Protest against cuts to the English National Opera grant - photo James Ivens
Protest against cuts to the English National Opera grant - photo James Ivens

James Ivens, Equity and Socialist Party member

The English National Opera (ENO) is losing its entire £12.8 million grant. A quarter of jobs are under threat.

Arts Council England (ACE) has shifted emphasis across its portfolio – from firms which produce new work and have union contracts, to those which simply receive existing shows and don’t. Performing arts union Equity will have to negotiate over 100 new agreements.

All this demands a fighting response. Equity general secretary Paul Fleming tweeted that “no tactic is off the table.” Equity and sister unions must start explaining to members that industrial action is their best hope and their union is ready to take such a fight to the end.

This must be linked to a demand for more public money. Arts funding has declined by £467 million since 2005.

Equity, technicians’ union Bectu (part of Prospect), and the Musicians’ Union held a packed protest against the government’s attacks on culture funding on 23 November. Hundreds of chorus members, backstage workers and others filled the pavement outside the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). They chanted “the luvvies, united, will never be defeated!”

Tory ‘culture wars’ extend into the culture sector – sterilising arts diversity under the guise of fighting ‘elitism’. We say every kind of cultural experience should be fully funded and thrown open to everyone.

But the ENO specifically is an English-language producer, founded to make top-quality opera accessible to wider audiences. And that quality rests on a company with secure, long-term union contracts that allow artists to grow both as individual practitioners and as a well-oiled ensemble.

Arts councils are supposed to make decisions at ‘arm’s length’ from the DCMS. They have never been truly independent of government, but ACE now reflects Tory priorities quite brazenly. Real independence means democratic control by arts workers and audiences.

ACE claims the cut is part of rebalancing funding away from London to the regions. But seven-tenths of its cuts fall outside the capital. Instead, funding should be ‘levelled up’ across the board.

The arts council has offered ENO a one-off payment of £17 million to relocate to Manchester. Aside from forcing workers to uproot families or lose their jobs, this would put it in competition with Opera North, the subsidised English-language company ENO set up to cover the north!

Labour could end this crisis now by stating it would restore the ENO grant and reverse DCMS cuts after the next election. Keir Stamer has instead committed to Tory austerity. The working class needs a new, mass party where organised workers set the agenda.