Blog post

Owen Jones responds to his critics

Owen Jones23 June 2011

Owen Jones will be answering questions about Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class on the discussion board on Tuesday 28 June, from 12 noon (BST). 

He responds to reviews of the book in the New Statesman, the Independent on Sunday and the Guardian

In his review of my book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class for the New Statesman, Michael Collins suggests that the "chav" word is somehow outmoded. I strongly disagree. Its usage remains prevalent: whether in daily conversations or internet forums. But above all the use of  "chav" caricatures—whether the actual word "chav" is invoked or not-is still rampant. The idea that we're all middle class, apart from a feckless, work-shy rump living on "sink estates" is embraced by politicians and journalists alike. The reality of Britain's working-class majority remains absent from our TV screens, newspapers and from our politicians' speeches.

I don't agree that I define the "working-class" by "trade unions and council housing". In chapter 2, I point out that even at the peak of the trade union movement, around half of the workforce was unionised. Union membership has, today, collapsed: one of the features of the "new working-class" based in the service sector that I examine is the low level of union membership. As the book examines, only 15 per cent of private sector workers are unionised; in addition, less than 15 per cent of workers earning less than £7 an hour are union members. In call centres and supermarkets—now huge sources of employment—levels of unionisation are very low indeed. Yes, I advocate organising workers as a means of giving working-class people a voice, and I believe the decline of the labour movement is one of the reasons that working-class people have less power than they once did. However, in no way do I believe union membership is any kind of prerequisite to working-class identity. 

The same goes for council housing. When I look at Thatcher's right-to-buy policy I point out that it was "undoubtedly popular with many working-class people. A million council homes were sold in a decade. Former tenants would mark their entry into home ownership by giving their properties a lick of paint." I go on to consider the fact that half of all people living in poverty own their own homes; and that there are "more homeowners in the bottom 10 per cent (or decile) than there are in each of the two deciles above it." Above all, I emphasise that "the fact that millions of people have had to borrow beyond their means, sooner than pay a subsidized rent, does not make them middle class."

Yes, I do believe right-to-buy combined with the failure to replace the housing stock sold off has undermined the original purpose of council housing-which was to support mixed communities. Indeed, many middle-class people were once council tenants. In 1979, a fifth of the top 10 per cent lived in council houses.

I define working-class in a fairly orthodox way: those who sell their labour in order to live, and lack control over their labour. I specifically argue against the idea that class is defined by home ownership-or membership of trade unions, for that matter.

Neither did I say that "anyone who moves beyond [trade unions and council housing] is guilty of breaking class solidarity and pursuing 'rugged individualism'." No evidence is provided to support this accusation, because it doesn't exist in the book and I have absolutely no sympathy with such an argument. I do argue that Thatcherism attempted to undermine both trade unions and council housing to promote "rugged individualism", but I doubt there are many who would disagree with that, including Thatcherites. Thatcher's right-hand man, Keith Joseph, himself argued for home ownership so as to resume "the forward march of embourgeoisement [becoming bourgeois] which went so far in Victorian times".

Collins talks about working-class "urbanites" leaving their communities, and that "those who stayed behind are alienated by the fallout from the immigration and multiculturalism imposed by New Labour." I think this is an over-generalisation. There's been a growing degree of mixing between people hailing from different ethnic backgrounds, for example. We have some of the highest levels of interracial relationships in the world—and that's particularly true in working-class communities, which are more likely to be ethnically diverse than most middle-class suburbs. Two-thirds of black men are in relationships with white women. The book argues that, above all, anti-immigrant backlash is being fuelled by insecurities over jobs and houses. In Dagenham—where the BNP enjoyed some of their greatest political victories—housing is the central grievance, as any anti-racist campaigner will tell you.

Collins argues that "the left came to loathe the insularity and localism it once championed in the working class, and shifted its focus to identity politics and minority interests". I think the first is a bit of a generalisation: the labour movement has a proud internationalist tradition, and long emphasised solidarity between workers across the country. But the book does critique the left for abandoning class in favour of identity politics—so I'm not sure why Collins portrays this as a disagreement.

Collins takes me to task for my argument that Thatcherism redefined aspiration from collective to individual. My point was that the historic mission of the labour movement—to raise the conditions of all through, for example, the welfare state—was heavily undermined. Instead, everyone was expected to "pull yourself up by your bootstraps", if you like-and to fail to do so was a sign of individual failure. To get on in life meant relying on your own efforts, not being part of a wider struggle.

But the idea that "this is the leftist equivalent of telling the working classes they should not get above their station" is pretty ridiculous, I think. The book has entire chapter entitled 'A Rigged Society' attacking the fact that all the professions have been turned into middle-class closed shops, keeping working-class people out. I attack this as "an invisible prison". As I put it: "As well as being manifestly unfair, the unrepresentative social composition of the professions ensures that Britain remains dominated by an Establishment from the narrowest of backgrounds. The result is a society run by the middle class, for the middle class." My point about social mobility is that, by definition, it only benefits a small minority. The same number of people would still be doing the jobs that society depends on to keep functioning. So, rather than focusing on creaming off a small minority of people, we have to address the interests and concerns of those who remain within the working-class majority.

