New Labour Arts Policies

This issue will be the last before the forthcoming General Election and so, as we have done over the past 20 years, we will try to explore the likely policies of the party that looks most likely to succeed. At present, new Labour is the front-runner in all opinion polls. Although their manifesto has yet to be published, public and private utterances by Tony Blair and his Shadow Ministerial colleagues give some indicators of what may be in store for the arts.

The National Lottery
The Lottery will continue, though not necessarily in its present form. Labour is committed to lottery profits being devoted to the arts as one of the key ‘good causes’; and in addition to government revenue grants for the arts. However, Camelot’s contractual engagement as Lottery administrators ends in 2001; and Labour wants to engage a charitable operator (such as Richard Branson who made the only non-profit-making bid to run it) or to introduce a fixed ceiling on the amount of profits that the Lottery operator can take.

The current requirement for ‘good causes’ to achieve ‘partnership funding’ before they can actually receive and use their Lottery grant will be reconsidered by Labour which is concerned that the present arguments unfairly discriminate against the most needy causes, particularly those located in deprived regions of the country.

The Millennium Commission is funded in large part by Lottery funds, which Labour plans to divert towards a new National Endowment for Science and the Arts that it proposes to establish. Presumably, NESTA will only come into being when the Millennium Commission is wound up towards the end of 2001. This may therefore mean that the creation of a NESTA is not a serious possibility during the lifetime of a new Labour Government.

Tony Blair has described this new body as ‘a National Trust for talent’, which would hand down its grants through existing arts organisations whose functions would continue to be to nurture and support new creators, albeit with bursaries, prizes and grants made newly available through NESTA.

Labour’s income target for NESTA is £100m each year, and it would not only receive Lottery funds, but also donations from successful artists and performers. What is not yet clear is whether NESTA would eventually replace the Arts Councils.

The Arts Councils
Under successive Conservative Governments, the Arts Councils of the UK have been transformed beyond all recognition: from the substantially government-funded bodies carrying out arguably the most important public funding functions for the arts in the UK in the 1970s, to much leaner and ‘meaner’ bodies almost playing second fiddle to the Regional Arts Boards, private sector sponsorship and funding, in the 1990s. Indeed, the Arts Council of Great Britain is no more; there are now three separate councils for Scotland, Wales and England. Many have argued that plurality of funding for the arts is beneficial in theory; others argue that in practice the arts and artists are less supported and/or financially secure than ever before. These radical changes over the past 18 years have also raised public debate on the need for the continuance of the Councils and, if they are to continue, what their remit should become.

Labour has tackled these questions and ‘would continue with the Councils, strengthening and clarifying their roles and functions’. They would become truly strategic planning and co-ordinating bodies for the arts, and cease to be essentially operational grant-aiders. Presumably NESTA would be Labour’s replacement body for the giving of grants to individuals and organisations.

Quite how these new roles will manifest themselves remains to be seen, but early indicators are that the Councils would be charged with the task of promoting and encouraging all public and appropriate private bodies to recognise, commission and sponsor arts activity. In other words, the Councils would cease being so-called patrons of the arts, becoming sponsors and advocates (in similar vein, perhaps, to the Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts).

The European Union is poised to insist that VAT on art sales is increased to 5% from 2.5%, a move greatly resisted by dealers and collectors who fear transfer of their UK market elsewhere beyond the EU. Labour has committed itself to opposing the proposed VAT increase, for the reasons advanced by UK dealers with whom it seems to agree.

Re-sale Royalty Right
The European Union is also poised to insist that UK law is brought into line with most of the other 14 states, and introduce ‘droit de suite’ legislation (the artist’s right to receive a small percentage of any profit made on public re-sales of their works). UK art dealers are strongly opposed to its introduction into the UK, for essentially the same reasons as their opposition to VAT increases; in essence, they see DDS as a further tax on their profits.

Many commentators find it surprising that Labour does not support the introduction of DDS in the UK; not only because Labour tends generally to be in favour of harmonisation of European laws, but also because the philosophy of DDS is about fair play (i.e. it is unfair that the products of artists original aesthetic skill and labour should be used by others to make profits for themselves in which artists have no economic share).

However, it does appear that simplistic arguments along lines that ‘the rich and successful artists would benefit the most from DDS, and not the poorer less successful artists who most need the money’, have persuaded Labour to oppose its introduction into UK law, at least at this stage, when they are facing a political battle for power. Perhaps, in the fullness of time, wiser counsels will prevail and Labour will be persuaded by then that, for example, DDS collection and distribution schemes can be so fashioned as to create a general fund applied for the benefit of the most needy artists (as happens in some other DDS countries at present).

Exhibition Payments
Labour has been persuaded to support the idea promulgated by Mark Boyle and others in the 1970s that artists should receive payments for the exposition of their works to public viewing. Unlike DDS, however, such a scheme would require public arts bodies to receive extra funding and it remains to be seen whether that would be forthcoming from a Labour Government.

Ministerial Matters
Labour has no radical plans for changing the Department of National Heritage, despite having voiced concerns over both its name and its remit since its establishment. The Shadow Cabinet remains reticent over any potential new role for the Department, but continues to assert that it does not see the Department changing the so-called ‘arms-length principle’, whereby Ministers accept the convention that they do not meddle in the affairs of independent bodies such as the Arts Councils in decision making.

Speculation continues as to who will head up a Labour Government’s Department of National Heritage. Front-runners appear to include Jack Cunningham, Shadow Secretary of State for the Department since 1995; Mark Fisher, Minister of State for arts, libraries and museums since 1987; Lord Donaghue, leading arts spokesman in the House of Lords, and his colleague Baroness Dean.

Whatever the outcome of the General Election, it does seem clear from recent pronouncements made by the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, that a Labour Government would not be able to provide any more public money for the arts than would a Conservative Government.

© Henry Lydiate 1997

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This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.