Only The End of a World: The General Election, Arts Emergency and the Invisible Alternative
Posted on Thursday, 7 May 2015 | No Comments
Endless Window's 'little bit of politics'.
On the little leaflet I got, I was told this was "a pivotal moment for the future of arts end humanities education in the UK". Yes, fully agreed there. Arts Emergency, said little leaflet, would ensure "that the doors of the university are kept open for those who are most able to benefit from, but least able to pay for, higher education." Well fantastic. And how shall we do this? Oh wait, the leaflet's run out.
A few days before the 2015 General Election - the morning of which being when this article will be posted, let posterity note - I attended an event held by the Arts Emergency at the Baltic. I say I attended an Arts Emergency event - there were a couple of mates I wanted to see and Richard Dawson was playing, so I spent a couple of hours there wondering if this was what real grown-ups did with their Friday nights, all the while repeating in my head the mantra, "four quid for a small fucking bottle of Peroni in Gateshead?" The work that Arts Emergency embark on is virtuous, vital stuff - that I do not wish to challenge. After five years of the cuts and betrayals of austerity, anyone standing up for the importance of culture and expression and fighting against the brutal re-imposition of class divides is to be welcomed.
So why did I leave feeling so unconvinced and hopeless about the whole thing? A friend at the event, eyes wilfully glazed as one middle-aged, middle class white man followed another in the procession of speakers warming up (cooling down?), observed the overwhelming stink of Blairism hanging over the event: the belief that if we kept doing the same old tricks as before and sticking to the focus group approved party line, everything would be alright. No wonder it all seemed so inert, so un-urgent. In response to a moment of crisis, all that we got were the same old nice empty words and vague allusions to buzzwords. Arts Emergency at least managed to make clear that they saw the arts as something vital in their own right rather than the "because corporations
are people buy art" spiel of New Labour, but everything else seemed to rely on those played out notions that trickle-down capitalism can be made more friendly, that the consensus cannot really be challenged but merely chipped away at, even as the edifice rots away from the inside. Even for a Lottery funded charity, the lack of real fight is surprising.
Which brings us neatly enough to the Labour party. Because as much as they are clearly the better of the two options to lead whatever coalition emerges with control of Westminster after today (if you are indeed reading this today), their five years in opposition have been frustrating beyond belief. The lack of leadership, the vacuum of ideas, the absence of any real fight against a government happy to trample over the people and institutions of a nation to maintain the privilege of a chosen few. Their vision not to end austerity, but merely to prune the sharpest spikes. Better than nothing, and the vast difference in the proposed cuts to welfare and the NHS the two parties would oversee is not something that can be ignored or handwaved away without losing sight of basic humanity.
Yet as this exhausted, disliked, discredited coalition pulls itself to the finish line, it still finds itself in deadlock with an opposition which, by all rights, should be more busy rehearsing victory speeches than checking the polls. The last five years have been as craven an exercise in entitlement as we have ever seen, a government that has done its utmost to send social mobility and security back to the dark ages. As much as blame can and should be lain at the door of a hopelessly partisan media, which having spent the last month engaged in a feverish temper tantrum at the thought that their ungrateful readers might not elect their chosen man has thrown away the illusion of impartiality once and for all, and at those willing to parrot disgraceful lies and prejudice, the Labour party as it stands has to take much of the blame. There's still no real vision to speak of, no plan to cling to. This is a party so out of touch, that when faced with a rout of its core Scottish vote as the SNP soared in the wake of a closer-than-expected referendum (and the only party that can really claim any kind of victory on the night, barring some massive statistical anomaly in the polls), it elected Jim Murphy as the man to lead them. And the really scary thing is, for those of us in England, they're still the only plausible main party other than the Conservatives.
This election is a moment of crisis alright, but not only in the obvious ways. The damage of austerity is everywhere - the sharp rises in homelessness, poverty and the use of food banks, the entrenchment of elite powers at the expense of the rest of the country, a society that has grown far more cruel and selfish in just five years. On a more subliminal level though, this election is scary not just because it offers the potential to fall through the trap door and see the country slide ever further down this path, but because there is still no great backlash in place. The SNP offer a change - to the voters of Scotland. The Greens have some amazing people and ideas on the side, and some truly woeful candidates and ideas also. For all the potential for upset and debate that an election this contested offers, for all that this is one election in which every vote may well count in some way, there still seems to be something vital missing: inspiration.
So I turn back to Arts Emergency, and I wonder if the scale of cuts weathered over the last five years has been so great that those who would be in a position to fight against it have simply found themselves cowed by it, damage limitation standing as the only possibility left. But if this is ever to be un-done, something must be put in its place - simply removing austerity from the equation is not enough. This general election may prove in hindsight to be a turning point, the moment after which the centre could no longer hold. After all, whatever cynicism one might hold about the options on offer (and the above might give you some idea of my present level of cynicism), inaction is indefensible - not now, not when he have not just the next five years but the fate of millions of people at stake. A Labour-led government is the best we can hope for to emerge from this morass, a broad centre-left coalition the only moral choice. This though is still clearly insufficient for the scale of rebuilding that is required, for the scale of change that is necessary. As with an organisation like Arts Emergency, the current choice (if that really is the right word) is between continuing down the same disastrous road of austerity, or doing the same but at a gentler rate - nobody in power still seems willing to care or even notice that the country is collapsing around them and that we need a new, bold way forward. Yet how something new will emerge, and what it will consist of: that is something that, in England at least, is still something not to be found on the ballot.