Who will stand up for nightclubs?
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BY HENRY HILL
After a month and a bit of sweet freedom, the nation is gearing up for what looks increasingly like a return to lockdown in the months ahead.
Whilst it’s unlikely to be the full-fat, don’t-leave-your-home version we saw in the first few weeks, the grim messaging from the Government seems to promise a winter of tough restrictions both on public spaces and private meetings.
Grim as this is for lovers of pubs and restaurants, its especially bleak for another industry which is perhaps under-represented inside the Westminster bubble: nightclubs.
As businesses, they are extremely exposed to the challenges posed by Covid-19. The whole model is built around packing people onto crowded dancefloors. This high-footfall, low-margin approach is extremely difficult to adapt to social distancing (not that owners aren’t willing to try).
Having been treated as an afterthought from the start, the sector is now in serious trouble. If we enter a second lockdown over winter and it endures until February or March – not an unreasonable expectation – then clubs will have been shut for a year. Unless the Government delivers adequate, properly-targeted support, many will fold.
Faced with extraordinary demands on the public purse, Rishi Sunak might be understandably reluctant to invest in a relatively niche sector which stands outside the Conservatives’ traditional social coalition. But there are several reasons he should.
For starters, as I wrote previously for CapX, young people are simply not going to squander a year or more of their prime partying years. If legitimate clubs aren’t able to cater to this demand, then illegal raves will take their place.
Now there’s nothing wrong with raves as a part of the broader clubbing ecosystem. But allowing them to completely replace legitimate operations, whilst simultaneously ramping up the risks of throwing them with heavy fines and criminal sanctions, will have one consequence: driving out the well-meaning dilettantes and putting the party scene in the hands of organised crime.
Gangsters can clear huge profits on illegal events, both by selling tickets and using them to shift drugs. The organisers of the ‘Lockdown Rave’ in Manchester even felt comfortable ditching thousands of pounds worth of equipment to make off with the spoils.
This is bad in and of itself, but if criminals get established in the underground scene just as a load of legal clubs go under, they’ll be amongst the best placed to buy up the premises and move into the legal scene – a problem it will almost certainly be easier to prevent than solve.
But beyond that, the Tories should also be more ambitious about who they’re trying to represent.
A Party worried about their ageing electorate should be looking for opportunities to demonstrate that they care about industries which cater primarily to the young. A Party which is badly under-performing in cities should jump at the chance to show an active interest in the night economy.
It would also be a welcome chance to reach out to LGBT voters, some of whom have contacted me since my first piece to talk about the central role the club scene plays in the gay community and their fears that ministers, in treating clubbing as a fifth-order issue, have failed to recognise this.
And for all that he has had a horrible few months, Boris Johnson remains perhaps the only Tory leader who could convincingly take up this cause. He has already christened himself Minister for the Union – so why not Minister of Sound?
Henry Hill is a journalist and commentator and Assistant Editor at Conservative Home. Follow him on twitter: @HCH_Hill