Arts for Labour was founded in 1980, by Bill Owen (“Compo”) the TV actor, to improve the wages of cultural workers, to the benefit of the Labour movement.
A movement committed to the development of a national arts and media policy that places cultural activities and ‘popular culture’ high on the political agenda. Hence the early membership of Arts for Labour, drawn from actors, musicians and local government councillors, expanded to embrace a wider definition of ‘arts and artists’ to include more popular 21st century activities such as digital media, film and TV, photography, fashion, museums, design & leisure.
These new cultural sectors received major recognition and support as the ‘cultural industries’, in the internationally renowned arts policies of the Greater London Council (1981-1986)
Like Arts for Labour, the GLC expected to see issues of social exclusion and disadvantage addressed through the arts, media and culture.
Arts for Labour assisted in publicising the new GLC policies, especially through producing their seminal publications The Art of the State (1983) and Campaign for a Popular Culture (1986), and distributing over 60 arts policy documents from the GLC Research Unit and 30 booklets as part of the London Industrial Strategy. These books are available through the London Metropolitan Archive and the Arts Council of England.
For over 21 years, Arts for Labour, recruited hundreds of volunteers, members and celebrities to use their skills for the benefit of the Labour movement. At Party conferences (Labour, Liberal & Greens) it ran radical fringe events to draw attention to key political debates and issues important to the cultural industries. Key speakers included Glenda Jackson, Diane Abbott, Tessa Jowell, Melvyn Bragg, Timothy West, David Puttnam and – as chair of A4L trustees – Prunella Scales.
Arts for Labour was supported for over 20 years by the Trade Unions, especially G.M.B, but ceased its public events at a valedictory / goodbye party at No. 10 Downing Street, hosted by Tony Blair, in 2001. Arts for Labour continued in a very much reduced role of archive, reporter and journalist writing until 2008. Since that time Arts for Labour responded to extensive requests from PhD students (internationally) for documents, speakers and exhibitions about its work (and that of the GLC) during that unique decade of the 1980’s.
In November 2016 Arts for Labour was asked to re-stage one of its traditional Fringe Meetings, at the Labour Party (Momentum) conference at the Black-E arts centre, Liverpool. Speakers included Dr Loraine Leeson, Hilary Wainwright, Bill Harpe and Dr Alan Tomkins. Some 40 delegates attended this debate entitled “The Art of the State”.
During the opening speeches Alan Tomkins read out a letter of support from Timothy West and Prunella Scales, asking the delegates to support the re-launch of A4L.
This was agreed unanimously by 40 votes.
Since Alan Tomkin’s untimely death in 2017, a group of volunteers have taken forward the organisation, established a formal constitution, created a web site, and prepared A4L to host a repository of policy ideas to inform a new Labour government. Work halted through lack of funds, but the organisation exists in a form that can spring back to life when the time is right. In the meantime archive space is being sought to house hard copy information and the web site makes available some key documents as the basis of a future resource of policy ideas drawn from across the Labour movement.