Blog post

Reviving the class debate: Owen Jones's Chavs in the Guardian, the Independent and the Financial Times

Kaitlin Staudt15 June 2011

Lynsey Hanley reviews Owen Jones's Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class for the Guardian calling it an "indignant, well-argued debut" that makes an "important contribution to a revivified debate about class." Taking the book as a starting point to address a variety of class issues, Hanley suggests:

Jones singles out for opprobrium middle-class contempt towards working-class people, those regarded by rightwing commentators such as Simon Heffer as the "feral underclass". In this caricature, peddled by spittle-flecked websites such as and tacitly endorsed by the mass media, "chav" means "underclass", which means working class people who don't keep their noses clean or behave impeccably ...

Jones digs beneath this foul new orthodoxy to reiterate the facts of increasing inequality, which has led British society to become ever more segregated by class, income and neighbourhood. In such circumstances, miscommunication has deepened between the classes; the Conservatives' demeaning of trade unions has helped to strip the working classes of what public voice they had, so that the middle class has effectively become the new decision-making class.

But while it's always right to argue, and to keep arguing, that the balance of power in our social and economic structure is hopelessly, immorally off-whack, there is a cost to denying the personal volition of working-class individuals. Jones - understandable given the book's subtitle - treats class hatred as a one-way street, rather than a collusive, often subtle, process which demeans everyone. In fact, a great deal of chav-bashing goes on within working-class neighbourhoods, partly because of the age-old divide between those who aim for "respectability" and those who disdain it. Inverse snobbery can  also be expressed towards those perceived to be "stuck up"... Middle-class hatred of working-class people - or, rather, a particular image of working-class people which some hold in their mids - is a different beast, saying more about the way in which the education system, especially, is structured to prevent most privileged students from ever having to confront their own averageness.

Writing for the Independent, Jon Cruddas also sees the book as "a bold attempt to rewind political orthodoxies; to reintroduce class as a political variable." Examining how Jones exposes class hatred through media and politics, Cruddas focuses on how politics can help return a sense of identity and voice to those disenfranchised by the chav stereotype:

Jones tours the country, but not as the political tourist we feared after the dinner party piss-takes. Rather, he gives voice to a working class disenfranchised by neoliberalism and electoral calculus. As an aside, I would like to know his views on electoral reform. He does not patronise. He gives voice to aching economic and cultural loss and pain; to a profound sense of abandonment, and a need for hope and belonging.

All roads are leading us to a different type of politics: less liberal and materialistic, communitarian and ordinary, class-based, anchored in everyday experience. Dylan Thomas once said that the Labour movement at its best was both "parochial" and yet "magical".

So we end up with the politics. Apart from a fleeting aside about the minimum wage and public-services investment, there appears no redeeming element to 13 years of Labour rule. There is no notion here of a contested terrain within government; or of battles for influence or ideas; or of the political possibilities with Blair and Brown (so as to better understand the failures); or of political nuance and the creative possibilities we might attach to capitalism, not just its destructive capacity. Answers lie in these spaces. Yet here Labour people are either authentically bad: "right-wing", "Blairite", "maverick" etc, or authentically good: "left-wing", "union-sponsored", "radical" and the like. The simple task is to recapture Labour's working-class voters, lost through its embrace of neoliberalism.

Yet you cannot have it both ways. Put simply, the working class has been smashed economically. Its culture is being destroyed and its families are literally disintegrating. There is no simple political on/off switch here. This book details these wretched processes and gives voice and renewed dignity to some of the victims. But this is tough stuff.

The policy proposals are actually strong: on housing, manufacturing and labour law, for example. But the crisis for the left will not be solved by simple policy. It is a crisis of character and identity ...

Currently, in and around Labour, the fight appears to be between a progressive cosmopolitanism and the neoliberal remains of what became of Blair and Brown. The solution lies in rebuilding an alliance of these parts with one grounded in the complex, everyday, parochial experiences of working people; one built around the dignity of the human being, and a modern sense of solidarity and compassion. This book is a very important part of that political movement—if the author wishes it to be.

John Lloyd for the Financial Times also cites the importance of social rights in his review of Chavs. Quoting Zygmunt Bauman, Lloyd insists "social rights are indispensable to make political rights 'real', and keep them in operation." Arguing that today's biggest social concern, Lloyd suggests

[Class anxiety] arises from that stagnation and from the structural factors that have pressed down disprportionately on the working class in Britain and other rich countries. All three of the books under review see in the "new" poor—the underclass, the "chavs"—a terrible failure of the state, a threat to social peace. The writers are angered by this - an anger that leads them into excess but that in all cases is firmly based on an observation of the waste of human potential in the lives of the marginalised. One senses frustration that such inequality does not have, as in earlier decades it was deemed to, an answer—socialism ...

Those among the western working classes who constitute a more or less permanent underclass owe their fate, before anything else, to structural factors. It is worth putting this first, for—as former political researcher Owen Jones rightly stresses in Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class—many influential commentators, speaking for more people than care to say this publicly, believe that poverty is to a large extent the poor's fault ...

But working classes are formed by the processes that produce what a society demands. When these change, the workers experience profound difficulties that may last a long time—certainly more than one generation ... Towns and villages declined, men took less well-paying jobs, community solidarity all but disappeared, families broke up. It is not necessary - indeed, it would be stupid—to see a vanished proletarian paradise: miners themselves usually wished to see their sons do other work than theirs, exhausting and unhealthy as it was. But life after the pit has often been grim.

Grim, because the jobs are still grim: less physically taxing but more alienating. One of the strengths of Jones's uneven book is his willingness to let people describe their work themselves. Carl Leishman has worked in a County Durham call centre for eight years and earns £14,400 a year. He tells of an environment in which there is minimal autonomy and where 4 per cent of the time is allocated to attend to personal needs. Workers cannot hang up, no matter how abusive the caller. "You'll see quite often people in tears at the way people have spoken to them," Leishman relates. They are "set in rows, which I hate ... It can sometimes feel very like a chicken factory, as though you don't have too much control over what you're doing."

Visit the Guardian to read the review in full.

Visit the Independent to read the review in full.

The Financial Times review is available behind their pay wall.

Filed under: reviews