would make. Ed Vaizey, Conservative minister of state for culture and the digital economy, argued that although state funding has been cut in the last five years, money from philanthropy and the National Lottery has increased. He threw out various numbers, which some audience members seemed to dispute. Ultimately, this portion of the discussion was left unsatisfactorily hanging.
Ed Vaizey wants hard data
Several times, Vaizey expressed his frustrated that much of the discussion about class and diversity in the arts is “anecdotal” and not based on “hard evidence”. He was referring to the recent debate about the number of privately educated actors and musicians in British public life – what we at the New Statesman call the “class ceiling”:
While not denying that the problem might exist, Vaizey’s suggestion that the clearly strong feelings on the subject weren’t founded in proper research made him look cross and a bit lofty. Lib Dem spokesperson Baroness Bonham-Carter’s follow-up that one of the reasons Eton turns out award-winning actors is that the school must have an “inspirational drama teacher”, didn’t help the coalition parties look approachable on this topic, either. At this point, genuine anger erupted in the audience, livening up an otherwise pretty flat affair.
Ukip are not really interested
Peter Whittle represented Ukip in this debate (chair Martha Kearney said Plaid Cymru and the SNP had been invited but declined to take part). His main message, slightly confusingly, seemed to be that Britain needs more grammar schools. He didn’t really explain how a return to widespread selective state education benefits the arts particularly, nor did he hint at whether a Ukip manifesto might have anything juicy in it on the subject (let us not forget that the party’s 2010 platform, now disowned by Farage, included a pledge to “encourage a return to proper dress… for theatres”). He did, however, say that “the arts are what Ukip are”. And here I was thinking it had more to do with the EU.
Education, education, education
Another major point of agreement among the participants was that the intersection between arts policy and education policy is an important one. But it was Labour’s Harriet Harman who had the only concrete policy of the night – she pledged that Labour’s manifesto will include a “universal entitlement to creative education” for all children in Britain, a measure designed to increase access to drama, art, dance and music teachers for pupils. She also confirmed that Ofsted will inspect schools for their adherence to this new standard.
The fact that the debate was livestreamed, rather than broadcast on television, was already a clue to how significant it was going to turn out to be. Harman tried to rebut the idea that discussing arts policy doesn’t win you any votes on the doorstep by saying that as long as you talk about access to education rather than the plight of “the creative industries”, people are interested, but the evening pretty far removed from the cut and thrust over immigration and the economy we’ve had from the other election debates so far. Aside from Vaizey and Harman, the others on the stage weren’t big hitters, or even likely future ministers. No doubt the next government, whoever they turn out to be, will have a position on the arts, but we aren’t much closer to knowing what that will be after this discussion.