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DCMS - Frivolous or Fundamental?

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Rumours about the imminent demise of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) continue to circulate in Whitehall and Westminster. Such gossip tends to turn to speculation about where its component parts - culture, media and sport might go. The creative industries and new technologies might go to BIS - and sport to Education. It is suggested that in the age of austerity we can no longer afford DCMS. This is of course total poppycock. London hosted the Olympics in 1948 and held the Festival of Britain in 1951. Labour set up DCMS, replacing the Tories' Department of National Heritage, because we believe these are essential elements in modern life not merely an opportunity to reflect on past glories.

The creative industries are now a hugely significant part of the British economy accounting for nearly 3% of national income, one job in twenty and 10% of services exports. It's vital to provide finance, training and infrastructure to develop this.

But just as no-one would say the NHS is a good thing because it employs lots of doctors and nurses so we know intuitively that culture, media and sport have a significance and meaning in people's lives that goes beyond the financial. A year ago the playwright David Edgar complained that politicians could not get beyond the economic case for culture and that in failing to do so they were failing to understand its real value.

Particularly for the left of centre this is an important point we must answer. If we do not we really lack a case against the dismemberment of the department and the treatment of its goods merely as entertainment, another competition good, or branch of capitalism!

The new measures of personal wellbeing provide an insight into what gives peoples' lives meaning. The overall figures tell us little, but disaggregated - we see important patterns and findings. There are major factors - income; levels of equality (and inequality); unemployment and health. But other factors come into play - being retired, living in a rural area, being well educated; not being isolated; being white, working in the public sector. Could it be that in terms of resources - of time, skill and money these groups are more able to find meaning and purpose?

The first and foremost difference between a market driven approach to culture, media and sport policies and a left of centre approach is our concern to widen access and opportunities. This is what lay behind our decision to make entrance to National Museums and Galleries free in 2001. There are two particular dimensions to this access point, which the government's cuts risk worsening. First the geographical concentration - all the time we are seeing cuts outside the M25 bite hardest:- we had to campaign against BBC local radio cuts; the local government settlements have hit the poorest areas worst with serious consequences for local theatres and libraries; it is proposed that the National Media Museum in Bradford be moved to London; inevitably the London Olympics have meant great facilities in the capital, less elsewhere and Nick Hytner has pointed out that a reliance on philanthropy means 80% of the money being spent in London. The gift of Jonathan Ruffer to save the Zurbarans in my constituency of Bishop Auckland isn't just fantastically generous it's also very unusual.

The second dimension is of course - income. The availability of good books, plays and concerts on a basis which is affordable is of course the main justification for the Arts Council - it is also the main justification for public service broadcasting, the licence fee and the free TV licences for older pensioners. Everyone should be able not just to see balanced news coverage, but also new plays, intelligent discussion and to hear great music. The continuing tradition of the Proms is a recognition that 'high culture' can be understood, enjoyed and appreciated by everyone not just those on high incomes and this has been a longstanding socialist tradition pioneered by Ruskin and Morris, and developed by every Labour government. Recently, we were able to move to Durham the original cast of a sculpture of a miner commissioned by the NCB in the 1960s in the days when nationalised industries employed official sculptors!

In sport it's a similar story, rocketing prices which turn football into a multinational business turns off fans. And watching the TV highlights just isn't the same.

But in every area - music, sport, theatre, broadcasting as well as wishing to consume - people want to participate. Indeed, this is an area of life where people often have among their highest life experiences. I well remember a man telling me of the thrill he got as a boy, because he had perfect pitch and was the choirboy who led Once in Royal David's City. What happens in schools is of tremendous importance and Michael Gove's proposals for the Ebacc show how disastrously things can go if this is not understood.

But new experiences don't end with formal education and nor should they. Playing sport, being part of a team, joining a book club, taking part in 'am dram', broadcasting on a community station are all activities which give pleasure and purpose to life. I came across an old lady in Durham recently thrilled to have contributed to a tapestry now hanging in the local library - by knitting! Again this is a long-standing left tradition. Nationally, the WEA has enhanced thousands if not millions of peoples' lives: in my own constituency in the 1920s the Spennymoor Settlement was established which provided artistic training for miners who were able to leave the pit and become professionals (immortalised recently in the National Theatre's production).

One point which I think is worth noticing and reflecting upon is that whereas the public and private sectors are good at providing people with opportunities for being in an audience, when it comes to participation - it is the voluntary and community sectors which do the ground breaking work. We need to think about why and how we can support them. These transformatory experiences aren't just for individuals - they can change whole communities. The Venezuelan Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra is the pinnacle of a national programme for social action through music.

So, far from seeing culture, media and sport as something only for the good times - the icing on the cake we should see them as essentials - the cheese in the sandwich.

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