Post-Corbyn, socialism seems a harder sell than ever to the average voter, but after ten years of austerity, a classic ‘bread and roses’ battle continues to consume local government.
The wider political narrative remains mired in health, housing and jobs, especially as the economic effects of Covid19 begin to bite hard. But arts, culture and leisure have suffered disproportionately from lockdown and many will overlook the fact that public subsidy of theatre and sports facilities has reduced by around half a billion pounds in the last decade; and this doesn’t include libraries.
While many councils were forced to simply close down arts venues and swimming pools when their central government grant was slashed, others leased the facilities to new operators in an attempt to keep them open; knowing that staff terms and conditions, programs and offers may suffer as the new operators tried to reach break even point.
These arrangements have saved local authorities millions of pounds as they too try to balance the books during austerity; not even Corbyn and McDonnell supported setting illegal budgets, so many councils tried anything to save local facilities in the hope they might weather the storm.
The last straw
Some of these deals have already broken down however, and Covid is the last straw for many more. Even private sector operating models have failed to eradicate the need for subsidies to services that gave access to culture and leisure to many communities that could not afford them otherwise. As lease arrangements crumble, councils have to decide once again whether to close or bring services back in house. But with the flu pandemic further decimating budgets and local economies, the latter seems unthinkable.
Despite this, in the last week, Reading council have saved two leisure centres run by Greenwich Leisure with a £400k bung and Lewisham have managed to switch operators to save theirs. These stories may not be typical however, and there will be huge casualties going forward. The same company have effectively mothballed a leisure centre in Preston.
All concerned parties are simply trying to survive but where does that leave bread and roses socialism? Digital services have provided an outlet for some branches of culture and leisure but for most artists and their followers ‘Facebook Live’ will never fill the gap. Metropolitan facilities are more likely to survive but more provincial playhouses will disappear without an almighty battle.
The political left must shout as loud for culture as for jobs
The political left must shout as loud for culture as for jobs and demand access to sport and art as much as housing and health. They are intricately linked anyway – city centres thrive on events and council budgets are more closely linked to the state of the local economy than ever before due to their increased commercial property speculation in the lost decade of austerity.
Mass unemployment on a scale not seen since the 1980’s will require its own public infrastructure and further drain public resources. The ‘build back better’ brigade however, must not neglect the social for the economic and the nouveau poor must not settle for bread without roses.
By Preston city councillor Martyn Rawlinson