Meet The UK’s Surprise New Culture Minister

Of all those in Keir Starmer’s new cabinet, Lisa Nandy is the anomaly. Unlike most of her colleagues, who have been appointed straight from shadow roles, the culture secretary has not had months – or, in the case of Yvette Cooper, many years – to prepare.

Nandy has been appointed to the position out of the blue after Thangam Debbonaire, the former shadow culture secretary, lost her Bristol Central seat to the Greens in Thursday’s general election. Debbonaire, a former professional cellist, had an instinctive grasp of the arts portion of the brief, and was poised to embark on what she described as her dream job.

Nandy, whose most recent position has been as shadow international development minister, will have her work cut out to catch up. She will be keen to make a success of a delicate role that, although it may appear to be low down the governmental pecking order compared with health or justice or the great offices of state, is of huge importance. It deals with how the country understands and expresses itself; how individual citizens discover their voices and reach their true potential; how the UK is seen overseas; how towns and cities thrive and find their identity. In short, the culture brief deals, like no other role, with the soul of the country.

In practical terms, there will be many priorities in the short and medium term. In media, there will be the renewal of the BBC’s charter to attend to in 2027, as well as questions over press regulation and Ofcom (which quickly needs to start doing its job properly in relation to, for example, the serial broadcasting rule-breaker GB News). There is the question of football governance and grassroots sport. Nandy’s role also encompasses an unusual number of independent public appointments, overseen by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport – appointments that the Tories have politicised and corrupted during their period in power. Labour needs to resist the temptation to continue the trend towards inserting cronies into public positions, instead reasserting the integrity and independence of the appointment processes (one prominent open position is the chair of the V&A).

And then there is the entire landscape of art and culture in England. The most obvious and pressing problem is a collapse in public funding from central government and local authorities. While brimming with ambition and talent, the arts are running on empty, with failing infrastructure diminishing the ability to take the artistic risks that bring the greatest rewards, and reduced capacity to infuse lives with the enormous benefits that contact with the arts can bring.

Nandy will need to argue tooth and nail with the chancellor for the small amounts of money, relative to overall public expenditure, that will make a difference. The UK’s arts funding has historically run on a mixed economic model, between the poles of the US (which runs on private philanthropy) and European neighbours such as Germany and France (where the arts receive generous public support). In recent years, the UK’s model has become unbalanced. With public funding falling away, arts organisations have become increasingly reliant on private sponsorship. But corporate and philanthropic sponsorship is coming under public scrutiny as never before on moral and ethical grounds – take the outcries against support for the arts from BP, the fund manager Baillie Gifford and the Denise Coates Foundation (created by the owner of the online gambling firm Bet365). Arts organisations, in short, have been put in an impossible position. The way to solve it is to check the creeping privatisation of culture in England and to reassert public accountability of the arts.

Calming the divisive and pointless culture wars that the Conservatives have fomented will, happily, come naturally to someone as level-headed as Nandy. Part of that will mean approaching the BBC as a huge national asset that is to be treated sensibly – though not uncritically – rather than publicly lashing out at it for cheap political advantage, as the Tories did. It will also mean not making enormous, irreversible decisions on matters such as whether to continue the licence fee – currently an open question for Labour – on narrow ideological grounds. The BBC needs to be properly funded and supported to speak to all Britons, bringing the nations together and acting as a great counterbalance to cultural and social fragmentation. At the same time as tamping down the culture wars, Nandy needs to resist succumbing to the anxiety of the previous New Labour generation that the arts and culture are somehow intrinsically elitist. It’s Labour’s job and destiny to make sure, after all, that they are not. As the deputy prime minister, Angela Rayner, brilliantly put it after she was sneered at by Dominic Raab for attending a performance of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro a couple of years ago: “Never let anyone tell you you’re not good enough.”

Starmer has signalled that he wants stability and his cabinet members in post for a long time. That is good news for the country when the role of culture secretary has been tossed about on the storms of political instability for years, with 12 Conservatives occupying the post since 2010. Though the need for change is urgent, Nandy will have time to assemble the best team, and to listen to the many expert people working on the ground. At her back she will have a prime minister who, unlike many of his predecessors, genuinely cares about the arts; as a talented flautist, Starmer attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s Saturday school as a boy, and has spoken unembarrassedly about the transformative power of music in his own life.

Nandy will have much to read, but she could do worse than starting with the pioneering arts minister Jennie Lee’s 1965 white paper on the arts. The language may be dated, but the overarching sentiment is evergreen and Labour to the bone. “In any civilised community the arts … must occupy a central place. Their enjoyment should not be regarded as something remote from everyday life.” The joy, the excitement of the arts, Lee argued, had to be there for everyone, in all parts of the country. For Nandy, there is much to do – and no reason to doubt that she is the woman to do it.

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