As reported last week, a cursory look at Sir Keir Starmer’s speech to the Labour Creatives Conference at Guildhall suggested that he was high on ambition but low on prospective achievement.

The state of the nation is dire, with health, education, care and so many other vital areas screaming for much-needed cash after a decade and a half of austerity. The current messages from Sir Keir and Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Rachel Reeves consistently point to very limited spending commitments unless growth can be achieved.

When it comes to culture, it may be possible to have your cake and eat it, expanding on some of the opposition leader’s comments and combining them with recent encouraging data from the enterprising Stratford Festival in Canada.

The Speech

Unlike so many recent government ministers, including a dozen or more of those supposedly employed to support Culture, Sir Keir Starmer and a number of his colleagues genuinely love the arts.

We can all relate to “the excitement you feel, when you have an encounter with the arts that changes your life. Everyone here will know that feeling… That sense of being drawn into something bigger than ourselves. Of being truly moved—by a piece of music, a painting, or a play.”

He also recognises the economic benefits of a sector where “2.4 million people work in the creative industry. It’s worth £125 billion—and growing fast.” Those last three words are the key, given that “You’re not just important to Brand Britain—you are Brand Britain. Attracting major foreign investment from companies all over the world who recognise and value British talent.”

He even understands that the arts tick many more boxes, for example levelling up, but worries that “the government has no strategy for the arts. No recognition of its fundamental role in the economy, health, education or our global standing.”

The speech included proposals to bring the arts back into a central role in the education system, though this given the long-term government view that “arts subjects weren’t a strategic priority”, this will take time.

Perhaps the most rousing sentence of the whole speech was, “with Labour, creative skills won’t be treated as a luxury, but a necessity.”

Bringing all of this together, if Labour is elected by the end of the year, we might swiftly move to a position where the word “culture” is used by government ministers on its own, rather than constantly being the first half of the phrase ending in “wars”.

The big lacuna in the speech was the funding, and that’s where the inspirational messages from Stratford Festival in Ontario come in.

The Stratford Success Story

Labour’s missing link is growth. In every aspect of public life, the current government appears to have a sole goal, which is to cut costs, regardless of the overall financial consequences.

The fallacy of such an approach can most obviously be seen in its attitude to HM Revenue and Customs, regarded as an expensive cost centre by succeeding (perhaps failing would be more appropriate) Chancellors of the Exchequer, where it ought to be regarded as a valuable cash cow.

From an economic perspective, art could be viewed in the same way. That is why Stratford Festival commissioned a report on its economic impact. The results are fascinating.

Since its first season in 1953, the Festival has welcomed more than 29.7 million visitors and sold over $1 billion worth of tickets. Remember, this isn’t a country, merely a thriving theatre company.

Stratford’s annual economic impact is approximately $276.7 million, ignoring the residual benefit to industries like construction. There is also scope for much more, since the Festival hasn’t yet fully recovered from the ravages of the pandemic. This generates roughly $46.2 million in taxes, which is an amazing contribution resulting from the existence and efforts of a single artistic organisation.

It supports 1,466 full-time equivalent jobs with a nationwide total for salaries and wages of over $120 million. In order to do this it needs funding, but, even in 2023 when the pandemic recovery was still ongoing, it managed to turn a profit, even though expenses had risen 25% since 2019. Admittedly, on $80 million of turnover a profit of $404,000 isn’t great, but any positive result would be the envy of many UK companies at the moment.

Artistically, this wasn’t achieved by determinedly dumbing down, shipping in Hollywood stars and programming popular pap. Instead, there was a heady mix of Shakespeare, adaptations, new writing plus a couple of high-profile musicals, Rent and Monty Python’s Spamalot.

The key statistic that should excite the powers that be in the Labour Party is that figure for economic impact. A successful theatre company and other peers across the arts have the ability to generate the growth that has seemed like nothing more than a pipe dream when promised by Jeremy Hunt.

We undoubtedly need manufacturing and the services sector to grow in the future, but neglecting the potential of the arts would be a big missed opportunity.