12 days on from the General Election the reality is dawning, dust is settling and most of the Party Leaders (except David Cameron) have resigned - oh, but Farage is already back!
The new Tory Cabinet has been appointed: John Whittingdale, Secretary of State for DCMS; Nicky Morgan, Education; Sajid Javid, Business; Michael Gove, Justice (give us strength!) and, extraordinarily, Ed Vaizey, still Minister for the Arts, so some continuity at least. A new legislative programme will be announced in the Queens Speech next Wednesday (27th May).
I have been reflecting on what this means for our society, for our world and, of course, for the independent performing arts sector. What should we be doing now?
On the Saturday following the election (still getting over the shock and disappointment, wondering if it was all a dream or mistake) I read this great blog ‘Five ways to deal with a full-blown Tory Government’. What I particularly took from this post was the importance of solidarity and engagement beyond our borders and comfort zones. We must, more than ever, be outward-looking and we must be prepared to join others in their struggles for social justice, fairness, basic freedoms and even (in many cases) survival. Employment rights, The Human Rights Act, Education, Social Housing and Public Services are just a few of the crucial areas explicitly under threat now. So join a trade union and/or actively encourage union membership within your organisation. Consciously engage with the wider voluntary sector. Take advantage of the Government’s proposal to allow employees 3 days off a year for volunteering and when you do it make sure you are helping with a really engaged charity that is working to address injustice and social deprivation.
Obviously the threat of cuts to Arts Funding is still on the austerity agenda. Arts Council England are already beginning the process of scenario planning, aware that there will be a budget in July and a Comprehensive Spending Review in October. Nothing is certain yet and it is important not to create a destructive rumour mill of doom and gloom cuts predictions (I have already heard frightening figures bandied about, no substance to them yet though). We will need to continue to work together to make a strong case for the arts - but let’s not create a self-fulfilling prophecy. The independent arts sector achieves a lot with a little, is amazing value for money and is instrumental in addressing and solving many pressing needs in society. I’m not squeamish about the ‘instrumental’ argument for the arts - now is the time to show how bloody useful we can be!
Vision-driven ITC members make their work in order to make a better world. It has never been more important to draw attention to this and to raise the profile of life-changing arts engagement. It will be essential over the term of this government to use that engagement to raise awareness of deprivation, disadvantage and the impact of austerity. Brilliant arts organisations in our sector work with the poor, the old, the young, disabled people, homeless people, migrants and refugees, prisoners, people with mental health problems and know the detail of their lives. Their stories will need to be told, their voices raised and their rights and needs fought for.
Visibility and generosity are the most potent weapons available and we need to use them like garlic against vampires before the life-blood of a caring, meaningful society is drained away. Never was it more dangerous to cling to our silos and cliques - we need to share, reach out and draw on all our networks!
We will fight austerity with stories, dance, art and music and, at the same time, must continue to keep the Creative Democracy conversation alive.
Leading up to the election many arts organisations and practitioners worked creatively to address political disengagement and disillusion. The Young Vic ran a series of artist lead events YVElects; London Bubble created an intergenerational project, Hopelessly De-Voted, that explored engagement and disengagement with the political system; the artist Bob&Roberta Smith stood as Art Party candidate against Michael Gove in the heart of Tory Surrey. All over the UK arts organisations engaged people in debate, encouraged them to register to vote, hosted candidates’ hustings and reminded them to use their vote. Turnout at the polls was improved this election but the extraordinary imbalance between votes cast and seats gained showed, more than ever before, how much need there is to reform our flawed electoral system - arts organisations can play a vital role in keeping this discussion alive. Peshkar Theatre Company in Oldham is working on project to engage and encourage teen voters (due to launch in July). If you are planning something or have an interesting story to tell about Creative Democracy please let us know – we would like to profile such projects and join them up.
Bizarrely, within a few days of losing the election, the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats were reporting record numbers of new members (over 30,000 in total between them). The appetite for political engagement is clearly awakened.
Take heart from the fact that this Government did not win a landslide victory. A few, deaths, scandals, defections to UKIP and bi-elections will quickly reduce the working majority. Reasoned argument, resistance and protest will be worth making on every issue.
Finally, and very importantly, swallow your disappointment, get over your shock and nausea and write to your new MP (even if it’s the solitary UKIP one!). Congratulate them on their victory, tell them what you do and why it matters and how you can help them to make a better world. Invite them to see your work, attend their surgeries, make contact and help others who might feel less confident to do so too.
There is more to living in a democracy than putting a cross in a box once every five years. Let’s make every day of the next five years count towards a better future (12 down 1813 to go!).