General election 2017: design industry reacts to shock hung parliament result

The Conservative Party has failed to secure a majority and will join up with Northern Ireland’s DUP to form the new UK Government – we ask designers how they feel about the result and what this could mean for the industry.

Voters took to the polls on 8 June to choose a new UK Government, and the result announced the following day has surprised the nation.

The Conservative Party was expected to win a majority, with recent opinion polls falling in leader Theresa May’s favour. This no doubt influenced the prime minister’s decision to call a last-minute, snap election in the first place.

But this confidence was dashed when the party lost seats and fell eight MPs short of the 326 needed to form a government on its own, resulting in a hung parliament.

Labour also shocked the public by securing 29 more seats than it held prior to the election, exceeding expectations.

Almost 70% of the eligible public voted in this election, the highest turnout in over 15 years, showing that political engagement is at a high.

What happens now?

The Conservatives have confirmed that they will work with another party, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). One option is to form a coalition government; the DUP holds 10 seats, so this would give them an overall majority of 329 MPs.

Another option is for the Conservatives to form a minority government, with a less formal “confidence and supply” set-up, where the DUP agrees to support the Conservatives on its budget, policies and votes. In return, the Conservatives would enact some of the DUP’s manifesto policies.

It is technically possible for parties with fewer votes to join together and form a “progressive alliance”; but despite Labour’s unexpected rise in popularity, it was not able to join up with the Scottish National Party (SNP), the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru as this would not have given the collective group the 326 seats it needed to form a government.

The design industry reacts

Designers and industry professionals have reacted to the result with a mix of optimism and trepidation. There are hopes around a “softer” Brexit now that May’s power has been diminished, which could result in more relaxed rules around freedom of people, goods and services, and the retention of European Union (EU) copyright laws. But there are also fears that the shock result could weaken the reputation of British businesses.

The DUP and Brexit

The DUP is a predominantly right-wing, Northern Irish party which holds a number of “extreme” views, such as being anti-abortion and opposed to gay marriage. It is also pro-Brexit, and supported Leave in the EU referendum campaign.

But the DUP’s manifesto shows it to have more liberal views than the Conservatives in Brexit negotiations.

The party is adamant about no borders or restriction of trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and it also wants to have a free trade agreement with the EU, retaining ease of movement of people, goods and services. It asks for the rights of EU citizens living in the UK to be secured, and to continue taking part in EU research funding programmes and attracting international university students.

A “softer” Brexit could benefit the creative industries

So if the Conservatives and DUP join up, we could be “looking at a much softer Brexit”, says Jack Tindale, manager of design and innovation at non-profit policy-makers PolicyConnect.

“This could mean remaining in the customs union or having greater involvement in the free single market,” he says. “We might be looking at less hassle with regards to intellectual property (IP) rights, trade with Europe, and free movement of goods and services. Across the industry, the view is probably going to be that this is overwhelmingly more positive for the creative industries.”

Currently, 6% of the creative industries are made up of workers from the EU, and many UK designers rely on EU unregistered design right laws for copyright and IP protection.

“Originally a ‘hard’ Brexit was about withdrawing the UK from all areas of European legislation,” he says. “Now, it seems less likely that we will leave the EU’s legal framework entirely.”

The unexpected result could damage UK’s esteemed design sector

While a better Brexit deal could help design businesses continue to trade with EU countries and retain talent, the question is: will the EU be interested? Designers are concerned that the confusing and surprising turnout of the election might damage other nations’ perceptions of the UK’s creative industries, which until now have been highly-esteemed. In 2013, the design industry delivered £71 bn to the UK economy, and currently employs more than 1.5 million people.

“Those in Europe who aren’t laughing will be shaking their heads in disbelief,” says Erika Clegg, co-founder at design consultancy Spring. “Our negotiating position for Brexit is significantly diminished.

“Politics is doing very little to support our industry’s remit to grow businesses, improve lives, keep people in skilled employment and underpin the UK’s reputation,” she adds.

