Book review: Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class

Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen JonesVerso, 304pp, £14.99

Time was when TV presented working-class Brits as lovable scamps (The Likely Lads) and their middle-class betters as uptight, plummy-voiced figures of fun (The Good Life). So how is it, asks Owen Jones, that we now have Little Britain's Vicky Pollard, and a culture where it is acceptable to joke about chavs the way comics used to about black people?

Such ridicule is symptomatic of a new, wider disdain. To belong to the working class is no longer to be the salt of the earth but instead part of a class with insufficient brains, taste or aspiration. It's even acceptable for the Left to kick the white working class as a bunch of racist BNP supporters, "one marginalised ethnic minority among others".

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Yet Jones's central argument is far more ambitious than this. For him, Vicky Pollard is merely the embodiment of a class war waged - and won - by the Conservative Party and its allies over the past three decades. Our laughter at her expense is the fruit of Mrs Thatcher's assault on the unions, the collapse of traditional industrial jobs and of the Labour Party's embrace of neo-liberal economics. It is a victory Jones is determined to reverse.

The Tory view starts with a denial that class exists - or at least matters - any more. The truism is that "we're all middle class now", that what used to be known as the "respectable working class" has moved up, leaving behind a criminal, welfare-dependent underclass. The Likely Lads became call-centre managers. Vicky Pollard is all that's left to fulfil the dreams of Nye Bevan or Karl Marx for her class, "a lost tribe on the wrong side of history".

Except, as Jones points out, the working class is still there. And while many might sit at computers now, they are also likely to be making lower real wages in less secure jobs than their parents or grandparents did.

Yet working people's problems are blamed not on lousy jobs or a chronic shortage of public housing but on laziness, poor parenting and "poverty of aspiration". In other words, it's all their own fault.

Jones's argument bristles with statistics but is eloquent and impassioned - relentless even. There's a touch of conspiracy theory, too. Thatcher targeted the unions but it's going too far to accuse her of deliberately wrecking manufacturing industry in the early Eighties, a debacle which, after all, hurt plenty of Tory-voting businessmen and shareholders too.

Still, the fact that such a straightforward Left wing analysis as Jones's seems so arresting is a measure of how far British politics have slipped to the Right over the past 15 years. And this, somehow, seems like a book whose time has come.

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The unions are threatening the biggest strikes in decades in protest at cuts inflicted by a Cabinet of millionaire public schoolboys. The living standards of the middle - both middle and working classes - are falling. Politicians who lionised bankers a few short years ago no longer dare do so.

Jones calls for "a new wave of class politics". Yeah but, no but, that couldn't happen… could it?