OPINION - What do the political parties' manifestos say about culture? Here's what they could do better

 (Virginia Damtsa)
(Virginia Damtsa)

As the election approaches, it's natural to feel a sense of skepticism about the promises made by political parties. How many times have we heard grandiose claims that ultimately fail to materialise? The BBC election debate highlighted this issue when a lady asked politicians how parties promise all these things but once elected, fail to implement them. This is a crucial question, especially when it comes to the creative industries, which are vital to the DNA of our society.

London in particular is renowned for its vibrant creative sector. From its multicultural population to its rich history, traditions and attractions, London is a unique city that fosters innovation and artistic expression. It’s essential that we don't lose sight of this and that our political leaders recognise the importance of supporting the creative industries.

Leading up to the elections, I reviewed several party manifestos to see how they plan to support the arts. Here are their plans and my suggestions on how we can improve them.

What's missing is a comprehensive plan for culture that addresses the unique challenges faced by the arts

The Conservative Party's chapter "Our Plan to Support Sport and the Creative Sector" talks about apprenticeships and ensuring competitive tax incentives, but lacks details on the specific incentives. They state: "We will ensure creators are properly protected and remunerated for their work, whilst also making the most of the opportunities of AI and its applications for creativity in the future” and promise a review of our nighttime economy.

Some other parties, like the Liberal Democrats, talk about negotiating free and simple short-term travel arrangements for UK artists to perform in the EU, and European artists to perform in the UK. This is something that has been difficult since Brexit.

Labour's manifesto, released ten days ago, includes a small section about the creative sector in their "Break Down Barriers to Opportunity" section. They promise to make arts and music accessible to everyone, regardless of socio-economic or educational background, and to support children in studying a creative or vocational subject until they are 16. They also aim to improve access to cultural assets by requiring publicly funded national museums and galleries to increase the loans they make from their collections to communities across the country. The manifesto also emphasises the creation of good jobs in the sector.

There are no concrete details on how Labour plans to achieve these goals. While they propose capping corporation tax at the current level of 25 percent, this does not provide direct relief to small businesses. They also discuss business rates discouraging investment but do not clarify how they will address this issue. More specific and actionable proposals for the arts would help in understanding the full scope of their plans.

For Reform UK, there is no dedicated section on culture, but they propose to slash business red tape. They also propose the Brexit Bonus, which involves scrapping thousands of laws that they argue hold back British business and damage productivity, and reducing the main corporation tax to 15 per cent from year five, should they form a government.

The Green Party wants to push for a £5bn investment to support community sports, arts, and culture. They aim to keep local sports facilities, museums, theatres, libraries, and art galleries open and thriving by bringing an end to VAT on cultural activities, lowering the prices of everything from museum tickets to gigs in local pubs, and making these more accessible.

The Scottish National Party's manifesto has a dedicated section on "Arts, Broadcasting & Culture." They propose to agree three-year funding settlements for Scottish Government core-funded cultural organisations. The SNP is also calling on the UK Government to work with the EU to deliver free movement for performers, artists, musicians, and freelancers, and ensure there are no barriers to those looking to tour and perform in Scotland and the UK.

What's missing is a comprehensive plan for culture that addresses the unique challenges faced by the arts. Will these limited plans be enough to support and foster our culture and the arts? To attempt to dampen the arts is to undermine our history and evolution.

To improve on these plans, the next government must tackle several critical issues. Since Brexit, selling UK artists' work to EU customers has become a complex and time-consuming process due to high transportation and logistics costs, as well as cross-border tax and VAT complications.

The cultural sector deserves recognition as a dedicated industry

For UK art galleries trading across borders, there may be a need to employ professionals in different countries to remain VAT compliant, which is both expensive and burdensome. Simplifying trading arrangements is essential to benefit both the arts and the broader trading of goods. Introducing a cap on transport costs and streamlining customs procedures would make the movement of goods less prohibitive, efficient and more frequent.

Promoting international collaborations is also crucial. Some parties touched on the need to work with the EU to ensure free movement for performers, artists, musicians, and freelancers, and to remove barriers for those looking to tour, perform, and exhibit. The government should foster international partnerships and exchange programs for artists and creative professionals. This could include bilateral agreements with other countries to facilitate artist residencies, collaborations, and joint exhibitions. Additionally, negotiating favourable travel arrangements for UK artists to perform and exhibit abroad and for international artists to do the same in the UK would help overcome the barriers posed by Brexit.

The cultural sector deserves recognition as a dedicated industry, with policymakers seeking advice from associations and businesses within the field to understand its unique challenges. Reducing business rates and corporate taxes for small creative enterprises would provide them with much-needed support and growth opportunities. Implementing financial plans that account for inflation and rising costs would ensure that museums and institutions remain sustainable. Offering clear tax incentives for donors and philanthropists would encourage more private contributions to the arts. Another potential tax incentive could be to cut value-added tax (VAT) for art sales, as the German government has recently done, reducing the rate to 7 per cent. This move would meet a long-standing demand of dealers and artists, and could have a positive impact on the cultural sector as a whole.

To alleviate the administrative burden on smaller businesses, the government should make regulations more flexible, allowing them to focus on innovation and growth. Encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation within the creative sectors through initiatives such as startup funding, mentorship programs, and business plan competitions is essential. Providing grants and subsidies for creative projects, as well as investing in arts education, would foster a new generation of artists and cultural entrepreneurs.

Creating more public spaces for art exhibitions, performances, and community projects would help integrate the arts into everyday life, making them more accessible and appreciated by all. This could include initiatives such as public art installations, street performances, and community-led cultural events. Councils should have dedicated budgets for cultural events in each neighbourhood to foster a vibrant and cohesive sense of community. Additionally, supporting the development and maintenance of creative infrastructure, such as studios, theatres, and galleries, is vital. Offering incentives such as tax breaks and deductions for estates and landlords to rent their shops, premises to creative businesses and possibly dedicating some streets to the arts, similar to Cork Street in Mayfair, would also be beneficial.

By taking these steps, the next government can create a supportive environment for the creative industries, helping them thrive in a post-Brexit landscape. Ensuring that the arts remain a vibrant and integral part of our society is not only beneficial for cultural enrichment but also for economic growth and social cohesion.

For a country to thrive, it needs culture. The arts deserve our vote. With polling day less than two weeks away, will any party take a deep look at our issues and tackle them with genuine rigour and interest?

Virginia Damtsa is a contemporary art expert, curator, cultural strategist and art dealer