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Book Review: Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class by Owen Jones

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You couldn’t open a British newspaper last month without seeing a columnist referring to Owen Jones’s Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class. Influential it certainly has been, and now that I’ve laid my hands on a copy, it isn’t hard to see why.

First, it serves as a solid primer of the economic dispossession of the past 30 years that has seen working class communities, particularly in traditional manufacturing areas, robbed of most of the things that make life living – robbed of decently paid, steady jobs, robbed of the chance to see their children and grandchildren living near them through a lack of housing, and robbed most particularly of hope – of their long-maintained communal aspiration to see the lives of everyone in the community improve together. There’s one figure here that really should be trumpetted from the rooftops: Nearly two-thirds of the nation’s wealth went on wages back in 1973. Today’s it’s only a little over half.”

This is Jones’s summary of the Thatcher government: “For the first time in generations, it was a blatant government aim to shovel as much money in the direction of the rich as possible.In the first Budget, top bracket taxes of 83 per cent on earned income and 98 per cent on unearned income were slashed to 60 per cent, and corporation tax went from 52 to 35 pre cent. In 1988 the then-chancellor Nigel Lawson went even further: the top rate of tax was reduced to 40 per cent. … the reality of this part of Thatcher’s class war is that it shifted tax burden from the rich to everyone else.” And while in 1979 the average rate of tax was 31.1 per cent, by 1996 that had risen to 37.7 per cent – while the rich kept so much more.

This book is also good on both the economic and human sides of the huge shift in the British economy from manufacturing to service industries, particularly retailing, which is now the second-biggest employer in the country, with nearly three million people, more than one in 10 workers, nearly two-thirds of them women, employed in shops, a threefold increase since 1980, and half earn less than £7 an hour, while since 2007 25% have seen their pay slashed, a third had their hours cut and a fifth lost benefits.

Yet, as Jones points out, the “Chavtown” website defines working in a shop as one sign of “chavdom”, even though working in shops was not so long ago considered quite a genteel, middle-class occupation. Jones follows the life and story of Mary Cunnningham, the now 55-year-old daughter of a miner, who has spent her career in supermarkets. She says: “When I started, you could have a little bit of time with a customer, and get to know your customer, you had your regulars that came to you because you had that little bit of rapport with them. Now it’s get on with the job, you have to have targets… you’re supposed to get through so manyy customers per hour.” And Mary notes how workers are vulnerable to bullying from managers, and customers.

He also looks at call centres, which employ nearly one million people (a figure that’s still growing). A trainee can expect to earn £12,500, the highest paid £16,000. Sickness rates are nearly double the national average, and many restrict time for toilet and drink breaks – all logged by computer. And for that they have strict “productivity” targets and can be forced to endure with abusive customers under “no-hang-up” policies.

Jones, like Aditya Chakrabortty in the Guardian, sees the decline of unions as one important factor, particularly for the lowest paid and most vulnerable workers. In 2008, fewer than 15% of workers earning less than £7 were union members.

But the really original part comes from Jones’s understanding of how the national dialogue has shifted, to the point where the title term has become both a commonplace and a way of dividing a large part of the population off from “the rest of us”, simply for their inability, or entirely reasonable refusal, to adopt what can be broadly called middle-class values – personal aspiration that calls for a few to advance while their communities are left behind. And the way in which the poor are increasingly blamed for their own condition – “only 19 per cent felt that poverty was caused by laziness or a lack of willpower in 1986, the figure had increased to 27 per cent twenty years later”.

He looks at how this view had taken hold in Labour, noting how in 2008 then housing minister Caroline Flint snweered at unemployment among social housing tenants. “Referring to the culture of ‘no one works around here’ Flint suggested that those who did not get a job could lose their homes.” (Ignoring the fact that this would be illegal.) And Jones notes how “get on your bike” is not back in fashion (if updated to the bus.) This despite the fact that in many areas there are no jobs to get, or those that are available are uncertain and shortterm. “New Labour’s philosophy is not rooted in improving the lot of the working class; it is about escaping the working class. New Labour was very open about this project. For example, Gordon Brown fought the 2010 general election on creating ‘a bigger middle class than ever before’.”

Jones has been watching TV (happily so we don’t have to) and finds that much of it “consists of promotional spiel for the lifestyles, desires and exclusive opportunities of the rich and powerful. It is all part of the redefining of aspiration, persuading us that life is about getting up that ladder, buying a bigger house and car and living it up in some private tropical paradise…Those who do not strive for such dreams are thought of as ‘non-aspirational'”. He quotes such curious sounding shows as Britain’s Dream Homes, I Own Britain’s Best Home, A Place in the Sun, Property Ladder, and toff chefs producing complex and expensive dishes. By contrast he says the soaps, which once traditionally provided a reasonably realistic portrayal of working class life, now specialise in extreme and ridiculous plots, and anyway disporportionately show small business owners, not people working in shops, call centres and offices.

And he provides astonishing, telling figures, about the reason who young people in poorer comunities might congregate on street corners, or even form gangs, more than they used to. “According to the government’s Valuation Office Agency, the number of sports and social clubs fell by 55 per cent in the 13 years of New Labour rule. Post offices were down by 39 per cent; swimming pools by 21 per cent; pubs by 7 per cent; and public libraries by 6 per cent… Betting shops and casions went up by 39 per cent and 27 per cent respectively.”

He further dispels “chav” stereotypes with his figures on single-parenthood, certainly a key part of the female “chav” image. Only one in 50 single parents are under 18, and the average age is 36; half had the children while married. “Even so, there is no denying that Britain has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Western Europe… teenagers from manual backgrounds are eight times more likely to become mothers than those from a professional background. The regions that top the teenage pregnancy tables are those areas where industry was destroyed and low-paid service sector jobs have filled the vacuum.” But it’s not, as Jones explains, because the girls want a council flat (in fact at ages 16 and 17 they won’t get that anyway – they’ll either live at home or in supported accommodation), although it is in part because middle class girls are much more likely to have an abortion if they get pregnant – they have potential future careers to protect. Yet, as he explains, young parenthood works for many in disadvantaged communities – parents striving to create a better life for their children, and conferring respect and adult status relatively early.

Jones sets out how there has been, despite claims that there was a class war launched by the workers in the Seventies, in fact a class war by the rich on those below them. He recalls hearing as a student in a off-the-record (you get the feeling after-the-port moment) remark from “an extremely prominent Tory politician from the moderate wing of the Party”, that: “What you have to realise about the Conservative Party is that it is a coalition of privileged interests. Its main purpose is to defend that privilege. And the way it wins elections is by giving just enough to just enough of the people.”

Chavs really is essential reading from so many directions.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.