We Are the People Behind the Statistics
A Short History of Why Young People are So Invested in the Upcoming UK General Election
We've all seen this iconic moment. The moment Jeremy Corbyn sparked a fire inside the crowds of Wirral Live. But why are the younger generations so passionate about politics anyway? The statistics on the effects of cuts over the past nine years have been shared, and shared and then shared again. But what was it really like growing up in a decade of austerity? With just a day to go until the next general election, I'd like to share my experience.
Let's start with education. As an adult I now know that education spending has been slashed by £7.7 billion since 2011. At the time, myself and others like me didn't know an awful lot about politics, but we definitely felt the effects. We could see the stress on the faces of our teachers as they talked about funding cuts, we could feel the pressure they were under without even truly understanding it. Teachers did their best under the circumstances, I remember them almost frantically trying to give a slice of their attention to every pupil, every one of around 30. After witnessing public schooling under austerity measures from the inside, it comes as no surprise that teachers are leaving the profession at the highest rates since records began.
Outside of school our youth services were cut, and 760 youth centres went on to close from 2012 onwards. We were lucky enough to still have a local youth centre open, but others clearly weren't so lucky. In my experience, the majority of young people who flock to local youth centres are among the most vulnerable in our society. Many were from difficult and disadvantaged backgrounds. Many had been exposed to stresses and pressures no child should have to deal with. Many were suffering with their mental health and fighting daily battles in their own homes. Most were at risk of being led into crime, or becoming victims of sexual exploitation. With a massive lack in funding, a lot of us fell through the cracks anyway, but at least we had something. Without the lifeline of youth centres like ours, where would we have turned?
The theme of funding cuts continued to be felt in all areas of our lives. The adults that built our support systems, parents, mentors and teachers, were always visibly stressed and clearly overworked. I remember watching them battle on against the odds, for passion and for dedication, but not for decent pay. It had become the norm. This was never more obvious than when I joined a youth theatre, and it was no surprise to find out that arts funding had been cut by £56 million. When you hear arts, you might not hold it in very high importance, but again there was a common theme, the arts seemed to attract the vulnerable. In my personal experience it gave me a vital purpose, and was the only thing that kept me on the right path during my own home struggles as a teenager. We struggled to keep it going, and the adults running it struggled on too because they knew we needed it.
We joined the world of work and things got steadily worse. We did the same job as our older colleagues for around £3.80/hour. Some weeks I did a 30-40 hour week if I wasn't in school. Our bosses didn't care about our education, we were nothing more than a way to save money to them. And of course, when we turned 18 and they had to pay us more they dropped us down to the minimum amount of hours we were contracted, but at least we still had contracted hours, right?
Some of us left school and went straight into work. This is when a lot of us began to really struggle. Employers treated us as disposable because we were. There were always people waiting for work and bad bosses meant turn over rates were high. So we were told when we worked by what fitted to the business, no security, no stability and we couldn't plan for anything. If we didn't like it we could leave. We heard stories of friends doing years in college learning a trade, only to struggle to find work because they couldn't afford to drive. Moving out was a pipe dream unless we wanted to burn our money renting, so a lot of us stayed in our parents spare rooms until our bosses told us we were needed. We wanted more, but we were realising we had to be careful about who we trusted, because a lot of apprenticeships and courses were just a veiled way to make a profit off us. We were a tool used to cut corners and save businesses money, and more often than not we would become quickly disheartened by broken promises spoken in interview rooms.
Those of us who were lucky enough to go to university went knowing we would start our adult lives in more debt than ever before. If we didn't have any support from parents we would probably have to try and juggle lectures, coursework, and a part time job just to get by. But we pushed on believing it would pay off, despite worrying reports about homelessness among graduates. Homelessness in general appeared to be on the rise, but we didn't have to look at the statistics, we just had walk down the street. What was once one rough sleeper had turned into a community of about 5 or 6. We tried to help with the little money we had, but the streets were lined with more sleeping bags every day.
We started to question things. Surely this wasn't right. We questioned the profit over people culture we had been brought up in. The world seemed cruel, but we were told that this was just the way things were. If we worked hard it would pay off we were told, but that wasn't what we had witnessed. Then things got really bad. We started to hear of more suicides. We knew a lot of people on the edge, people who felt lost and broken. When they looked for help it wasn't there, how many more of our friends were going to die on mental health service waiting lists? We began to feel unsafe.
Speaking of waiting lists, this was when the statistics began to emerge. Waiting times increased in all areas of healthcare and services were stretched to the brink. More deaths happened around us. Family waiting for diagnosis, waiting for treatment. People around us were suffering. Anger brewed among the many. All of a sudden every public service appeared to be in crisis. None could keep up with demand. I remember lying on a maternity ward after a postpartum haemorrhage with no midwife because the same one was stretched between 2-3 wards. She probably didn't sit down all night.
I could carry on but if I were to write here about every single way austerity has affected my own life I would be able to write all day, and nobody would have the time to read it. And I was one of the luckier ones. One of the ones that didn't end up in a food bank, one of the ones who had a warm home and some kind of support network. But go and sit at a bus stop and ask ordinary people about austerity and they'll all have a story for you. It will be one of despair, one of pain, one of anger, and maybe even one of death. Ask them how school was, ask them if they've moved out or learned to drive, ask them about work. The picture will be the same all around the country, stress, fear, anger, worry, uncertainty.
And what was it all for? All of these years of suffering surely must have achieved something shouldn't they? Because I was always told it was to reduce the deficit, at the time I was too young to understand what the deficit was but I'm not anymore, I'm a voting adult and I've just found out the national debt has actually doubled. On top of this, apparently while we watched everyone around us struggle the top earning households increased their income by 4.6%. So excuse us for being passionate about the upcoming general election, but we have walked in the streets and seen first hand the devastation of austerity. Did you think we wouldn't notice? Did you devalue us because you thought we were too young or too stupid to understand? Did you forget the children who's security you stole were watching the whole time and that one day we would grow up and vote. Or did you just think you'd keep us where you wanted us, uninformed with spirits so crushed that we didn't even bother to vote because you made it difficult for us to trust any politician or to believe that things could be different?
Well it didn't work, and you might not see us but the vulnerable you overlooked are rising, and fast. And we'll continue to rise, we'll continue to use our resources to educate ourselves and our platforms to connect. We'll continue to fight for our rights and for a better life for those around us. We'll get older, and wiser, and our numbers will grow and we might not win this time. I don't know what the outcome of the end of the week will be. But even if you drag us through another 5 years of austerity, we promise we'll keep going. Because aside from all else you taught us resistance, you taught us to survive, you taught us the difference between right and wrong. You taught us to fight for unity and togetherness against all odds. You taught us that kindness is something we can give to others even in the darkest most difficult conditions. So you better believe that even if not now, then sooner or later, we're coming. For every child, and every nurse, for the people austerity cost us and the people still battling on. We're coming for justice, for them, for the many, and not for the few.