Class Warrior

Published in Fest, August 22 2011

Fresh from sparring with controversial historian David Starkey on national television, the author of Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class comes to Edinburgh. Dan Heap talks to sociologist Owen Jones.

Every generation coins new words to come to terms with the changing world around it. Amongst the many that have entered the national vocabulary since the turn of the century, no other has taken hold so quickly and become so redolent of the supposed state-of-the nation as “chav”. It’s become the Burberry-patterned vessel into which the media, politicians and some sections of the public pour all their grievances about what they think is wrong with society.

One person challenging this, though, is Owen Jones, author of Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, which despite only being published in June has generated huge attention and much fervent discussion, the sizeable crowd crammed into the tiny Word Power bookshop serves as a testament to this. Fresh from his Newsnight bout with David “the whites have become black” Starkey, Jones talks to me about why so much vitriol is now directed at people who he says were once considered to be “the salt of the earth” and what can be done to shift—in a more progressive direction—attitudes about the poorest in our society, attitudes that appear to be becoming increasingly entrenched.

Jones first got the idea for the book when he heard someone at a dinner party attended by otherwise “progressive” people ask “where the chavs would get their Christmas presents” after the closing of Woolworths. Why, he wondered, had “chav” become so acceptable and gained such resonance when racist terms—which similarly make an instant negative judgement on the basis of appearance—had by and large been consigned to the dustbin of history?

“Chav as a term got national prominence from 2004,” he begins, but the attitude from which it sprang “developed in the 1980s – that idea of everyone being middle class and those failing to be so because of their own inadequacies and their own faults.”

The hugely accelerating inequality engendered by economic restructuring in the ’80s and ’90s gave rise to a dominant narrative which now paints “the people who lived through those processes [as] being responsible, that they’re to blame for being unemployed and poor, which I don’t accept.”

Owen Jones

Even over the course of its relatively short lifespan so far, the term “chav” has changed in it’s meaning, expanding to mean something very much more than a young man in a tracksuit: “the problem with the word ‘chav’ is that it’s very versatile,” says Jones. Citing the results of the Britain Thinks survey of class attitudes he tells me that “For those respondents who identified as middle class, they conflated ‘chav’ and ‘working class’. Working class had become a class-based insult.”

There has been, he says—in a phrase he uses several times during our half an hour together— an “airbrushing of the respectable working class”. He accepts my challenge that the singling out for criticism of working people in this way goes much further back than the 1980s, but he responds by pointing out the difference now is that there is no countervailing force: “Even though you had the idea of problematic people, you had a positive counterbalance: working class people were portrayed in a positive light.” Where the working classes of decades past had The Likely LadsOnly Fools and Horses and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet to project a positive image, they now have Shameless and Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard.

This erosion of any positive image associated with the working classes again stems, according to Jones, from the huge economic changes wrought by the Thatcher revolution and consolidated by New Labour. An “attack on working class identity” was a consequence of “the attack on trade unions and industries that propped up communities.” Whereas once, “people had jobs they were proud of, and they sustained a notion of working class pride,” the ’80s set in motion a “dilution of working class identity. They felt that being working class was something to escape from, because there were no positive representations.”

The first step towards re-establishing the working classes as a positive presence in national life is re-establishing them as a political force after changes in the way we work and the switch from manufacturing to services has weakened union presence in many workplaces: “Trade unions…have to organise far more aggressively, particularly in the service sector, where people are barely in trade unions at all. Trade unions give the best possible opportunity for working people to have a voice and they represent still seven million working people – it’s the biggest democratic movement in the country by a very long way.”

Labour—which comes in for a heavy criticism throughout Chavs…—has a role to play in this and doing so would be to its advantage, Jones argues. “Labour needs to accept why it lost: the whole basis of New Labour was that in order to win, it needed middle England voters and working class voters to have nowhere to go and so they’ll stay on board, no matter what.”

Rattling off a list of grievances—five million people on the social housing waiting list, a lack of job security and stagnating wage packets—he explains the reasons why it all went wrong for Brown’s party: “Labour lost five million votes from 1997 to 2010 and the Conservatives only won a million. Labour needs to accept it didn’t lose its middle class voters. It lost its working class voters.” Again, Jones cites the restoration of a formal role for organisations representing working people within the policy-making process: “The Labour party membership isn’t very representative of British society, but unions are the most representative section of the party.” He continues: “They have to be given a strong role within the party, but there’s move now to weaken that role.”

Invoking the concept we have heard so much about in the aftermath of the recent riots, he argues that “Labour has to to organise on a community basis and enact community politics to get people involved but, he adds, ending on a note of pessimism that contrast with Jones’ sunny, enthusiastic demeanour throughout, “it’s a long way from doing that at the moment.”

What Chavs… amounts to—more than the exercise in pop sociology that is has been accused of—is an attempt to provoke a period of national introspection about how Britain has changed over the past twenty years and what these shifts have meant for the most vulnerable in our society. Whether Jones himself—still only 26—or someone else will work to put the lessons of Chavs… into practice is yet to be seen, but exposing the way a group that was once so central to our society has been systematically excluded is a promising start.

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