Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Early election manifesto fatigue


Its sometimes so reassuring that life still goes on without listening to Radio Ulster in the morning, and just enjoying the good things in life like the kids screaming and gurning about their oatmeal being too something or other, your partner worried about a friend’s wellbeing or despite the 10% cut in tariffs, that the electricity bill seems to just keep on rising, but we can’t live in this non-political idyll for long. Especially not here, where politics is so riven through our core identities and driven with powerful narratives of ancient division. Perhaps it is all the hurt and confrontation that makes politics such a turn-off for so many. For us “arts ones”, politicians feel even more remote because of the constant cuts, over 40% in the last 4 years. 

For an activity that is often described (by its own practitioners it must be said) as “the art of the possible”, politics for a great many of us, feels more like ‘the resentment of others’ or ‘the spin of promising more while delivering less’.

Cynical? Me? As the arch-conservative go-to neoliberal ultra-libertarian Jeffrey Peel opines his stop-the-funding mantra, almost day and daily on his radio station (Nolan, publicly funded by the tax payer of course, but he doesn’t mention that obviously) he also must be weary of it all – after all http://www.conservativehome.com/platform/2006/12/jeffrey_peel.html 10 years ago he likened local politics, in terribly outmoded and patronising language, as “a third world democracy” and more recently wrote said “Ours is the politics of parochial irrelevance.” Of course, Jeffrey despairs that the arts receive less than 80 pence for very £1,000 spent by our local democrats. His despair is that it’s far too much!!! He’d perhaps prefer that the only cultural expenditure was on publicly-funded platforms to enable him to say they shouldn’t be funded.

But Jeffrey’s cultural cringe about the nature of our politics, and his objection to some minuscule amount of his tax supporting children and young people from the most disadvantaged parts of Europe (and that’s another kettle of subsidised fish for Monsieur Peel) get creative and enjoy the arts, that objection is utterly rejected by our local political parties of course…isn’t it?

Well, in looking at the manifestos and listening to the various pronouncements, the arts don’t seem to figure that highly. I remember when local politicians would mention the arts in the same breath as health or education, or the economy – because of course the arts contribute massively to all of these – but, so far, apart from one party putting out a policy paper,  I’ve seen little to give supporters of the arts much to really cheer about but there are definitely some good policy suggestions emerging.

But, isn’t this strange for activities that touch our lives on a daily basis – music on the radio at breakfast, a news piece about a community group developing a new mural, or a school winning choir of the year – driving past public art pieces on many main routes round our towns and villages – hurrying to get to the wee ones’ school play – visiting a sick relative seeing all the arts work lining the otherwise sterile spaces of hospital corridors – calling in on an elderly relative with dementia and seeing all the photos from the art workshops taken the previous morning – I could go on but you get my drift.

In fact in 2014 the public – ie the electorate – believed this:

·       81% of the public believe the Arts enrich the quality of our lives
·       75% of the public agree that there should be public funding for the Arts
The number of adults engaging in the Arts has grown to 79%

·       70% of people living in the most deprived areas engage in the Arts
·       96% of young people engage in the Arts
·       87% of the public appreciate that the Arts attract tourists
·       52% of disabled people engage in the Arts

So the arts ARE a vote winner, surely. 80p out of every £1,000 spent. Doubling it to £1.60 would be great and relatively inexpensive (A mile of motorway costs £30M so about a third of that then)

The people who don’t ring into Nolan, they understand the arts and indeed, they vote for creativity everyday – they vote with their feet; attending... their hands, participating in classes and workshops more than ever before and with their pockets – more tickets sold, more pencils bought – the phenomenon of colouring-in is an arts activity folks – more dancing etc etc.

