Friday, 5 August 2011

A review of 'Chavs: the demonization of the working class' by Owen Jones

Also on Left Central
At the bottom of Leeds city centre, opposite the coach station, is St Peter’s Building. For most of the twentieth century it was home to a factory at the heart of the cities' thriving textile industry. Today it's the sort of two-a-penny bar and nightclub with granite surfaces, awkward stools and food served on wooden platters that you see on every British high street. Just the buildings tatty exterior and piping - purposefully left in place as sort of retro-industrial chic – serve to remind you of its past glories. Like most of the British economy over the last thirty years, St Peter's, or 'The Wardrobe' as it's now called, has gone from industry to service sector.

But could you call the people that work in The Wardrobe today – wait the tables, man the back office, mop the floors – working class, just as you could those that toiled in the same building a generation before? The obvious answer under any standard definition is yes: they have nothing to sell but their labour in order to survive. Yet despite Britain being dominated by these kind of jobs – blue-collar manual and routine clerical white collar jobs make up over half the workforce* - a recent poll showed 71% of us consider ourselves middle class, despite previous polls indicating the opposite. “You could be forgiven for thinking”, as Owen Jones puts it in Chavs: the demonization of the working class, “that there is an identity crisis going on”.

It's this crisis, of what it means to be working class in 2011, that is ultimately at the heart of Jones' debut book. He essentially argues that Britain's political and media class have conspired to misrepresent and “obscure the reality of the working class majority” through a prolonged and surreptitious class war, of which the 'Chav' caricature is the ultimate expression.

Jones opens by taking aim at the snobbery and hypocrisy that has linked public discussion of topics ranging from Shannon Matthews, Vicky Pollard and the recipients of welfare benefits. All have been used to misrepresent, or redefine, working class identity in popular imagination to mean feckless or just poor, he argues. Along the way, Jones myth-busts in a devastatingly simple way – only one in fifty single mothers, for instance, is actually under 18, while just 3.4% of families in long-term receipt of benefits have four children or more.

Jones is convincing here, but were this to constitute the whole of Chavs it would be an earnest but unfulfilling affair, the only fruit of which would probably be to rule the particular word 'out of bounds' without any deeper discussion of why.

Thankfully Jones drills down in to the subject, and it's the second half of Chavs which takes it from being a good book to a brilliant one. Jones shifts focus from the 'broad brushing' of the working class to the airbrushing – the idea that they no longer really exist. This goes to the root of a narrative that has stitched together conventional political wisdom in British politics for nearly thirty years. This, briefly summarised, goes as follows: Thatcher-era reforms liberated the working class to be aspirational; many became upwardly mobile and joined the middle classes, with just a new underclass 'left behind' – a tiny workshy rump too feckless or 'excluded' (depending on your preference for Tory or New Labour vogue) to pull themselves up or aspire. In sum, we're 'all middle class now'.

While the chav caricature feeds the confusion over what it means to be working class in 2011, to my mind the argument that both have their roots in the dominance of this narrative is the most convincing. Who would want to identify as working class when it is synonymous with failure? Why have anything but contempt for those who have not 'bettered' themselves despite all the opportunities and others supposedly doing likewise? Add in the trappings of traditional middle class lifestyles (e.g consumer goods, foreign holidays, easy credit) becoming cheaper and you can see how some convinced themselves they were on the way up as the world changed around them.

Yet the idea that 'we're all middle class now' is, objectively, complete bullshit, and Jones is at his most fluent when he is pointing out why, arguing that Britain is actually “a nation of secretaries, shop assistants and admin workers” whose true lives receive no true political or media representation, falling as it does between both the 'Chav rump' and 'new middle class' myths.

And despite a slither of new entrants into the AB social classes from below since the 80s, and popular rhetoric on aspiration, the UK's inter-generational social mobility has for a long time been weak while the share of annual growth going to the bottom half in wages has declined. Jones' point that by “putting emphasis on escaping [working class] jobs rather than improving their conditions, we end up disqualifying those who remain in them” is therefore all the more powerful.

