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Simon Jones

The demonization of the working class
Owen Jones
Verso, 304pp

RJones.jpgBoth sides of the political divide have promised, at one time or another, to bring an end to class strife in the UK. For the old left this has long been about giving workers ownership of the means of production,   allowing them to escape a system in which those with money can make more money simply by having money in the first place (the old addition to this of 'risk' has been more or less eliminated now that we know governments will use our money to rescue mass investment failures). For the new right, following the Conservative prime minister John Major, a classless society would exist when anyone could 'rise to whatever level from whatever level they started.'

Tony Blair's reframing of the issue was a desire to move on from what he understood had become outmoded socialist rhetoric. For him the question was not one of class solidarity, but equality of a different nature: 'Not equal incomes. Not uniform lifestyles or taste or culture. But true equality - equal worth, an equal chance of fulfilment, equal access to knowledge and opportunity. Equal rights. Equal responsibilities. The class war is over. But the struggle for true equality has only just begun.'

With this shift both main parties were now working on the premise that the working class was something that could be escaped. Social mobility, rather than improving the lives of people in certain industries, was the solution for those families in difficult economic circumstances. And where social mobility was declared possible - wrongly, critically - those who did not make the leap must be ignorant, lazy or criminal.

In some ways this conclusion is as old as human history, and and has long accompanied religious approaches to self improvement. 'God helps those who helps themselves,' said the Greeks - and just about every kind of faith since, not least our own. At the turn of the century a reported 75 per cent of US teenagers believed this was the 'central message of the Bible'.

All of which is to suggest that the problem addressed in this occassionally fine book by Owen Jones is not a new one, though he does a sterling job of identifying how such demonisation - interesting word - operates currently. He tells us about comic figures like Vicky Pollard and the family in Shameless; of a travel firm that offers middle-class trekkers 'chav-free holidays'; and of a gym in London that gives 'chav-fighting classes' to bankers, so that they can defend themselves from those who 'tend to breed by the age of 15, and spend most of their days trying to score super-skunk', as the gym manager puts it. 'Chav', for those who've been living under a rock for the last decade,  means 'underclass', which arguably itself means working-class people who don't subscribe to middle-class preferences in taste or behaviour.

Jones does well, too, to point out how well this attitide has served the media. He describes how the unfashionable town of Dewsbury rallied round and organised search parties for the daughter of Karen Matthews, only to be described as chav simpletons when it was  revealed that Matthews had orchestrated the disappearance as part of a kidnapping plot.

He looks too at the massive economic shifts in Britain since the war. In particular the employment shift from manufacturing to service industries, particularly retailing. More than one in ten workers, nearly two-thirds of them women, are now employed in shops, a threefold increase since 1980. Half of these earn less than £7 an hour, while since 2007 a quarter have seen their pay cut, a third have had their hours cut and a fifth lost benefits. Yet for the 'Chavtown' website, working in a shop is one of the signs of being a chav. Of course while the latter fact merely represens a lunkheaded prejudice, the real difficulty for these workers is that the industry does not have the union representation that underpinned the older, predominantly male, industries.
Jones does best of all not to over-concentrate on such obvious injustices and look too at the more fashionable liberal agenda. By focusing on the possibility of social mobility rather than addressing class grievances, progressive politics has concentrated on other approaches to equality, notably in race and sexuality. Where the old left argued that the working class of England had more in common with the working classes of foreign countries, the multicultural agenda has - with good intentions, granted - over-concentrated on the celebration of difference. The result is a Balkanised politics that has been exploited by the BNP and the EDL.

The author is weaker when it comes to how this state of affairs can be remedied. Though writing defiantly from a democratic socialist position, Jones seems to see the working class as a group to be pitied rather than one which has the means to achieve any of its own goals. While he is right to look at the issue of representation - with MPs in the Labour Party being less and less likely to have emerged from a working class background - he forgets that working class movements forged in class struggle have always been quite capable of mobilising to their own ends. And indeed, that the Labour Party is the product of one of these movements, rather than an indpendent entity which can itself motivate the working class.

Jones also wobbles when discussing the effects materialism has on those who can least afford its temptations. It evidently disappoints him that the working classes he pities often just want a nice car and comfortable home. With Jon Cruddas (interviewed in this magazine in March) he laments their material aspirations, wishing instead that workers could be more community minded.

George Orwell once despaired of the 'society dames' who wanted to tell the working classes how to live. Though one suspects he would be horrified to find himself accused of such by someone like Orwell, he is dangerously close to the same ground.

Nonetheless, Chavs is a welcome reminder of how easily we find outselves victimising those whose fortunes have not been of their own making. We have sometimes accepted that our neighbour might include our enemy. Can we make it include those whose trainers are a little too garish?

Simon Jones