On Tuesday 6th October, ITV tweeted that Rishi Sunak had said that “musicians and others in [the] arts should retrain and find other jobs”, the country was up in arms and – frankly – rightly so. Although it was subsequently revealed that the tweet was in fact a misquotation, it hardly makes a difference. The real message was fundamentally the same: when asked whether he was telling arts workers to find new employment, Sunak replied that “That is a fresh and new opportunity for people. That’s exactly what we should be doing.” So yes, then. He may not have said it quite as bluntly as was initially suggested, but Rishi Sunak wants those in the arts to find new jobs.
As an English Literature student, Sunak’s words burn in my ears. If I wasn’t quarantining with my Covid-infected housemates, I’d be tempted to take to the streets. Like so many others, I haven’t even reached the point of having a job in the arts yet, and now the government wants me to be prepared to find a whole new career, in a country facing record unemployment figures. The anger, therefore, of so many in the cultural sector is, in fact, a thinly-veiled disguise for the crippling fear of bankruptcy, unemployment and lasting uncertainty. Even at the best of times, the arts sector is infamously insecure for workers and the pay is renowned for its fluctuating nature; it has never been an easy place to work and the ignorant suggestion of Sunak to ‘adapt and adjust to the new reality’, is salt in the wound of workers and prospective-workers already struggling with the loss of their livelihoods. Arts workers are quite possibly the most experienced workers in adapting and adjusting as they are so often faced with changing work opportunities and shifts between freelance work and employment. Many have already retrained to take on part-time jobs to support themselves during the dry spells.
A few weeks ago, Mr Sunak launched his Winter Economy Plan, which includes a new Job Support Scheme to replace furlough, but only “viable” jobs will be protected. A “viable” job is one within a business which can continue to employ their workers over the coming months, for example hospitality and retail has remained open since March, despite suffering huge losses. However, theatres, comedy clubs and concert venues have remained closed over the past months, and ,therefore, the employees’ jobs are unlikely to be classed as “viable”.
It is hardly surprising that so many within the sector have taken offence at the word “viable”. Although the work is often insecure, employment as an actor, musician, comedian, or other artist is most certainly “viable” under normal circumstances: if it pays the bills then it is more than adequate. When asked where the support is for these workers, Mr Sunak referred to the Cultural Recovery Programme and the Self-Employment Scheme. Whilst these may tick a box on the government’s checklist (which I imagine to be titled something along the lines of ‘how to keep the artists quiet whilst we make a bigger mess of things’), the support is no longer adequate in the eighth month without work. As Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner pointed out, ‘we’ve wasted £2 billion on helping businesses that are actually thriving because it has been a universal rather than focusing on the businesses that can’t thrive at the moment because of the Covid situation.’ It seems about time that the government start considering that the arts sector might be failing because of their total lack of respect and support: the “viable” institutions are coping for the sole reason that they have not been neglected. The same cannot be said of the arts.
In his own words, Rishi Sunak ‘can’t pretend that everyone can do exactly the same job that they were doing at the beginning of the crisis’, but he can certainly accept accountability for the hundreds of thousands of artists facing destitution.
Featured image source: Eastern Eye