On the evening of Thursday the 19th of February 2015 I observed a hustings event with four of the candidates to be Cambridge’s MP held at the Cambridge Junction. The event was titled Arts, culture and quality of life – The Political Debate.
Candidates taking part were Conservative Chamali Fernando, Labour’s Daniel Zeichner, Green Rupert Read and Liberal Democrat Julian Huppert.
Elements I Thought Particularly Notable
Chamali Fernando struggled, apparently reading out elements of a briefing, often reading the same factoid a number of times. Fernando spoke as if she was speaking on behalf of a Conservative government. When challenged on the record of the coalition government by Rachel Snape, the Headteacher of the Spinney Primary School, Fernando sharply put her down saying: “I think madame … you have been listening to the Labour rhetoric”.
Fernando also said she would really like to go to Kew gardens but couldn’t afford its entrance fee saying: “I’ve not been, I’d love to go, it’s a price issue”. Labour’s Daniel Zeichner suggested her statement was ridiculous and said those using food banks in Cambridge wouldn’t be impressed with Fernando’s statement, suggesting she shouldn’t be pleading poverty. (Entry is £15).
Trying to find examples of her own connections with the arts Fernando repeatedly referred back to her school days where she said she was a theatre critic on her school paper.
An apprentice from the Cambridge Junction made an interesting contribution; she said she was put off going to university by the level of fees given that she knew she wanted a job in the arts which would be relatively lowly paid and she might not therefore pay back her loan. She said that while student loan rules might mean she wouldn’t have to pay back the loan she didn’t think that was right, as someone would be paying.
I think the impacts of tuition fees are more subtle than politicians appear to realise and there are many who for various reasons don’t want to take on huge debts even if the terms of student loans do make them different from other personal loans.
One contributor from the audience noted there were a number of apparently factual points which the candidates appeared to disagree on. He said candidates had disagreed on if the level of Arts Council funding was, under the current coalition government, at its highest ever level. Chamali Fernando read out the Hansard reference which accompanied the statement on her briefing notes. The reference though, as I noted it down, was to June the 8th 2014, which was a Sunday on which Parliament wasn’t sitting.
almost £3bn will be provided to Arts Council England by the Government in grant-in aid and National Lottery money.
At the event Labour’s Daniel Zeichner made a comment about public funding levels being quoted by the Conservative including lottery money; he also suggested the Conservatives had to have included spending on the Olympics if Fernando’s statement “we have increased the total funding for the arts” was to be true.
Further Notes on What Was Said
MP Julian Huppert argued against too much focus on GDP; saying that if we “smashed the place up” GDP would increase as a result of work to restore it, but our lives wouldn’t have really been improved by the exercise.
Rupert Read made the same point; saying there was a need to move away from an econometric view of society and the arts should be “put front and centre as they give life meaning” and there was no need to try and put any financial value on artistic and cultural activities. He and Huppert both spoke about the importance of improving quality of life. This latter point was one Zeichner jumped in on too saying culture was an important part of Cambridge’s offer to those the city, and its enterprises, want to attract to live and work here.
MP Julian Huppert said he had no natural talent in realistic art (and if you want a realistic representation of something you should take a photograph). He said his cultural interests were in music and performing music and revealed he has performed at the Sidney Opera house. Huppert said he had been to see 1984 at the Arts Theatre which he described as “powerful”. He also spoke of hearing Bjork perform.
Rupert Read described his job as a philosophy lecturer as being in the art and cultural sector. Perhaps in an effort to appear less aloof and detached than one might expect from his job he then referenced the popular film Avatar and said he blogs on a “film collective” website (See his 2013 piece there on Avatar.
Chamali Fernando said the area of the arts she was most passionate about was theatre and that she’d been to see a local play in Fulbourn and had taken part in her chambers’ drama group. She also spoke in favour of keeping museums free and school trips to the theatre. Fernando reported her government has put £171m into music education and said there is a need to ensure access for all (Apparently a reference to Ex Education Minister Michael Gove’s music hubs and criticism of them).
Daniel Zeichner said he doesn’t take part in any cultural activity on a regular basis but sees politics as a cultural pursuit and noted that performance is a key part of politics – standing up getting your point across and trying to make a persuasive case.
Rachel Snape, the Headteacher of the Spinney Primary School, introduced herself as “a national leader in education“, which I’ve now looked up and appears to mean she and her school help other schools which are in “challenging circumstances”.
