Betrayed: the glitterati snub Labour

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The Independent Online
IT seemed like an ideal setting for a summer celebration of Labour's relationship with the arts. The cool sophistication of the Tate Gallery, chilled wine and famous names on the guest list for the launch of Chris Smith's new book, Creative Britain. Who, on Wednesday night, could doubt the Government's commitment to the arts as the busy Culture Secretary spoke of wrestling till three in the morning with the first such work to be published by a Cabinet minister in 30 years?

Quite a few, it seemed. An event which a year ago would have been littered with so-called "Labour luvvies" lacked glitter. Sir Peter Hall, veteran director and staunch Labour supporter, had been blackballed for a stinging attack on Government policy earlier in the year. "These days, I'm persona strictly non grata," says the former director of both the RSC and the National Theatre. Likewise, Ken Loach, film director and far-left critic, received no invitation. "It spared embarrassment all around," says Loach, with whom the Culture Secretary recently declined to debate on Channel Four. Meanwhile, many top names not yet struck off the list made their excuses. Melvyn Bragg, yet to feel any favours of Government patronage, failed to appear, as did Ben Elton who has gone lukewarm on Cool Britannia.

Wayne Hemingway, founder of Red or Dead, the multi-million-pound fashion empire, was not tempted by his invitation. "It was beautifully designed. I thought at first it was an invitation to a trendy art show. A year ago I would have gone. But this year it wasn't my cup of tea. I preferred to spend the evening with my wife and kids really."

Among those who did turn up, some were willing to wait longer before passing judgement. "It's still early days," said the novelist Hanif Kureishi. "Chris Smith seems to be a serious person. He has written a book. I think we need to give him a little time." Others were less flattering. "I had hoped that they would be doing a bit more for the arts by now," said Salman Rushdie. "There are an awful lot of theatres out there which are in real trouble. The Government should be doing something for them," explained the author as a smiling Chris Smith bounded over and declared: "I don't think we've actually met."

Fortunately, for Chris Smith, the event was not marred by protests. But tempers are frayed.

So what has soured the love affair between the arts and the Labour party? The presentation to Chris Smith at the Tate of an eccentric piece of art by sculptor Bill Woodrow may have offered a hint. It featured a transparent turtle, filled with a hundred pennies, trying to stay afloat, while chained to a clump of books. It was meant to symbolise the nominal pounds 1 Chris Smith received in royalties. But one wag said it marked the difficulty the arts have in staying afloat with minimal funds, because of the Government's freeze for two years after the General Election on fresh spending commitments.

"People like me," says Sir Peter Hall, "have suffered 20 years of progressive starvation under the Conservatives. What we need now is some financial support. Chris Smith is an amiable and nice man, who makes the right noises, but he does not have any money.

"Tony Blair said before the election that there was going to be a new era for creativity. Creative people were going to be treated well and looked after. So far, there is no evidence of that whatsoever. They managed to find pounds 750m for the Dome, yet the Greenwich Theatre closed for want of pounds 150,000. We are talking about a couple of hundred million pounds which could transform our futures and those of our children."

This week's resignation by the entire panel of drama advisors to the Arts Council also exemplifies Hall's concerns. They resigned saying that the business management style of Gerry Robinson, the new Arts Council chairman, has cut out artists. "In the Sixties when I was on the Arts Council," says Hall, "we had people on it like Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland and CP Snow - genuine artists. But you can see now that the artists have made their final exit. One suspects that this Government, like the last one, is rather pleased when artists walk. It is evidence of drama and luvviedom. It's an excuse for using Thatcherite vocabulary that was meant to denigrate artists."

For Wayne Hemingway, the problems with the Government run deeper. He says, coming from a working-class background, that he would never have gone to university in the early Eighties, had there not been strong state funding. "You need pounds 15,000 now, but that would have frightened me off. I was brought up in a pub and I'd have got a bar job and played safe, hoping maybe to be a bar manager one day. I'd never have taken the risk and started Red or Dead, where I employ 100 people now.

"This chance to go to university for people like me has been vital. It has given us three years to be subversive and push back the boundaries. But a lot of people like me, with creative potential, will be frightened off by the cost." Meanwhile, Ken Loach condemns Chris Smith for his attitude to the film industry. "When he spoke at the London Film Festival, his benchmark for success was entirely financial. So The Full Monty and Bean were the ones he highlighted. But you would think that the Culture Secretary would have a broader sense of what makes a film a success. It is about reflecting a society back on itself through images and stories. Chris Smith's type of philistinism is sad. He should be President of the Board of Trade if he wants to talk like this."

All this increasingly vocal opposition has got Labour worried. "I've had senior Labour peers telling me not to rock the boat," says Sir Peter Hall. "They say, 'you're not doing yourself any good'. But I don't mind. They have got it wrong and a few of us have to say so."

There are signs that the campaign is beginning to bear fruit, at least in the pop industry, which the Government is far more interested in appeasing than other out of favour "elitist" arts. Labour grew concerned when Jarvis Cocker of Pulp and Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds ended their love affair with Labour. Worries grew when Alan McGee of Creation Records described Tony Blair as "all surface". McGee became one of the chief critics of the Government's welfare to work policy on the grounds that it would kill off fledgling bands. He declared: "Of course, the likes of me and Noel (Gallagher) are there to be used, especially before the election. But you hope for a little bit more beyond the surface. If things don't improve they won't be getting my money next time."

This week it emerged that Alan McGee had hammered out a deal which will allow some 16-24 year olds, aspiring to pop stardom, to go on a college music course or work placement in the industry. When I tried to contact him, his spokesman said: "Alan's attitude is that he would rather talk to the Government than the media."

This attitude is gaining support among those worried that too much haranguing from the wings will alienate this Government just as it did the last. Stephen Daldry, director of the Royal Court Theatre, says: "It is most important to point out, when people say Labour has betrayed its election promises, that it's not true. People misconstrue Labour's support for the arts as central to the regeneration of the country. There was no financial commitment. The arts establishment is living in a fairyland if it ever thought that the Government was going to turn up with a magic wand and make everything better."

But David Puttnam, ennobled by Tony Blair, is the strongest voice calling for an end to the sniping. Currently pitching to be deputy director-general of the BBC, Puttnam is as close the arts community gets to having someone in the Prime Minister's office. He says that the arts establishment has failed to understand the manifesto properly. "It was quite clear that there would be a moratorium on new spending for two years. What we should be doing now is working out coherent and effective ways of spending money, when more eventually becomes available. I think a lot of my colleagues are making a big mistake. People see that we cannot even agree among ourselves. It's a problem that bedevilled us for 18 years. If I was the Government, I would throw up my hands and say, 'Sod them'." It looks like the drama is only beginning.

Salman Rushdie, author:

'I had hoped they would be doing more for the arts by now'

Sir Peter Hall, theatre director:

'I've been told not to rock the boat. But they've got it wrong and a few of us have to say so'

Ken Loach, film director:

'Chris Smith's philistinism is sad ... He should be President of the Board of Trade'

Alan McGee, music magnate:

'If things don't improve, they won't be getting my money next time'

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