UK General Election: parties fail to put money where their mouth is

Manifestos make big promises on the arts but remain vague on funding nation prepares to go to the polls

by Martin Bailey  |  1 May 2015
UK General Election: parties fail to put money where their mouth is
Meeting of minds: David Cameron (centre) with the German chancellor Angela Merkel and Neil MacGregor at the British Museum. Photo: United Kingdom Prime Ministry/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images, 2015
London. The result of the general election on 7 May is still difficult to predict, and support from one of the smaller parties may well be needed to form a government. But whatever the outcome, either the Conservatives under David Cameron or Labour under Ed Miliband will lead the next government.

We have dissected the culture sections of the manifestos of the two major parties, as well as some of the smaller parties that might play a role in a coalition government: the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

Some key issues are notable for their absence from both the Conservative and Labour manifestos. Neither party really addresses the impact of the fall in government spending on the arts in the past five years and the prospect of further cuts (likely to be much tougher under the Tories). The other key issue is the regional imbalance in government spending on the arts—much more is spent per person in London than elsewh ere. Although it is alluded to in both manifestos, neither party indicates how it will tackle this sensitive issue.

The party manifestos: what they say about culture

The Conservative Party’s manifesto stresses what has been achieved in the past five years. UK museums “are second to none”, and in art, music, fashion, theatre, design, film, television and the performing arts, “we have an edge”.

Blaming previous Labour governments for “all the economic chaos we inherited”, the Tories say that they “have put £8bn of public and Lottery funding into the arts, heritage, museums and galleries during the past five years”. This figure fudges the distinction between government grant-in-aid and National Lottery funding. Grant-in-aid funding has been drastically reduced, and national museums have had to face cuts of around 30% in real terms. Lottery funding has increased significantly, partly because the temporary diversion of money for the 2012 London Olympic Games has ended. However, the manifesto seemingly contradicts the principle of “additionality”—the commitment of John Major’s government that Lottery funding would be in addition to, not replace, grant-in-aid.

Looking to the future, the manifesto promises to “keep our major national museums and galleries free to enter”. The Conservatives also say that they will allow cultural institutions to “benefit from greater financial autonomy to use their budgets as they see fit”. This primarily refers to Treasury restrictions that limited national museums’ use of their own financial reserves. These restrictions were partially eased in 2010.

On regional inequalities in arts funding, the manifesto states that “over the past five years, we have made sure that arts funding benefits the whole of the UK”. This statement is vague and there is no pledge to ensure that grant-in-aid is distributed on a more equitable regional basis, although the party makes pledges on several individual projects outside London. The manifesto states: “We will support a Great Exhibition in the north; back plans for a new theatre, the Factory in Manchester; and help the Manchester Museum, in partnership with the British Museum, to establish a new India Gallery.” Last December, the Treasury committed £1m to help fund a “Great Exhibition” in northern England on art, culture and design. On 15 April, David Cameron pledged £5m towards the £9.5m India gallery that is due to open in the Manchester Museum by 2018.

The Conservatives have also made a manifesto pledge on the ivory trade, which would have serious consequences for those in the antiques trade. They promise to "press for a total ban on ivory sales" to help protect elephants. This represents a change since last autumn when the government said that while it supports a ban on modern ivory it would not seek to end the trade in antique items containing ivory. A Conservative party spokesman told the Antiques Trade Gazette in April that "we recognise the importance of the UK art and antiques trade and will be discussing this issue with them in more detail".

The Conservatives say that they will build “a tunnel where the A303 [road] passes closest to Stonehenge”. Announced last December, the £2bn plan for a short tunnel was welcomed by English Heritage, but was criticised by some other heritage bodies. The Tories say that they have “significantly” increased Lottery funding for heritage, without mentioning very severe cuts to English Heritage’s grant-in-aid. They say that they have “created a brand new heritage charity, English Heritage” (established on 1 April, it is responsible for 400 properties that are open to the public, with planning functions going to Historic England). The Conservatives promise to “continue to support essential roof repairs for our cathedrals and churches, along with other places of worship”.

The most specific pledge on the arts that differentiates Labour from other parties is its commitment to “create a Prime Minister’s Committee on the Arts, Culture and Creative Industries, with a membership drawn from all sectors and regions”. The committee “will bring issues of concern directly to the attention of the prime minister”.

This proposal was launched by Ed Miliband in February. His idea presumably comes from the US, where Ronald Reagan set up the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in 1982 (the committee continues under President Barack Obama). Labour’s idea is to include leading figures from the arts scene, giving them direct access to the prime minister—who would chair the committee— for the first time. But the question is whether such a committee would possess real influence.

Labour’s manifesto stresses the importance of arts education. It states: “We will guarantee a universal entitlement to a creative education so that every young person has access to cultural activity and the arts.”

On regional inequality, Labour pledges to “work with public bodies to rebalance arts funding across the country”. This presumably refers primarily to Arts Council England. The difficulty is that Arts Council funding has been severely cut by the Conservatives, so if more money is diverted to the regions, London will face draconian cuts. Labour also reaffirms its “commitment to universal free admission to ensure that our great works of art and national heritage can be enjoyed in all parts of the country”.

Liberal Democrats
The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto stresses the importance of culture, saying that “arts, creative industries and culture are crucial to Britain’s success and essential for personal fulfilment and quality of life”. The party also commits itself to “maintain free access to national museums and galleries, while giving these institutions greater autonomy”.

There is no reference to the arts or to culture in the Scottish National Party’s manifesto. The document reveals nothing about any impact the party might have on arts policy if it were to participate in a coalition government. In Scotland, most matters relating to culture are devolved to the Scottish government, which is led by the SNP.

The UK Independence Party’s manifesto states that it will abolish the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and merge its functions into other government departments to save money. UKIP’s 76-page manifesto makes a single passing reference to the arts, pledging to “encourage regenerative arts projects in our coastal towns”. It may be no coincidence that Nigel Farage, UKIP’s leader, is standing as a parliamentary candidate in South Thanet, a constituency in Kent that includes the seaside towns of Margate and Ramsgate.

On culture, UKIP simply says that it will “promote a unifying British culture, open to anyone who wishes to identify with Britain and British values”, while it rejects “multiculturalism”. M.B.

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