Collins has an interesting passage about Samuel Barnett in the 1890s fearing that—in his words—"once the proles got their hands on cash, they would spend it on gambling and drink". As I say, interesting, but in no way an argument the book could ever be seen as supporting. The book focuses on the act that the wages of working-class Britain have—outrageously—been stagnating and even declining (which began before the crash) while the paypackets of the wealthy have continued to soar. I argue strongly for a militant trade union movement which fights for higher wages. That millions are trapped in poverty—not least because of low-paid jobs-is a central theme of the book. And I attack those, such as James Delingpole, who argue that excessive drinking is a working-class problem—studies show that middle-class people drink more booze than anyone.

As for who will read the book—well, I think Collins is a bit presumptuous there. The best part about writing the book so far has been the number of people getting in touch and linking the book to their own experiences. There's a few public examples on the book's Amazon page. And I can't be accused of sticking to a 'Guardianista' bubble: I've even written about the book in The Sun. Whether or not there are Sun readers who've listened to Chumbawumba in the past isn't a question I can answer, however.

As for Cole Moreton's review for the Independent on Sunday—safe to say he's not a fan! He felt there aren't enough working-class voices in the book; but other reviews (such as the one written by Jon Cruddas) felt that this was the book's strength. I certainly could have included more—but above all this was a book about how politicians and the media caricatured and demonised working-class people. The book never presented itself as a thorough study of working-class Britain—in the tradition of The Road to Wigan Pier, for example. I think that's a book that needs to be written—but I'm not the person to do it, and would never claim to be.

Moreton accuses me of attacking a journalist for being out of touch because he went to Oxford, when I went to Oxford myself. But I simply didn't do that. I criticised a journalist for describing Jade Goody as the face of "ugly white Britain", berating her garbled English and suggesting that she use her fortune to have "remedial education", and pointed out that while he was at Oxford, her dad was hiding guns under her cot. My point was that it was unfair for someone who undoubtedly had enjoyed many educational advantages to attack someone brought up in unimaginably difficult circumstances for not being sufficiently educated. If I were to do that, then I would deserve to be criticised in the same way.

Moreton attacks me for suggesting that "journalists sent to cover the [Shannon Matthews] story entered a world as alien to them as front-line Afghanistan". But I didn't: I quoted Melanie Reid in the Times arguing that "us douce middle classes" simply did not understand the case "because we are as removed from that kind of poverty as we are from events in Afghanistan. For life among the white working class of Dewsbury looks like a foreign country." He then attacks me for suggesting that "You will struggle to find anyone writing or broadcasting news who grew up somewhere even in remotely like the Dewsbury Moor estate", pointing out that he did himself. But Moreton is an exception: the Sutton Trust revealed that over half of our top 100 journalists are privately educated, and just over one in ten went to a comprehensive. The decline of local newspapers (which gave many working-class aspiring journalists a leg-up), the rise of unpaid internships and emphasis on getting expensive qualifications from places like City University has made it much harder for working-class people to break in the media.

Finally, Moreton breaks the exclusive that I'm using the book to launch my political career. This was news to me. So there's no doubt, I should point out that I'd prefer to stick pins in my eyes than have any kind of political career—and my background working for the hard left of the Labour party and left-wing unions like the RMT is a curious one for an aspiring political hack.

I was honoured that Lynsey Hanley—one of Britain's greatest writers on class and inequality—reviewed the book for the Guardian. There was a lot of food for thought. I would query a couple of criticisms, though. One was that I failed to "establish the link between being working class and holding far-right views". But I don't, in all honesty, think that there is a link: the vast majority of working-class people abhor far-right views. If we're talking about racism: well, working-class communities are more likely to be ethnically mixed than most middle-class suburbs; similarly working-class people are more likely to work with people from different ethnic backgrounds than many middle-class professionals. The Conservative Party—which has been the most resistant to the emancipation of ethnic minorities, and most likely to pander to racist sentiments—disproportionately attracts more prosperous voters, and only a minority of working-class votes. The trade union movement—that is, the organised workers' movement which still today has 7 million members—has always been a key bulwark against far-right views, in favour of equality and human emancipation. Campaigns against the BNP have been dependent on funds from trade unions.

I discussed this issue with my friend James, raised by his mum in the Rhondda Valley—he argued: "In fact the most brutal displays of bigotry I have witnessed was at the red brick university I attended, which had impeccable 'middle-class' credentials. I witnessed more prejudice in my three years there than during the previous nineteen spent in a quintessential working-class community, which was one of the most deprived areas in the UK."

Many of the people I know who were brought up in such traditional working-class areas show an unshakeable commitment to a set of values like community spirit, resilience and solidarity in the face of hardship, a commitment to helping those less fortunate and an instinctive commitment to greater fairness (both at home and abroad)—even at times inspiring optimism, which is all too often sold short by those in power. These values have always been an important element to the character of people growing up in a tough environment where many could fairly be excused for simply looking out for number one."

Lynsey also suggests that I prefer "to treat 'the working class' as a single political bloc". But I tried to emphasise how politically fragmented working-class Britain has always been. In chapter 2, I look at the long tradition of working-class Toryism, and look at how divided the working-class vote was under Thatcherism. The book also looks at how the working-class has never been homogenous—there's always been skilled and unskilled; those who once lived in slums, forms of social housing and homeowners; the employed and long-term unemployed; those in London and those in Scotland; and so on. The conclusion argues that a new class politics would "mean straddling the internal divisions within the working class that widened under Thatcherism".

Visit the New Statesman, the Independent on Sunday and the Guardian to read the reviews in full. 

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