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Making culture tell the truth about our class-divided society

The remarkable, campaigning and politically potent drama Mr Bates v the Post Office was a rare glimpse of what we could have if the working class punches its weight in cultural production, argue RON BROWN and MIKE QUILLE

“HAVE you seen Mr Bates v the Post Office,” people ask me. “Yes, I have,” I say. And if you haven’t watched it yet — go and watch it.

The scandal, long exposed but brought forcefully to the country’s TV screens at the start of the year, shows no sign of going away. The government stands accused of trying to slow down compensation payments, the former Post Office boss Paula Vennells was stripped of her CBE this week, and the very future of the Post Office as a state agency is now up for debate.

The four-part series, first broadcast in January on ITV, is a dramatisation of a gross injustice. Hundreds of subpostmasters were wrongly prosecuted for theft, false accounting and fraud, due to a faulty computer system called Horizon. It’s also about the long collective struggle that its victims waged for justice, led by subpostmaster Alan Bates.

It was a successful struggle, that led in 2019 to the overturning of convictions and the beginning of a compensation process. But the struggle also cost people their livelihoods, worldly possessions, reputations, and in some cases their freedom and their lives.

Mr Bates v the Post Office is a gripping drama that shows what can be achieved through collective struggle. It also raises questions about the nature of the British state and the role of culture in political struggle, in a class-divided society.

The Post Office Horizon IT inquiry eventually revealed how it was standard for individual subpostmasters under investigation by the Post Office to be told that they were “the only ones” expressing concerns about the Horizon computer system to their employer.

Many individuals were threatened by their investigators and auditors to “make good” on their losses or face criminal charges. They lost months of income and in some cases remortgaged their houses. Others did face criminal charges and did time. All of them lost face in their local communities, who often assumed their guilt.

It’s hard to imagine how isolating and hopeless the situation was for these individuals before they became aware that others were suffering in the same way.

The Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance waged a bitter struggle that lasted over 10 years and proved to be a force to be reckoned with. They won a High Court case in 2019 leading to convictions being overturned and proving that the Horizon system was faulty.

Why did they win? Because of the solidarity between those involved in fighting for what they believed was right. Because it was a collective struggle.

That struggle has now entered our culture as a drama series. While it was the subpostmasters themselves who brought their struggle to the country’s attention when they won the case, the series captured hearts and minds on an even larger scale, causing people who saw it to think — and act.

Over one million people were inspired to sign a petition to strip Vennells of her CBE, which she had promised to hand back before it was taken away. This shows how a cultural experience — in this case a TV drama — has the power to cultivate empathy and solidarity, connect people with each others’ struggles, and inspire them to act.

It even forced the Prime Minister to act — “Post Office Scandal: TV drama forces Rishi Sunak to announce new law clearing 763 convicted subpostmasters” was the Independent headline on January 10.

It is rare to see TV dramas and films about working-class struggle, written and directed by working-class people themselves who are connected with those struggles. This is partly because working-class people are massively under-represented in the cultural industries, for one, as writers, actors, directors and producers.

It’s also because entertainment monopolies that are run on capitalist lines (BBC, Netflix, Amazon Prime) set the criteria for what passes as popular entertainment and what, ultimately, will sell.

Entertainment tends to be about escapism and spectacle, rather than real life. It also tends to reproduce and legitimise oppressive social, economic and political relationships, rather than question or protest against them.

Yes, human beings do need to escape, but we clearly also care about real-life working-class issues as well. The reaction to Mr Bates v the Post Office shows that we need more TV dramas about real-life issues that are relevant to working people. We want bread and roses, not bread and circuses.

Rishi Sunak described the subpostmasters as victims of “one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history.” Imagine the words a prime minister could be forced to say following a successfully executed and properly resourced TV drama about Orgreave, made in association with ex-miners and the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign.

There is no shortage of material for more TV dramas highlighting issues like these.

Mr Bates v the Post Office not only highlighted what can be achieved through collective action. It raised questions about the nature of the state, and how the organs of state colluded with the Post Office to deny, bury or minimise the scandal.

May Mr Bates v the Post Office be an inspiration to everyone who wants to see the true nature of the British state exposed — especially those currently in the business of cultural entertainment who can help by engaging wide audiences in a creative way.

From a more general perspective, let us remember that culture is a class issue. We know that a great deal of publicly funded cultural provision is made and consumed by a relatively thin slice of well-off parts of British society, and tourists. We know that there are significant barriers to participation for working-class people, women, and people from black and ethnic minority communities in the cultural and creative industries.

Local grassroots cultural production of many kinds — music bands, sports activities, festivals, youth activities — have experienced severe cutbacks in the last few years.

Working people, particularly those on low incomes, are increasingly priced out of enjoyment of sports, leisure activities and other cultural experiences.

The representation of working people in the broadcast, print media, literature, films, exhibitions and the heritage industry, is generally inadequate, inaccurate and unfair.

So if we want to see more programmes like Mr Bates v the Post Office, more films like Ken Loach’s The Old Oak, and more novels, music, plays and poems that tell the truth about our class-divided society and inspire radical changes, then there needs to be change in the cultural industries.

And it is we who need to make this happen.

There needs to be more democratic ownership and management of cultural institutions — both strategic and funding agencies like Arts Council England, and providers of cultural experiences like the BBC, theatres, film companies, art galleries, publishers, football clubs, media companies and more.

There needs to be action to address class-based inequality of access to cultural experiences and access to career pathways in the cultural industries.

Many of us campaign for more democratic control over many aspects of our lives, including the NHS, public utilities, railways, bus services, housing, education, central and local government and the right to strike.

We have just as much right to have democratic control over our culture — what is produced and what we consume.

Every organisation campaigning for progressive change and every organisation committed to socialism has an interest in putting class and culture on their agenda alongside other priorities and should be capable in some way — however small — of addressing class inequalities in their local cultural landscape.

It might be, for example, to talk to the Musicians Union and the National Education Union about addressing the decline of music education in state schools and growing inequalities in music education.

Is it right that far more people who go to independent schools get in and get on in the music industry? That not enough support is available for those who can’t afford instrumental tuition? Or that the very future of the music industry could be threatened because of this decline and because of these inequalities?

It could be that working-class people have no say in what lottery funding is spent on, even though they buy the tickets. There may be insufficient pathways for young working-class people into TV and film.

People could be being priced out of going to see their local football team.

There may have been cuts to local cultural facilities that disproportionately affect working-class people.

Whatever the issues, ask yourself, who is going to do anything about them? What are the consequences if nothing is done? What are the potential benefits of addressing them? And, ultimately what is best for the class struggle? Culture matters.

Ron Brown and Mike Quille are co-convenors of the Communist Party of Britain’s culture commission.

Recently the Communist Party published a discussion pamphlet entitled Class and Culture aimed at stimulating discussion and campaigning around issues relating to culture and the class struggle. It is currently available as a free download on the Culture Matters website culturematters.org.uk.

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