As a place, when we celebrate something, how do we do it? Do we ask  neoliberal radio hacks, to stand on a platform and thrill us with their penny-pinching begrudging rhetoric? No, no, no. We make music, offer spectacle,we entertain, with colour and imagination, and communicate something beyond mere words. We turn to the arts.  What else can facilitate the participation and interaction of a cross section of people so ably - nothing.
So lets have a look at what the "main" parties are saying. So far manifesto pronouncements on the arts, run like this:

·       Commit to raising arts spending to at least the average spend on arts in these islands per capita, and review how to make this spending effective
·       Adopt a specific strategy to improve access to the arts by sections of the community who have lower-than-average uptake rates
·       Promoting grassroots sports by investing in appropriate facilities
·       Support community relations programmes which reduce the tendency for some sports, or structures within sports, to be dominated by one part of our community, or which aim to reduce sectarianism, racism, homophobia or other hatred within sports
·       Support public art projects to leave a lasting legacy for the Northern Ireland centenary celebrations in 2021
·       Establish the Institute of Ulster Scots to drive forward a positive research and educational agenda for this vital strand of Northern Ireland's identity
·       Continue support for community facilities such as 3G pitches
·       Work to overcome barriers to the engagement by many communities with the arts

·       Develop art contract clauses similar to community benefit clauses for multi-million pound film and screen projects in NI
·       Support core investment for the arts at local and executive level to further realise the value and positive impact of the arts
·       Sport contributes to health promotion, therefore there should be co-operative working between the Department of Communities and Department of Health
·       Support increased physical education at an early age in schools

·       Stronger focus on creative industries
·       Deliver arts and cultural activities to disadvantaged communities
·       Promote the continued growth of the Irish language
·       Encourage wider participation in sport for healthier communities

·       Form a cultural advisory group to the minister and introduce a new culture and arts strategy
·       As every £1 invested by the arts generates a return of over £3.60 to the local economy, should nurture business entrepreneurship within our arts community
·       Northern Ireland should have further powers over broadcasting devolved to the assembly
·       Create a collective alliance in philanthropy in Northern Ireland by developing a co-ordinated strategy, including peer and professional support networks for philanthropists and advisory services

·       p 39 of the manifesto culture is talked about but only in relation to cultural traditions concerning flags, parading, marching bands etc No mention of the arts

·       See greater cross-community activity and development through participation in organised sport and arts involvement
·       Support a unifying British culture which is open and inclusive to all, regardless of their ethnic or religious background
·       Support the 'green and white army' and the Northern Ireland football team.
·       UKIP are content to grant 60-40 funding in terms of grants or loans for the arts, provided attendances can be attained to merit using public money

·       Empower teachers to recognise and nurture the creative potential of our children
·       Work with 11 local government administrations to ensure cohesion in planning targets and outcomes
·       Develop a 10-year strategy for excellence - challenging the arts sector, creative industries, universities, FE colleges and business to co-design a strategy that will future proof place as competitors on the world stage
·       Increase participation in sport at all ages and levels in conjunction with the health department to encourage better health and wellbeing
·       Ulster Unionist Party offers a whole separate policy paper developed with an 11 point plan to support the arts within the overall manifesto

We’ll all be listening out for more. but credit where credit is due, there are some strong assertions about the arts and their role in our society from some of the parties.  And hopefully there'll be a chance to discuss their relative merits at some point soon, if Jeffrey allows us to get a word in.

 #artsmattersni will also be developing some useful guidance around their arts manifesto too

Until then, maintaining arts funding at 2010 levels would be a start. Ask someone on your doorstep to do that. That would be a minimum of £14M in the arts budget! Equating to £1.40 in every £1,000 of expenditure.


  1. Sadly there is no timetable so none of this is likely to happen is it?
    Your optimism is admirable, others might find it hard to get excited by politicians working with civil and local authority servants on targets for excellence, yet more strategies.... however the Green Party multi-million£clauses are rather intriguing if not a little incomprehensibly argued.

    1. Social clauses blended with more direct investment would be beneficial only if it meant halting the steep decline in current funding levels. Mean per capita spend across these islands would also signal deeper investment.
      We have to be a little optimistic otherwise the outlook with a new Department might be dire