What is Labour's arts policy? To get beyond the disappointingly tame arts-speak of Create the Future - the well-intentioned policy document described by The Sunday Times as full of "sweet-sounding nothings" - you have to talk to shadow heritage minister Jack Cunningham and shadow arts minister Mark Fisher. Although both are enthusiastic about the arts, they are also cautious about Labour's spending plans.
On discretionary grants for dance and drama students, Mr Cunningham is so cautious that he reads verbatim from Create the Future. "In the light of the Dearing Committee report on Higher Education and Funding, expected in July, we will review the scale and quality of all courses which serve our cultural industries." A review promises nothing. But Mr Cunningham says he to wants a permanent solution to "the anomaly" of discretionary funding.
Mr Fisher is more upbeat. He says: "The education of our best young dancers and actors must be taken seriously and fully funded." Yes, but how? "By means of a strong accreditation system," Mr Fisher says. "The problem with vocational training in the cultural sector is not lack of money, but lack of planning. " Labour's solution is a more rational allocation of resources.
With a new accreditation scheme, some dance and drama courses may lose out, but those that make the grade will be able to take students "on an equal footing" with other higher educational institutions, says Mr Fisher.
At the heart of Labour's arts policy is a proposal to ask all schools to produce an annual arts statement. "We know," says Mr Cunningham, "there are schools little more than a mile from each other where artistic activities are a million miles apart." To even out varying levels of provision, schools will be asked to give an account of Extra Curricular Creative Opportunities (ECCO), subject to inspection by the Office for Standards in Education.
Mr Fisher is also keen on ECCO, believing the arts help develop academic abilities. "Children who go to schools where nothing is happening artistically are missing out," he says. "Many skills are learned through arts projects - concentration, working together, self-discipline and use of the imagination. "
Mr Fisher hopes ECCO will encourage schools to widen arts provision. Not only is this democratic, he says, it also helps "create the artists and audiences of the future". Eventually, he expects schools will be allowed to apply for lottery money to fund two-year projects with local arts groups.
ECCO will also "help revive" Theatre in Education, says Mr Fisher. He promises that a Labour government will, within a year, bring together TIE practitioners and educationists to start a debate about the best way of reviving theatre work in schools.
National Lottery funding is a recurrent theme. For Mr Cunningham, "one of the best ideas to have come out of our discussions on cultural policy is the National End-owment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA)". As soon as possible after a Labour victory he expects to start a fund - using lottery money and donations from arts bigwigs - to give children, individuals or groups, grants to study, say, music in Vienna or to go to a festival in another part of the UK.
Mr Cunningham highlights another anomaly. Children's play does not qualify for lottery funding, so Labour will make it "a permanent good cause" for lottery cash. He also promises that money saved by winding up the Millennium Commission will be used to train all teachers in the latest information technology, "within, say, the next three years". And Mr Fisher says Labour would "improve the quality of arts work in teacher training colleges". Busy times ahead.
On access, Labour intends to try out ideas such as an arts card for 16 to 19-year-olds, who, Mr Cunningham says, "in large numbers have dropped out of community arts and sports activities". And, adds Mr Fisher, "We're determined to open up the arts, to make it easier to get into arts events."
Does this mean cutting ticket prices for theatres? Not necessarily. Although Mr Cunningham and Mr Fisher are keen to encourage "open nights", when theatres operate pay-as-much-as-you-can schemes, Labour has no plans to force ticket prices down. But will a Labour government at least scrap museum charges? "I'd love to say yes," says Mr Cunningham, "but the answer is no."
While Labour takes a broad view of arts in schools, it also stresses the wider European picture. "Next January," Mr Fisher says, "Britain gets the presidency of the European Union. We will use it to take a lead on cultural and educational matters."
This vision of Britain leading Europe in the arts shows that Mr Fisher at least is prepared to think big. "We have to teach children to ask questions as well as just learn facts," he says. And, with a laugh, he admits the next questions he expects to answer are those asking why a Labour government isn't doing more about the arts.
HHH The Liberal Democrats have a reputation for rushing in where others fear to tread. But in arts policy, as soft-spoken national heritage spokesman Robert Maclennan makes clear, its radicalism is tempered with caution. For while the Lib Dems are often prepared to think the unthinkable - "We see no case for maintaining the arm's-length principle," says Mr Maclennan - they are reluctant to commit themselves to spending on the arts.
While education is the centrepiece of the Lib Dem manifesto, arts education merits only a short paragraph. "All local authorities should have to produce a programme for the arts," says Mr Maclennan, "not just in schools, but for the whole community." Would this mean a requirement to spend a proportion of tax on the arts? "No, that would be too centralist," he says.
Pluralism rules in the Lib Dem world. Mr Maclennan says the party advocates a "flexible curriculum" and that "we would expect some schools to specialise in the arts and others to concentrate on other areas". But, he says, "we wouldn't wish to impose uniformity." The party wants OFSTED merely to monitor schools' arts programmes.
On discretionary grants for dance and drama students, Mr Maclennan is more upbeat. "We intend to end the anomaly of discretionary grants," he says. "The Government has treated students abominably. We will end the position where only the rich are able to get on to the stage."
