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Polly Toynbee “A tip for the next Labour leader – get yourself an interest outside politics”

22nd May 2015

What a strange time. As chair of the Brighton festival that opened on 2 May and runs until next Sunday, I have zig-zagged between politics and the arts, yo-yoing between two worlds that can seem utterly disconnected from each other. And yet are not – or shouldn’t be.

The festival opened with Richard Nelson’s The Apple Family Plays, an intense seven-hour story of an upstate New York family enmeshed in a history of hopey-changey Democratic politics. But there was also Dawn Chorus, by Marcus Coates: an extraordinary installation of humans singing birdsong Further from the realms of politics you cannot go, or so you’d think.

Obsessives consumed by politics in recent weeks, watching heart-in-mouth for each opinion poll, hopes raised then dashed, may now be suffering an exhausted political fatigue. God knows, it matters, as we shall see in the Queen’s speech and the budget. But there is a limit to what politics can do for the human spirit. The dead language – “aspiration”, “empowerment” – shrivels the imagination and withers the brains of politicians, activists and commentators alike. Engaging with politics is essential but never enough.

In the lineup of Labour leadership potentials, how to choose between these able, good-looking and experienced Oxbridge graduates? The list of qualities required is probably impossible to combine within one human frame. We look for strength of character and rhetorical talent. But I would look for other clues, too: who has passions beyond politics? The politicians who seem most human are those with lives outside Westminster’s airless corridors: Ken Clarke’s love of serious jazz and F1 motor racing, Michael Heseltine’s passion for trees, Ed Balls taking piano exams or Margaret Hodge playing Mendelssohn helped make them all plain talkers in a world of ear-aching politics-speak. I’d probe the Labour leadership candidates for similar activities. Those who only do politics usually do it badly.

That’s true in every walk of life: the arts enhance other talents. Recent research found science Nobel laureates are 25 times more likely to sing, dance, act and paint than other Royal Society members, and 12 times more likely to write poetry and novels. After all, Einstein played the violin.

But that richness across cultures is in danger of being lost to future generations. Gove’s legacy is Gradgrind education, where arts teaching is stripped out in favour of fact-based subjects such as science, technology, economics and maths: imagination replaced with coding. The Warwick Commission on the future of cultural value found a drastic fall in arts GCSEs ever since Gove downgraded them – a 50% drop in design and technology, drama down by 23% and 25% fewer taking craft subjects. Only 8% of students combined arts and science at AS level – sealing that great “two cultures” divide.

Education secretary Nicky Morgan last year warned students off studying arts, saying it held them back for years. How profoundly wrong she is. Facts soon fly out of mind and out of date too. Future-proofed education breeds creativity that spurs enterprise of every kind: nearly a quarter of the UK workforce is in creative employment, according to the charity, Nesta – higher than any other country. Research shows how the arts improve attainment in all subjects: drama improves literacy, music improves maths and early language. The arts make most difference to children from low-income families – those who get arts teaching are three times more likely to get a degree and a job.

Read more on the Guardian website

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