The grime revival shows unrest in urban society as a whole. Photo: Flickr/kevin
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The resurgence of grime music exposes a new form of political disillusionment

Young people are still frustrated – but the genre's revival shows a universal urban discontent.

In the words of Paul Mason, it’s (still) kicking off everywhere. This frank diagnosis is applicable at every level of British society’s layer cake. At the top, in the rarefied atmosphere of pre-election Westminster, the incumbent 2.5 party system has been pulled apart. Electorate faith wanes. And after scandals such as the HSBC tax avoidance debacle, in which a government trade minister appointed in 2010 once headed the bank, it's hardly surprising. The message is clear: politicians play by a different set of rules to everyone else.

From the tabloid press to Russell Brand to Thomas Piketty to everyone on Twitter, people are trying to make sense of our times. But beneath these manifestations of discontent, does the melancholy trickle down into Britain’s young cultural subterranea?

The reawakened popularity of grime – a musical genre born out of the deprived boroughs of east London in the early noughties – can offer insight into the mindset of urban young people and their place in the landscape of 21st-century disillusionment.

Grime was conceived shortly after the millennium. The New Labour government had introduced ASBOs and increased CCTV surveillance in its bid to be “tough on the causes of crime”, while elsewhere embracing big business, preaching a third-way, trickle-down economics. This pairing of policy – seen by some as a mix of harsh panopticism with neoliberal overconfidence – resulted in an inequality best symbolised, as Dan Hancox has pointed out, by the juxtaposed architecture of east London: Canary Wharf versus the high-rise council estates of Bow E3.

This claustrophobia incubated the birth of a raw sound. Grime is the reaction of neglected youths peering up at the exclusive, unobtainable futurism of the city from positions of poverty. Doused in anti-establishment slang, typical lyrics relay the gritty aspects of an underclass preoccupied with park bench apathy, gang warfare and drug dealing. It is a middle finger up at disingenuous "hug-a-hoodie" conservatism – a patronising philosophy that in essence still plagues politicians in their failed attempts to connect with the sceptical young voter.

Where in 2002/3 it started as an organic social reaction, grime’s role as a unified voice of the oppressed became gradually less coherent. Despite a slowly accumulating nucleus of underground loyalists, the commercial success of a few artists brought a softened sound to the mainstream. In this respect, some aspects of the genre’s evolution are comparable to post-Olympics east London: gentrified and unrecognisable.

And yet last year there were claims of grime’s return. It isn’t that it went away, but an unprecedented chord of wider media appreciation has now been struck. The sound has spread to Bristol and Birmingham, while a moody instrumental style develops alongside the new generation of angry, punchy MCs. This versatility means music fans at large – the technologically empowered Spotify generation – are listening, not just the teenagers at the back of the nightbus. Unlike ever before, a Shoreditch art gallery is a reasonable venue for a grime show. The squeezed middle, seeking cultural expression, is starting to understand grime’s raw charm.

After all, the coalition government’s policy of austerity has affected multiple levels of the electorate. As the 2011 riots hinted, urban young people in particular are still frustrated. Not interested in voting and thus ignored by election manifesto policy; facing housing crises and zero-hour contracts; locked out of the top city jobs and positions of influence in pop culture unless born into the privately schooled 7 per cent: a voice of expression has to come from somewhere. And this time around, with post-financial crisis awareness, more people – not solely the black working class of east London – share grime’s persistent despair about the unjust trappings of British society.

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.