Snape made the first reference to the Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth, report published two days before the event by the “Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value”. She said there had been a removal of art from state schools and said the report says one third of pupils have no contact with the arts.
On page 47 the report states:
In England, there has been a significant decline in the number of state schools offering arts subjects taught by specialist teachers. Since 2010 the number of arts teachers in schools has fallen by up to 11%
I can’t find the reference for “one third of pupils have no contact with the arts.”
Daniel Zeichner said he agreed there had been a fall off; which he put down to the economic circumstances which schools find themselves in.
Chamali Fernando responded with a number of points that didn’t relate to the what had been said, she spoke of Arts Council funding being higher than ever before, and pointed out the government had introduced tax incentives for the film industry.
It was when Snape asked Fernando why there was still a decline given the extra money she said the Conservatives were putting in that Fernando called the headteacher “madam” and accused her of succumbing to Labour rhetoric. Snape suggested it was not just a money issue but a question of active promotion and encouragement of the arts.
Rupert Read said state funding for arts at universities had been cut and said our society should give less consideration to money.
MP Julian Huppert raised the question of the point of education and how to measure its success; he suggested surveying people at age 50 and asking them how happy they are with their lives as a possibly interesting, if impractical, metric.
Huppert said there are many problems with our education system that traps people in a process, forces people into one box too early and doesn’t reflect a “whole life experience”. Huppert also noted creativity is key to science.
A question was asked from the floor on Libraries; on if Cambridge’s libraries contribute to promoting reading and if big library rebuilding projects in Birmingham and Manchester were “white elephants”
Fernando said libraries had changed and now had ebook and facilities for mothers and children. She said “outdated libraries have become white elephants”. (Perhaps she’s not heard of the idiom).
Julian Huppert said libraries are important social spaces and they have a changing role. He said Birmingham’s library was more than a store of books, it is an events space too.
Daniel Zeichner said he had used the library when unemployed under a Conservative government; he said the current Cambridge central library is very different to the one he used then. He suggested the Conservative “big society” plan to have more volunteers in libraries was silly and said his mum was a librarian.
Rupert Read said his big issue with new libraries was that they were not silent any more. He insisted he wasn’t joking and this was a serious point. He said people don’t know how to behave in public spaces any more and said there had been a privatisation of the public realm.
The director of the Kettles Yard museum and “house” in Cambridge asked about publicly funded arts and how politicians can help excellence reach everyone.
Julian Huppert said Kettles Yard is amazing and accepted there was a concern, if perhaps a rather trite one, that art and culture were luxuries for the middle classes. He said the area was a huge industry with a £12bn/year turnover and social access is important.
Huppert noted the Labour response to a recent Conservative document saying Labour would cancel planed arts cuts. He said Labour reacted by insisting they would not spend any more money on arts but actually investment in arts is a good thing
p.44 of Tory dossier says Labour will cancel cuts to the arts budget. We won't.
— Labour Press Team (@labourpress) January 5, 2015
Daniel Zeichner suggested Twitter isn’t a very good medium for debate and said the comment was made by a Labour Press Officer on Twitter.
Zeichner said the last Labour government had made an “iconic” move to make museums free. He also spoke about a beautiful exhibition run by Kettles Yard in Arbury.
I’ve just looked that up online and it appears there was an exhibition which toured various locations in North Cambridge. It happened in October 2014. I don’t know if times and dates were ever published.
Richard Rupert Read suggested Kew Gardens was too posh. He also opposed cuts to evening classes and said there is disproportionate arts spending in London. Read said “there is harmful, bad, culture” and gave the example of advertising. He said he’d started the “leave our kids alone” campaign which wants to ban adverts targeted at children. He said there is a problem with people seeing arts as entertainment, he said they were the meaning of life and wisdom.
Chamali Fernando assuming the role of government spokesperson said “we have increased total funding for the arts” and said History had benefited too as more money had gone to English Heritage. When Fernando said “we in Cambridge” it grated to me as she’s someone the Conservatives have brought in to stand in the election.
Antony Carpen introduced himself as a school governor and asked about “one arts offer for Cambridge” and suggested better co-ordination.
MP Julian Huppert said there was a need for anarchism in arts and he didn’t want to overly prescribe routes for promoting activities to schools; he said there should be room for people to just do things without too many deadlines and too much bureaucracy.
