Why The UK Election Result Is A Devastating Blow For British Youth

With the Conservatives still in power, the UK faces tough times ahead. It’s time to watch the underground.

May 15, 2015

Four years ago, amidst London's riots, many journalists (myself included) wrote about the causes and effects of how politics had negatively affected the lives of young people across the country. We drew lines connecting how taking away resources and demonizing communities led to reactionary behavior. We saw cars set alight, shops looted, and young people mobilizing in devastating ways in order be heard. It began with the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan, a black man who was killed at the hands of police in North London, but the catalysts were, in fact, deep-rooted and societal.

At the time, a new government had recently come into power. The British public had lost trust in Labour, the opposition party that had been in power since 1997, after its leader Tony Blair sent the country to an unpopular war in Iraq in 2003. His successor, Gordon Brown, came under fire for the country's economic decline, following a period of maniacal borrowing, spending, and corrupt bankers. This was the context for the Conservative win in 2010, when the right-of-centre party, led by prime minister David Cameron, joined forces with the left-leaning Liberal Democrats to form a coalition government.

The impact of the Conservative policies was immediate. Austerity measures were introduced and government funding for the arts were cut. Youth clubs, which were once a staple of the young British cultural experience (funded by local government, they were crucial in providing young people with resources like music facilities, mentors, gaming and sports equipment), are now extinct in many deprived communities. We were forced to say goodbye to the UK Film Council, the Design Council, The Theatres Trust and the Museums Libraries and Archives Council. Cameron and his clique were proving dangerous for young creatives, low-earners and vulnerable communities—the only silver-lining was that their threat was diluted by the Liberal Democrats, who pushed through progressive bills, like the legalization of gay marriage. Amongst the liberal intelligentsia, Cameron's time in power was largely perceived as a damaging period, which led to civil unrest—alongside the 2011 riots, the 2010 student protests against the increased tuition fees attracted over 50,000 demonstrators on the streets of London—and a decline in morale. There was an assumption that Cameron and the Conservatives would be voted out at the earliest opportunity.

Youth clubs, which were once a staple of the young British cultural experience, are now extinct in many deprived communities.

Last week, the election results for the UK's new government were announced. (The current UK political system sees elections taking place every five years.) The Conservatives won an outright majority, and will sit in parliament unburdened by the liberal whispers that the Liberal Democrats had previously provided. The Conservative party in the UK—for the purposes of transatlantic translation—are a caricature of Britain's old-world order. Privilege, historically, has always brought with it an uncompromising ability to divide and conquer, and the Conservative party's relentless attitude to devastating vulnerable communities is evidence in motion.

Their new world order is one of fear-mongering—encouraging Islamophobia and demonizing working class communities—while enabling crippling house prices, cuts that hurt the poorest the most, and privatization of previously free public services like the National Health Service. Hearing the Conservative's proposals are dizzying enough, but watching them slowly being implemented across the country will cement this political legacy as a sad period in British history. From Cameron's hate-speech this week that called for tighter—and terrifying—controls to combat Islamic radicalization, to the immigrant-bashing that has taken hold of our cultural rhetoric, minorities in the UK are living in a culture of fear that grows more aggressive by the day. A brief look at the viral hashtag #britishvalues (aping the proposal that migrants arriving on visas will be asked to declare they will respect "British values") provides an arch satire on evolving British identity, from "Spilling tea all over your hijab. #britishvalues" to "memory loss when it comes to recognizing our colonial past #britishvalues."

Sounds of the diaspora are a staple of London's club culture, yet David Cameron fails to recognize the creative lifeblood that a diverse society enables.

Traditionally, the UK's "welfare" relates to state benefits—paid for by the British taxpayer—that are given to vulnerable citizens, which may include anyone from young single mothers and those with disabilities to the long-term unemployed. They have been crucial in supporting people who are unable to work or have difficulty finding employment, which means the deep welfare cuts that lie ahead at the hands of the Conservatives will be crippling. This, alongside the introduction of zero-hour contracts that reduce employment rights (they allow employers to hire staff with no guarantee of work, are generally seen in low-paid jobs like retail and hospitality, and account for 2.3% of British workforce) have normalized the demonization of the working class. This targeting of dispossessed sections of society has cemented a firm economic and class divide, and is creating fragmented communities across the UK. The nationwide lack of social housing coupled with the fact that house prices have reached astronomical heights means that London has become the mainstay of the wealthy, slowly asphyxiating locals. It's not surprising that following the announcement of the Conservative win, shares in Foxton's, one of the UK's leading estate agents, increased by 13%. The company recently made headlines after being targeted by anti-gentrification protesters.

So how does this affect a generation of young creatives attempting to forge a future in the new political landscape? While it's obvious that less money and opportunity will destroy elements of underground culture, creative solutions will become imperative. Minority communities in the UK have long had their troubles, perhaps most notably within black music culture, which has seen countless music events shut down thanks to Form 696, a stigmatizing risk assessment form which demands promoters state if a "particular ethnic group will be attending" their event—the implication being that certain genres, which attract specific minorities, will attract trouble. Here, it's worth noting that some of the most critically acclaimed black music talent—from Dizzee Rascal to Skepta and Stormzy—trace their origins back to areas in London that have received the most aggressive local authority funding cuts. Of course, it is precisely thanks to the UK's multiculturalism that its music scene is so thrilling—it's allowed sounds like afrobeats, grime, and bhangra to infiltrate the mainstream with thrilling results. The UK's immigrant communities continue to carve out spaces in raves that, alongside dubstep and hip-hop, play out sounds that resonate with the traditional cultural experiences of British Armenians, Indians, Pakistanis, Iranians, and beyond. Sounds of the diaspora are a staple of London's club culture, which is just one of the reasons why proposed immigration laws are so frustrating: Cameron and his party fail to recognize the creative lifeblood that a diverse society enables.

For every radio station closed down due to lack of funding, a pirate will have to pop up; for every aspiring journalist, a mentor will have make themselves known.

The UK's future is where one the arts will be squeezed, and the ability to create something from nothing will be harder than ever. British creatives will have to fight back. For every radio station closed down due to lack of funding, a pirate will have to pop up; for every club shut down, a new space will have to be found; for every aspiring journalist, a mentor will have make themselves known.

It seems unavoidable that we will see a period of amplified citizen action, and violent reaction. While voices continue to be ignored on the streets, activists on the left and angry dispossessed voices will find new ways to get heard. This generation of creatives will continue to be squeezed by a climate of arts cuts, unemployment, and high-cost living, and we will see them use youth culture—across music, fashion and art—to take on the challenges around them. And while we lament the future of the UK, it is important to note that these issues of austerity, fear-mongering, and fragmented communities will also be faced across Europe and America. As the campaigning in the US starts ramping up for the 2016 presidential election, Americans should look to the UK's political situation to reflect on the global issues that are being highlighted. While cultural alienation is a natural by-product of the shifting landscape, there's an opportunity for solidarity in recognizing that the issues affecting the UK resonate across the Atlantic.

The UK as we know it has changed, and for many, the political has become deeply personal. Now, all eyes should be on the underground as the culture responds to a desperate landscape. It will be worth watching.

Lead image: David Cameron, Britain's Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party, unveils his party's general election manifesto in the UK, April 2015. Credit: Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images.

Why The UK Election Result Is A Devastating Blow For British Youth