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As the Labour Party convenes in Liverpool this week for its annual conference, Eliza Easton calls for fresh thinking from the new Shadow Culture Secretary and her team.

Image of Culture Secretary Debbonaire playing the cello
Newly-appointed Shadow Culture Secretary Thangam Debbonaire was a professional cellist before moving into politics

David Mirzoeff

Labour was the political party to define the creative industries in the 90s. But how times have changed. DCMS (the Department for Culture, Media and Sport) is sometimes dubbed the Ministry of Fun. Charitably, this could be because its responsibilities include the things that make life joyful – music, fashion, film, art, sport, games, architecture, television, books. 

Less charitably, it could be because ministers get invited to some great parties. But there is a serious side to DCMS. The areas in its remit have enormous economic, social and environmental impact, not least because more than one in ten UK jobs fall within these sectors. The majority are in the creative industries: a group of sub-sectors ranging from games to advertising, to design, to the performing arts. This is also the part of the portfolio that collectively has grown most quickly post-pandemic.

Last month, Thangam Debbonaire MP was appointed Shadow DCMS Secretary of State alongside Chris Bryant MP who has become Shadow Minister for Creative Industries and Digital. Both are creatives in their own right - Bryant is an author, Debbonaire a musician. Both have worked at DCMS before. But as we approach a general election, new ideas will be needed. To get them started, here are four policy areas impacting the creative industries that need Labour’s immediate attention. 

Building a Createch strategy 

Labour has a history of designing ambitious policy for the creative industries. The sector was first defined in 1998 by Chris Smith (now Baron Smith of Finsbury) when he was Secretary of State for DCMS under Blair. In his book ‘Creative Britain’, released the same year, Smith’s ideas about how to support the creative industries have stood the test of time. But one area where, inevitably, policy needs updating is where the sector interacts with emerging tech. 

Smith recommended putting images from European galleries onto CD-ROMs for use in schools. But technology now offers very different opportunities - and challenges. Artificial intelligence poses commercial and ethical threats – as seen in the ongoing legal battle between US titan Getty Images and UK tech company Stability AI. A new legislative framework may be needed to allow AI companies to continue to push frontiers, while ensuring creatives are paid fairly for the use of their work. 

Equally, greater research and development investment is required to ensure the sector can use bleeding edge tech in a creative and sustainable way - whether AI, augmented reality, robotics or 3D printing. Put simply, Labour needs a Createch strategy if they want to reclaim their position at the forefront of the global debate around tech and the creative sector. 

Embedding the sector in climate initiatives 

Service exports from the creative industries almost doubled between 2015 to 2020, with exports in 2020 totalling £41.4bn. While there are challenges to this growth, it is clear the UK sector has enormous international heft. This global strength is supported by educational titans with the UK being home to the top two ranked art and design schools in the world (the RCA and UAL). As Uncle Ben told Spiderman in the Stan Lee comics, “with great power comes great responsibility”. 

Although parts of the sector have substantially reduced their carbon emissions over the last two decades, there are still complex challenges. The global impact of the fashion industry accounts for between 8-10% of greenhouse gas emissions, for example, and UK film and TV emissions remain above their 1990 levels. 

As a leading creative exporter and educator, the UK can impact global value chains and international practice. And creative content itself can have an impact on the climate debate. Think how David Attenborough’s Blue Planet stimulated an urgent discussion about water pollution. 

If Labour is elected and moves towards a commitment of £28bn per annum on climate initiatives, it must not forget this polluting but high impact area of the economy. 

Embedding the creative industries in foreign policy 

The creative industries can impact more than the UK’s balance of trade. In a world where freedoms are being threatened and disinformation abounds, soft power is an important complement to diplomatic and hard power. 

Despite recent cuts, the BBC World Service continues to provide high quality, independent news reporting around the world. Ask top diplomats and they will tell you the creative sector also enables difficult conversations on issues ranging from the climate crisis to freedom of speech, to gender equality. 

Russia and China put huge resource into their own soft power initiatives, as do South Korea and France. With creative behemoths from Burberry and Aardman Animations, supported by organisations including the British Council, the British Film Institute and the British Fashion Council, the UK is still considered a ‘soft power superpower’.

But without investment and cross-governmental strategy, our crown will slip. Labour needs to build cross-departmental relationships to ensure creative businesses and organisations are supported in their international work so that they, in return, can better support the UK’s geopolitical objectives.  

Enabling local investment in arts and culture

London is undoubtedly a global creative industries giant, but creative businesses are found nationwide from the Shetlands to Cornwall. Each of these creative communities has its own DNA. Some specialise in software and games, others film and television, but all can deliver social and economic impact.

Both the Conservative and Labour parties have committed to investing outside London, highlighting the key role arts and cultural investment can play in re-building a place’s identity, stimulating the local economy and attracting visitors and talent. While much of the discourse about funding outside the capital has focused on devolution of the Arts Council England budget, the most significant public funder of arts and culture, by some margin, remains local authorities. 

My research has shown that while the ACE budget has remained relatively stable in real terms over the last decade, hyper-local investment in arts and culture has been slashed. Labour needs to come up with a new deal for arts funding which considers how ACE funding, revenue and capital investment from local and combined authorities, levelling-up funds and tax credits can work together to better support the range of cultural infrastructure needed across the country. 

The UK likes to describe itself as world-leading in all sorts of things. For the creative industries, this is undoubtedly true. In the run-up to the next general election, Labour has an opportunity to develop policies for the creative industries sector they defined. I look forward to Debbonaire and Bryant taking up their party’s historic mantle. 

Eliza Easton is Founder of Erskine Analysis.

Keeping the UK’s creative industries globally competitive — Erskine Analysis
The Coronation Challenge: how tertiary education can support CreaTech — Erskine Analysis

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