Among all the various bouts of brouhaha in UK domestic politics at the moment, Sir Keir Starmer’s speech to the Creative Coalition Festival 2022 last Wednesday went largely unnoticed and unremarked upon. Which was a shame, since it contained a significant breakthrough.
If I’m brutally honest, the prospect of spending an hour sitting through a Starmer speech hadn’t exactly thrilled me, although I’ve said from the day of his election that his being a bit boring but competent and serious should be viewed as a strength in the current circumstances. He may not be at the top of anyone’s list to host a witty panel show, but an increasing number of voters would take that over the alternative, now that we’ve been living with it for a couple of years. It seems odd that Boris Johnson continues to remind us that Starmer is a highly successful lawyer, as if that’s some sort of flaw; it’s an especially strange approach given the Prime Minster’s current issues with the law.
In fairness, kudos to Starmer for accepting the invitation and turning up, having clearly done his homework, especially only a couple of hours after Prime Minister’s Questions. Even I had to concede that it showed a degree of commitment to the creative industries which is worth acknowledging, entertainment value or not.
I watched Starmer’s address on catch-up, figuring I could skip through the stodgier bits, a bit like with all the chummy banter between the actual football on Match of the Day. This turned out to have been a useful move for a different reason, since there was a section on EU touring for creative artists which had me reaching for the rewind, rather than fast forward, button. Had he really just nailed Labour’s colours to the mast as emphatically as it sounded? Surely not. I wrote it down to be certain.
“Leaving the EU does pose challenges. Creative professionals need to be able to travel abroad at speed, so the impact on them has been particularly tough, with musicians especially hard hit. We would push for a visa waiver for touring artists, and we would negotiate an EU-wide cultural touring agreement, including allowances for cabotage, carnets and customs rules.”
In other words, exactly what UK artists have been saying they need for two years now. It stops just short of a concrete commitment to include all this in the Labour manifesto for the next General Election; but the language is unequivocal, to the extent that should anything less than this appear in that manifesto, it would represent a humiliating public climbdown for Starmer and his team. He could easily have been less emphatic, aspirations rather than commitments this far out, especially given how precariously many of Labour’s votes in England still lie across the Leave-Remain dividing line. That he feels bold enough to have moved this far forward in the language he’s using is a narrow ray of hope in what have been dark times.
Yawn, you may reply – more words, mere hot air, so what? British creative workers are suffering now and have been for some time; they need solutions today, not just the promise of them from a hypothetical new government in 2025.
Realistically though, this has always been the best hope for a viable way forward, certainly as it became clear that the current government possesses neither the will nor the nous to seek and secure the sort of agreement with the EU and its member states that is needed.
Labour committing to doing just that puts pressure on the other opposition parties to match their offer. And the more it’s discussed and highlighted, the more genuine pressure there is on the Conservatives to do something more than just mouth platitudes and assure us that something must be done, preferably by someone else. No one should cling to the false hope that these issues can be solved swiftly or simply, and the world as it was won’t be coming back. The solutions lie ahead of us, not behind, and we can’t solve new problems with old thinking.
At the end of his speech Starmer made it clear that he doesn’t feel Labour has gone far enough in its plans for supporting the UK’s creative workforce, and that they are open to further concrete ideas on what is needed. If anyone has something they’d like to get onto the table, drop me a line here and I’ll be happy to help point you in the right direction.
I’m not going to say this is the beginning of the end of this crisis, nor even necessarily the end of the beginning. Restoring the ecosystem of the UK’s performing arts industry, after the battering it’s taken from Brexit and the pandemic, will take a generation of radical thought and action.
But for a long time now we’ve needed a tunnel out of this mountain of shit that’s suffocating us. We can now at least see where that tunnel might start – and possibly even a faint light at the end of it.
Finally, what can you do about this? Keep talking about it, exhausting as that often feels. Remind our audiences that the problems have not gone away. Keep highlighting the ongoing issues on social media and any other platforms you have. And keep writing to your MPs – Freelancers Make Theatre Work have a template here which could be a useful starting point. If your MP is a Labour member, show that you’ve picked up on their leader’s statement, and ask about those manifesto commitments. If your MP is with another opposition party, draw their attention to Labour’s stance and ask if they can match it. And if they’re on the Tory benches, ask them why the Government is still dragging its heels on this. Keep the pressure on. The progress may be achingly slow, but we’re getting there.
Paul Carey Jones’ recent book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is available now in paperback, Kindle, audiobook and brand new hardback editions from Amazon sites worldwide. For more details and a link to your nearest retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy
“A powerful traversal of life in the pandemic” – Opera Magazine
“His view is alert and complex, evaluating developments with a searching but sceptical eye.” – BBC Music Magazine