Rupert Read said Cambridge City Council had cut its subsidy to the Corn Exchange, to which Executive Councillor Richard Johnson who was in the audience shook his head. The council have reduced its funding of Arts and Recreation by £350,000 as part of a reorganisation in 2010. The 2011-15 strategy document states:
The restructure of Arts & Recreation has delivered a saving of £350,000. This was achieved through implementation of a more streamlined staffing structure based around the establishment of four teams (cultural facilities, arts & events, business & marketing and sport & recreation) as well as adjustments to programming targets and subsidy at Cambridge Corn Exchange.
Julian Huppert said Labour were cutting its support of the Junction.
All candidates agreed with the need for a unitary authority for Cambridge. Julian Huppert said the city deal and its “joint authority” was a useful first step. Rupert Read said it ought cover a wide area and protect the green belt.
Cambridge Folk Museum chairman Allan Brigham asked about per project grants supporting staff in museums, he said this was a problem as it meant staff moved on after short periods.
Rupert Read, Daniel Zeichner and Julian Huppert all said there was a need for more core funding. Zeichner said the “bids culture” across the public sector needed tackling. Huppert said organisations ought get core funding and bids should be for extra funds for special projects.
The apprentice from the Junction started her contribution by saying there was a massive problem with a lack of interest in the candidates and election from younger people. She said she had no idea who the candidates were. She asked about alternatives to university.
Daniel Zeichner and Julian Huppert both said we had to encourage options other than university for young people. Zeichner said we need a shift away from university being seen as the only esteemed option and said we have a divided city and he saw himself as standing up for Cambridge Regional College, not Cambridge University who he said have a loud enough voice already.
Huppert said he “hated” university being seen as a gold standard, and apprenticeships are good, and there are now two million of them. He suggested a practical apprenticeship could be better than university for those seeking arts jobs. Huppert said there was a need to increase the pay for apprentices so it is possible to live on the minimum wage for apprentices. He also made clear he sees tuition fees as wrong and accepted the psychological and moral impact of taking out a huge loan.
There was some debate between Julian Huppert and Daniel Zeichner over which governments had introduced, increased and then tripled, university tuition fees. (Labour introduced them and increased them, the Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition then tripled them to their current level).
Rupert Read said tuition fees are really a graduate tax but were introduced as fees so as to enable the privatisation of universities. He said he was pro-apprentices and wanted to see more of them. He said the Green party would offer all three years of further education be that university, an apprenticeship, or something else, with no tuition fees. Paid for by a wealth tax and cutting the Trident nuclear weapons system.
The questioner said she knew people with passion for arts and culture stuck in retail jobs and felt very lucky to have an apprenticeship.
Rachel Drury of Collusion asked about linking the arts and technology in Cambridge.
Julian Huppert pointed to the games industry, which is a big part of the local economy, as somewhere where the two come together. He also said it was important there were people with the skills to make technical products consumer friendly and spoke of the importance of coding in schools.
Chamali Fernando said backstage technicians were needed for theatres and architecture is an area where science and creativity combine.
Rupert Read objected to reference to the economy saying art had an independent worth; he said there was an opportunity for synergy. He said there was increasing interest in film and video in schools and that needed expensive equipment.
Daniel Zeichner said he’d seen the Raspberry Pi computer being used in schools to create art. He said it was difficult to attract people to Cambridge given its transport problems and quality of life matters. He suggested spending the “1% on art” tax on development in the city on art – technology overlap.
All the candidates were standing as party members. The last question from the moderator asked them to sum up their parties views:
- Rupert Read (Green): Arts are of inherent value. We must not focus just on London. Education is important.
- Chamali Fernando (Conservative): Money doesn’t grow on trees. Art and culture makes us better.
- Daniel Zeichner (Labour): STEAM not STEM (adding an A for Art to Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). Social justice and universal access. We pay taxes for a publicly funded cultural environment.
- Julian Huppert (Liberal Democrat): We must breakdown elitist barriers. Opportunity for all. Value. Disagrees with Conservative continued cuts but says not balancing the books is not an option [unlike Rupert Read Huppert didn't say this would involve higher taxes].
The event was held at the Junction whose rules prevent unauthorised filming and photography of events so I do not have a video or a photograph of proceedings. The BBC recorded the event and I have been told they will broadcast it. I would be surprised if we see it broadcast in full but we will see.