When I went into work on Friday morning, I didn’t really have to worry about offending anyone by venting my anger about the General Election results. We work in the arts; ergo we vote Labour or Green. Everyone was in a pretty grim mood, still slightly disbelieving of the surprise Conservative victory which spells five more years of austerity and cuts, this time untempered by the Liberal Democrats who, say what you will, did tone down some of the Tories’ more heinous policies during the last Parliament.
Thursday’s election results will have far-reaching, devastating consequences. In the last five years under the Tories, the number of rough sleepers I encounter on my way to the station (a seven-minute walk from my house) has significantly increased. Sometimes I count about 10 of them. Perhaps in five years’ time, there will be 15, 20, 25. The NHS, which is unique in the world and should be the absolute pride and joy of this country (people who moan about it should imagine having to pay through the nose for health insurance that forces you to decide whether or not you want to be covered for having an abortion, or physiotherapy, or counselling), is pretty much doomed to privatisation.
It’s devastating, and infuriating. My social media feeds have been lit up with expletives and heartfelt expressions of anger, disbelief and hurt. Not surprising, of course. My friends work in the arts; the NHS; social services. Most of my friends don’t earn a lot of money, and they care about things like social justice and affordable housing and well-funded public services. I was talking to someone on Friday night who, as a child protection social worker, already has a case load of 40 when the manageable average is 16. Perhaps in five years’ time that case load will be 50, or 60 – that is, if her job hasn’t been outsourced to some private company by that time.
Journalist Honour Bayes published a very astute article in The Stage on Friday about why people working in the arts have been so surprised at the election results. It’s because we all surround ourselves with people who think the same as we do, and don’t realise that those views are not representative of the majority. As Bayes puts it:
To engender change we’re going to need to take our work and our thoughts to the strongholds of conservatism, to the suburbs and the east coast. We need to make and show work and write about it in those places and engage in discussion with the people who don’t agree with us.
She’s right, of course. We do live in a bubble – and cosy though that bubble is, we can’t ignore the fact that those people outside the bubble have a voice, and a loud one too. Yes, that’s uncomfortable. Yes, I would like to believe that everyone inherently agrees that arts funding delivers great value for money – for society, for education, for the economy, and for the general wellbeing of the nation – but alas, for many people it is a frivolity, an elitist waste of money propping up, as Dutch right-winger Geert Wilders so contemptuously put it, ‘a left-wing hobby’. Bayes urges us to engage with these people over the next five years and convince them otherwise.
Personally, I am worried about how five more years of Conservative government will affect my fledgling career in the arts. And I worry how it will affect the incredible organisations and people I have the privilege to work with. All around me, I see how money spent in the arts delivers benefits – just look at the 35 or so vulnerable older people who come to the Albany every week to paint and sing and knit and socialise. The arts are not elitist, damn it. We need the arts – we need people to stand up and make stuff that questions who we are and what we do and why. We need the arts to give us a break from the relentless shit that surrounds us. We need a soul.
As for me, I wasn’t even allowed to vote in Thursday’s elections. You need to be a British citizen for that – calling this isle of splendid isolation my home for the past 15 years and paying pretty much all my taxes here doesn’t count. Thankfully, at least, the good people of Brighton and Hove did us proud and stuck two fingers up at the prevailing political climate by voting Green and Labour respectively.
Ironically, in a week that added further long-term uncertainty to the short-term uncertainty I am experiencing right now (I still don’t know what I will be doing after the end of June, which seems perilously close), I received a LinkedIn message from an ex-colleague asking whether he might be able to tempt me back to my old job, which apparently is vacant again soon. My response was, of course, no. Not just because I am not someone who ever goes back, which I generally think is a pretty good life policy. Not just because I would have a nervous breakdown after approximately three weeks. No – it’s because I love working in the arts. I love the people; I love the work; I love being in places where art is created. It’s inspiring. It’s where I belong.
So fuck you David Cameron – we’ll fight back, as a sector and as individuals. I, for one, will do my best over the next five years to get off my arse and reach out of that bubble.