But what has changed is the nature of those jobs. There may be one million people working in call centres, as many as manned the pits at the peak of mining in the 1940s (one of the books most eye-popping statistics), but as Jones documents in compelling and often moving detail, the working environment they face is a world away from the one it proceeded. Modern day working class workplaces are not the centre of the community in the same way, the work more transient and insecure, often woefully paid, the workforce even less homogeneous - with the generational, gender and nationality make up entirely different. Throw in the rise of identity politics and what Jones calls “rugged individualism”, as well as the neoliberal assault on trade unionism, and the capacity for fostering a new collective, shared identity for Britain's modern day working class is massively diminished.

To be fair to Jones (a proud trade unionist), he is frank about the realities he describes, confessing the impossibility of turning the clock back on the makeup of Britain's working class. But you can't help but feel that while class should never again be allowed to disappear from our lexicon, the term 'working class' is just too loaded - with clothcap imagery from the 70s/80s, the old economy, a largely white, male and non-graduate workforce - to be resuscitated as a call to mobilisation.

But what could fill its place? Some have suggested “hard-working classes” might do the trick, or “working people” - but even when they don't sound overly focused grouped (which they do), there is still a risk definitions will become so vague as to leave us right back where we started: a wideboy banker telling Jones that “Why aren't I working class? I work, don't I?” One opening is to focus on the bottom 50% of earners currently seeing the benefits of growth trickling through to their annual pay packet decline in real terms while the top 10% increases, or even 'the squeezed middle' (as i've gone on about before). That would at least put wages back on the table as something to coalesce around. Yet still it nags that there is more to identity than crude materialism – in some senses 'what is working class today?' is just a rephrasing of 'what is English?'. And that is a whole other 294 pages.

The sheer nature of the way Britain's economy has changed makes answering these questions a tall order, and, accordingly, at times Jones seems a bit conflicted over whether he just wants proper representation of the working class as they exist today, and whether he wants to re-shape the very nature of it through industrial policy, for instance. Nevertheless, on the whole Jones' thoughtful policy prescriptions are a good place to start, if not end, the debate.

New Labour also presents its own problems. While being no great fan myself, at times it feels like Jones is a little over-personal in his critique of 'the project'. New Labourites are mostly portrayed as mendacious, scornful and generally neglectful of the people their party was formed to represent. While there's no doubt that New Labour cemented the 'we're all middle class now' myth at the heart of the chav caricature, in their case this had its first principles in an electoral judgement: a psephological argument later broadened out to a sociological one in search of self-justification. A small group of marginal voters won you elections, it was decided, and you had to focus your message on them - these small handful of marginal voters often tended to be that over-exaggerated portion of the 'upwardly mobile' working class, mostly in marginal southern constituencies like Hove, where I grew up (in fact my Dad was, and still is, one of those swing voters).

While that rested on a fallacy Jones exposes - that your 'core' vote will always turn out, hence Labour's haemorrhaging of DE voters – it remains the case that Labour still needs those southern marginals to win, it cannot do it on DE vote alone and the nature of the C1 vote there is different to much of the rest of the country, even if they are now suffering the squeeze along with most others. In lieu of electoral reform (which Jones opposes), this does seem to necessitate some positioning away from the democratic socialist purity Jones favours. Indeed at times Chavs, like a lot on the left, does wilfully ignore some of the bigger picture, such as globalisation, which long before Thatcher started squeezing wages and bankrupting industry – St Peter's factory in Leeds actually closed in the 60s; it's easy for all of us to be nostalgic for the post-war settlement.

But this would to be overly harsh. Jones is that unique thing, a sensible and talented left-wing radical, and Chavs is an excellent book, essential to understanding contemporary British history. While it could possibly lose some of its more baggy, pop sociology sections (an analysis of the Kaiser Chiefs' I Predict a Riot! seemed a bit far), those serve as an accessible hook for non-political nerds, allowing Jones to kickstart a vital debate outside the usual Guardian or New Left Review Circles.

It also benefits from great timing. The bottom has fallen out of Labour's electoral coalition, and the old models of growth and prosperity have broken. Ultimately, political and media elites are going to have to wake up to what Britain is really like in 2011, and rapidly update their ways of thinking. They should start by reading Chavs.

Chavs is published by Verso (£14.99). You can buy it here.

*This stat is taken frompage 33.Its original source is here.