Special pleading in the title? Perhaps. I have no reason to believe that the man so many of us hope will be the next leader of the Labour Party spends much of his time on Birtwistle and Lachenmann – or, for that matter, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. He did, however, issue the only statement of note on the arts during this leadership contest: a glaring contrast with his rivals, who include Andy Burnham, one of the most philistine Culture Secretaries – and the field is competitive – this country has ever suffered. And any politician who mentions the heroic Birmingham Opera Company, whose Mittwoch remains one of the revelatory artistic experiences of my and many others’ lives, has one sit up and take notice. Can you really imagine Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall being aware of the company’s existence, let alone what it did – and, somehow, still does?
But that is not really the point of what I wanted to say today. It struck me, amidst the endless torrent of ‘unelectable’ calls from the far Right, whether of the Labour or the Conservative Party, that there is a parallel here with audiences for New Music. (I am old-fashioned enough still to use the capitals, just as I might for ‘New Left’.) The bizarre, arrogant dismissal of so much of this country’s population as beneath consideration – ‘the young never vote’, ‘the majorities in favour of public control of utilities, the railways, etc. do not count’, ‘the only people who matter are “aspirational hard-working families” who will vote Conservative anyway’ – is not so dissimilar form the insistence that concert and opera audiences want stale, boring formulae. Maybe some of those who presently attend do; I should wager that those who do are likely to have considerable overlap with the pensioners bribed by David Cameron, one of the many actions which have done so much to disgust young voters and turn them away from exercising their franchise. However, do things differently, consider people, issues, repertoire that your existing ‘focus groups’ have probably never considered – they might not even be hostile – and you will create a larger, broader, richer audience and electorate. Many of the Royal Opera’s stunning recent successes have been with new opera: The Minotaur, Written on Skin, or Quartett, for example. They sold out – at reduced prices, yes, thereby guaranteeing that no one was put off on grounds of cost.
Public funding works and creates both audiences and social solidarity. We need more of it, whether in healthcare, education, or the arts. Not, I think it is fair to say, to invade more Middle Eastern countries and to squander on unusable, irrelevant, and indeed morally obscene nuclear weapons. Ideally, we should phase out admission charges altogether, just as, in one of New Labour’s few laudable policies, they were scrapped for many of our great museums and galleries. In the meantime, let us work on offering artistically worthwhile experiences at affordable prices – we do much of this already, but should do more – and expanding both electorate and audience. That would be an ‘aspiration’ worth trumpeting; if only New Labour and the Conservatives were able to think in any terms other than the financial. Neo-liberalism is, finally, on the run. We have not even begun to defeat it, but at least we are beginning to wake up to what it has done and to what it has continued to do. Jezz we can! Just as that great socialist Richard Wagner always wished.