Harriet Harman has intervened to stop Newcastle council from cutting its arts budget by 100%. But why did it get this far?
The past weeks have not looked good for Labour’s position on arts and culture. Brewing since late last year has been the unpleasant prospect of a major Labour council – Newcastle – cutting its arts budget by 100%, halving its grants to its museums, and reducing its library service by 60%.
The proposals, public consultation on which ended earlier this month, were greeted by a chorus of disapproval by both citizens of Newcastle and prominent artists, notably Lee Hall, writer of Billy Elliot andThe Pitmen Painters.
A recent visit to the city by shadow culture minister Dan Jarvis did nothing to assuage fears: he publicly backed the council leader, Nick Forbes, telling me he had spent “hours if not days” going through the city’s draft budget; and that, in announcing a total cut to the arts, Forbes was merely “being open and transparent about the consequences of the austerity measures imposed by the government”.
His position prompted a bewildered response from Hall, who wrote to Jarvis saying, “if as the shadow culture minister you cannot robustly and publicly defend the right of working-class and disadvantaged people to have access to libraries and culture, I do not understand what you are doing holding that brief”.