James Jefferson, executive creative director at design firm Equator, agrees that the UK’s change of heart could undermine the value of design businesses.

“The creative and digital economy has a powerful global reputation,” he says. “The turmoil of drawn-out negotiations threatens to undermine this by chipping away at the confidence of investors, entrepreneurs and the global talent pool.”

Conservative MP Ben Gummer, who is responsible for digital, has also lost his seat in the election, which could result in “further upheaval”, Jefferson adds, and perhaps mean less focus is placed on transforming and streamlining Government services and websites.

Regardless of DUP, Government needs to prioritise designers’ rights

With a renegotiation around Brexit, it could be that EU copyright and IP laws are retained; but if they are ditched, then the UK Government needs to create new laws, says Dids Macdonald, founder at Anti-Copying in Design (ACID).

“UK designers will be severely disadvantaged if they lose EU unregistered design rights, which the majority rely on,” she says. “EU design laws protect the individual character of designs in terms of shape, texture, colours, ornamentation and materials, while UK rights only protect shape.

“ACID is pressing Government to introduce a new law which mirrors the protection of EU laws, to put UK designers on a level-playing field with their EU counterparts.”

Government needs to take design seriously

Macdonald adds that other important priorities include “listening to micro-businesses and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)”, considering tax breaks for the creative industries and using more every-day language “which chimes with the man, woman or designer on the street”.

Sarah Weir, chief executive at the Design Council, also calls on the Government to recognise design as an economic and social asset, and let this inform revised Brexit negotiations.

“Good design can drive economic growth, improve built environments, tackle social challenges and bring people together,” she says.

“We must aim to keep design talent in the country. These minds will discover how we can raise living standards, pay for social care, rejuvenate our health service, build homes, and create places that help all of us live healthier lives. We call on a new Government to position design at the centre of its plans.”

Designers need to use their skills to speak out and innovate

While industry professionals are adamant that Government should use this opportunity to reconsider design’s importance across different sectors, others think creatives have a part to play in using their skills to make a political impact.

“I’m confused by what a coalition between the DUP and Conservative Party might mean for the creative industries,” says freelance illustrator and designer, Ben Tallon. “But what I do know – and have been energised to be a part of – is the effective use of political, visual communication by the creative world.”

Many designers and illustrators were involved in political campaigns encouraging young people to vote in the lead-up to the election, from Studio Output’s non-partisan campaign RizeUp, through to Jelly London and Bite the Ballot’s online gallery incorporating work by various artists.

Alongside visual projects, social media campaigns and collaborations with musicians were used to engage voters. Although it is not clear what direct influence these campaigns had, figures from Sky News indicate that voter turnout of 18-24-year-olds was 20% higher this year compared to 2015.

“We must keep the momentum and protect our industry with the same relentless, passionate and informed voices to protect copyright, overseas talent and the freedom to express ourselves,” says Tallon.

And while the effects of the election result on the creative industries – and society as a whole – are not yet clear, many are hopeful that diversity is on the up. “Many young people found their voices and voted in numbers, and there will now be a record number of female MPs in the House of Commons,” says Aileen Geraghty, managing director at London and Glasgow-based design studio 999. “So there is some progress after all.”

How do you feel about the election result and its effects on the design industry? Let us know in the comments section below.

Hide Comments (2)Show Comments (2)
  • DJ Johnston June 12, 2017 at 10:03 am

    And Gove is back. I think we are living in a shakespearian tragedy!

  • Michael June 12, 2017 at 12:21 pm

    In spite of a clear message from the country that the government is going in the wrong direction with Brexit, there seems to be a hardline element within the Tories that is not listening. Business overwhelmingly wanted to remain. We all know that the referendum was nothing short of a media-driven right wing coup (It was the Mail wot won it!).

    Once the public know the consequences of leaving i.e. lost jobs, lost investment, etc they really deserve the chance to say ‘This is not a price worth paying’. There seems to be a ridiculous notion that we are not allowed to change our minds. Let’s face it Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor got divorced and remarried three times.

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