While the Lib Dems want all arts students to qualify for maintenance grants, Mr Maclennan singles out other areas of arts provision. "We wish to relieve pressure on local education authorities to provide specialist music tuition, " he says. "It is intolerable that tuition should be threatened."
Mr Maclennan's vision of the arts in education also takes in the need to reverse the damage done by the Conservatives. "Public libraries are under threat. We want to restore public library funding to the level of 1980, " he says.
What about museum charges? "Entrance fees should be waived immediately for school parties and young persons under 16, as a first step towards removing them entirely," Mr Maclennan says. "Museums and art galleries should not be just a special treat. It should be possible to pop in for half an hour, and use them for reference."
Other Lib Dem ideas include setting up an exhibition payment right for artists and sculptors, and creating a young arts movement on the model of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme.
On the subject of the National Lottery, Mr Maclennan is critical of the Government: "Expenditure on bricks and mortar that creates shells without occupants is not sensible." The Lib Dems favour endowment funding for theatres and other arts institutions. This, says Mr Maclennan, would free them from the "uncertainties" of annual Arts Council funding.
Mr Maclennan stresses that the UK lags behind the rest of Europe in arts spending. "The French talk about spending 1 per cent, while ours is in order of 0.1 per cent." He says Lib Dem policy is "not prescriptive", but aims "to create the environment in which the arts can continue to thrive". It sounds like artspeak for doing very little.
HHH Tory national heritage supremo Virginia Bottomley tells a revealing story. "Someone said to me the other day, 'Mrs Bottomley, I've heard you speaking on many occasions, I'm always inspired by your enthusiasm, but I notice you always speak about children.' " Whatever adults may feel about her arts policies, Mrs Bottomley is confident that children will benefit from them. She quotes Disraeli: "The youth of the nation are the trustees of posterity."
She adds: "The arts are enormously important in education. There is no more effective way of developing the skills young people need for life - creativity, problem-solving, persistence, team- work." With the National Lottery yielding Pounds 750 million in two years for the arts, she says the Tories "want to invest that money in the next generation".
In July 1996, Mrs Bottomley published Setting the Scene, a wide-ranging and detailed report on young people and the arts. Now, with the help of Nicholas Tate, chief executive at the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority, she is putting its 40-plus proposals into action.
One of them involves making a governor in each school responsible for the arts. "Children can easily regard the arts as something you do only at school. But a governor connected to a local arts organisation could take children to visit arts events." So why can't teachers do that? Mrs Bottomley insists they can, but "you can't guarantee that teachers will live locally, whereas governors do".
Mrs Bottomley wants schools to give details of their arts activities in the prospectus. As with the plan for the arts governor, she says: "We hope to have this up and running by the end of the year." Mrs Bottomley also wants to introduce an "artsmark" to recognise good arts practice in schools.
On the current review of the national curriculum, Mrs Bottomley believes "we will see an implicit strengthening of the role of the arts" in schools. This idea has failed to make the Tory election manifesto, though, which promises instead "specialist schools", some devoted to the arts.
On discretionary grants for dance and drama students, Mrs Bottomley sees no problem. "We've tackled that," she says. "Lottery money is now available for subsidising the costs of courses." If the good news is that the Arts Council has a new scheme to help fund drama and dance school places, the bad news is that it is an interim measure only - applying solely to students who begin courses in September 1997 and 1998 - and it covers tuition only at independent colleges.
Theatre in Education is so far down the Tory agenda that at first Mrs Bottomley doesn't even recognise its name. Once again, the lottery offers a solution. "I have relaxed the lottery rules," she says. "I particularly want to see schemes that give concessionary or free entrance to school parties going to the theatre, and to support theatre groups going into schools." So it is up to theatre companies to come up with ideas.
This is all "part of my campaign to tackle the couch potato", says Mrs Bottomley. But the tiny paragraph on the arts in her party's manifesto merely promises support for "concessionary tickets" and "young people's organisations and productions".
Other ideas are more ambitious. By the year 2000, Mrs Bottomley wants to see musical-instrument and sheet-music libraries all over the UK. This, she says, is "a tremendous and achievable idea" which awaits "a few good exemplars to drive it forward". She'd also like to see the lottery funding "special buses to pick up children from school" and give them some teaching en route to museums.
Although having no view on museum charges, she has "a passionate belief that we must retain maximum access". She says: "More fool the secretary of state who makes a dogmatic rule for every museum and gallery."
On the lottery, Mrs Bottomley is determined to "hold on to the full 20 per cent of funds that go to the arts". She says: "Labour is always threatening to have more and more lottery good causes - that would diminish the amount available to the arts in schools." Money released by winding up the Millennium Commission will go into information technology.
Does she feel misunderstood by the arts community? She says: "I've worked harmoniously with the leaders of arts organisations. But there is a wider group who have had no time to study the documents and realise what a wonderful opportunity we have to help young people."
The irony is that even if the Tories lose on May 1, their arts policies will set the agenda for at least the next two years.