The UK's Conservative Party Is Waging a War on the Young

They're keeping older British voters happy by pissing off the young. That tactic could blow up in their faces in the long run.

by Andrew Dolan
Jul 16 2015, 9:45pm

A protester at an anti-Tory protest shortly after the election Photo by Oscar Webb

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This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Last week's budget may come to be known as the moment when the Conservative party intensified its war on the young. Even the traditionally tepid or government-friendly parts of the media have acknowledged that this cocktail of policies concocted by Gideon ("destroyer" in Hebrew) and his band of mad political scientists are fucking the next generation.

The latest round of the Conservative assault on the young looks like this: tax credits for children beyond the first two are being removed, extending the war on the young to babies. Housing benefits are gone for those under 21, so good luck if you're desperate to flee your parents. Grants for poor university students will be turned into loans, while tuition fees can rise with inflation, taking them over £9,000 [$14,000]—student debt is going to climb even higher. And the shiny new "national living wage" of £7.20 [$11.25] (which isn't actually enough to live on) doesn't apply to under 25s, meaning George Osborne is fine with young people living in poverty for some reason.

Of course, these reforms will disproportionately affect those from low-income backgrounds who are unable to rely on cash from mommy and daddy. The class dynamic of current government policies is undeniable—but the impact of these policies will also be felt by the middle-classes. The Conservatives are diversifying from their traditional poor-bashing in order to shit on a broad spectrum of the young.

In either case, judging by the budget you would think the young had it too easy. The opposite is true. Youth unemployment is at its highest for 20 years, with young people (18 to 24) three times less likely to have a job than the rest of the population. The number of 18- to 24-year-olds out of work is now almost half a million and if you're "lucky" enough to be in work, there's a fair chance you're on a zero-hours contract and earning the minimum wage—or less in some cases.

George Osborne. Photo via Flickr

There are those who say that this is only a temporary purgatory on the journey the heaven that we are all implicitly promised: a stable, well-paid, and challenging job and a spacious house for the family. For some, this may be true, but for the majority—nope, sorry.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, only one in five low-paid workers fully escape low pay after ten years and, although the average age of first time property buyers has dropped in the last 12 months, the vast majority of houses for sale are unaffordable even to those earning the UK average income of £26,000 [$40,500] per year. In short, you may be able to scrape together a deposit and take out a mortgage, but the chances are you won't be living anywhere nice—even less so if you want to be in London.

With average earnings still below their pre-crash peak and graduate debt ballooning since the introduction of £9,000 [$14,000] university fees, the prospect of leading a comfortable life is a hope, not an expectation—even for those who can afford a house.

All of this begs the question of why any political party that wasn't bent on Lib Dem style political harakiri would be making things worse. Are they trying to piss people off?

A protest outside Downing Street shortly after the election. Photo by Chris Bethell

The answer has nothing to do with sensibility but everything to do with strategy. It's about who they're trying to not piss off. With an average member age somewhere in the 60s and with the majority of its support concentrated among over 40s, especially among the over 55s, the Conservatives are simply ensuring that they distribute economic advantage—or increasingly under austerity, disadvantage—in such a way that does not put off any blue-rinsed tory grannies.

Of course, being old is no strict guarantee you will be far from where the axe falls. Pensioners are still dying for lack of heat and the poor are still poor, no matter their age. But as the budget illustrates, the young are increasingly forced to carry the biggest burden. Whilst this may make sense for the next election, it could be the Conservative's undoing later down the line.

Across Europe, in Greece and Spain in particular, social movements and political parties are challenging the political status quo. At their heart are young people. The supporters of Syriza and Podemos are aged between 16 and 34, they have no job stability or are simply unemployed. They are often well-educated but have no prospect for employment or property ownership. In short, they have almost no stake in society and, crucially, they have nothing to lose. In the UK we are seeing more and more people who fit that mould.

Historically, the presence of an extensive young, economically, socially, and politically frustrated class, has been a recipe for social fireworks. Admittedly, the economic situation is much worse in countries such as Spain and Greece—where youth unemployment is far higher—and there is no guarantee that exclusion and discontent in the UK will translate into political action.

A guy slam-dunks a brick into a police car. Could Britain see riots break out again? Photo by Henry Langston

To paraphrase academic Guy Standing, rather than radical change we may in fact end up with a "politics of inferno." This is where the state increasingly marginalizes and brutalizes this growing underclass comprised of the young, the poor, migrants, and pensioners whose entitlements are being withdraw. It does so with the tacit support of what remains of the middle-class, whose living standards it seeks to maintain.

We may already be on that road to hell. What we do know for sure is that there are millions of young people facing a bleak future who do not see the UK political system and its parties as an effective means of redressing their grievances. Over half 18- to 24-year-olds did not vote at the last election.

According to the Office for National Statistics' Measuring National Wellbeing Programme (2014), around 42 percent of adults aged 16 to 24 expressed no interest in politics compared to 21 percent of those aged 65 and over. But we can leave the idea that this means young people don't care or don't know about politics to someone else.

Disinterest is not strictly apathy. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that even those young people who expressed no interest in politics had "political" concerns and had even participated in activities that we understand to be political—attending a protest, signing a petition. The fact is, people don't want to engage in a political system that seems to give you a choice of how much worse you want your life to get: Bad or really fucking bad?

As the Scottish independence referendum illustrated, where genuine political opportunities present themselves and when there is a perceived anti-establishment party with a significant media and organizational presence (the SNP), the participation of young people increases. According to research by the Electoral Commission, 69 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds voted in the referendum and this figure is higher still among 16- to 17-year-olds, 77 percent of whom voted. Revealingly, those that voted for independence tended to be younger and poorer than those that voted against it.

Beyond Scotland, it is not clear how exactly the disenfranchised young will express their grievances over the coming years. It could be in the form of a new party, much like Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain. Perhaps the "Green Surge" will continue until Natalie Bennett's gang are a force to be reckoned with. Maybe there'll be a series of social movements or we could see our cities erupt into flames in endless riots. It might be all of these.

Whatever form it takes and however it happens—and we can say with near certainty that if things continue as they are, something will happen—the signs suggest it will be directed against the Conservative Party and likely Labour, too. It may well be carrying with it the seeds of both their destructions.

Syriza may be on the rocks and the European elite will sleep more comfortably for that, but the energy that got them in government is still reverberating around the continent and it won't dissipate quickly. The Conservative war on the young is more than playing with fire, it is prodding a stack of dynamite with a blazing torch. Expect an explosion soon.

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