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Peter Cuthbertson reviews the new edition of "Chavs" by Owen Jones, which was released last month.
Owen Jones’ Chavs is worth reading. This acerbic book also includes enough new arguments that it demands a response from conservatives explaining where it goes awry, which it certainly does. Chavs is profoundly wrong – both as sociology and policy. The ‘chav’ phenomenon doesn’t amount to “the demonization of the working class”, and working people’s interests are better advanced through politicians addressing their expressed concerns than through Michael Foot-style socialism.
But there is plenty to like. Jones is great at taking the reader out of the metropolitan bubbles in which far too many of us spend far too much time, and at puncturing absurd myths about what an average income is or what motivates people on very low salaries. He is right to highlight the consequences of over-emphasising academic credentials rather than other objective measures of intelligence and competence.
He’s an able reporter: I learned most from his many conversations with ordinary people in ordinary jobs. Midway through the book, Jones gives a somewhat harrowing account of how some call centre workers in County Durham are treated in exchange for their £14,400 per annum. Those who spend more than 4% of their time in the toilet or making a coffee face financial penalties. A no-hang-up policy, however rude and aggressive the callers, means “quite often on the floor people in tears at the way people have spoken to them”. Lousy employers are far from unique to the public sector, and such accounts should provoke further thought on the right about those who reject a life on benefits and go out to earn low salaries in truly unpleasant conditions. How – without imposing such costs on employers as to destroy jobs – can we improve their working environments? At the very least, one hopes that a more competitive and entrepreneurial economy provides more opportunities for people to escape to something better.
Jones also illustrates quite well the way in which economic changes have adversely affected employment levels in some areas, especially small villages in which the coal mines closed in the 1990s were the only big employer. I am deeply sceptical (to put it very mildly) of Jones’ almost unthinking attribution of all blame to Margaret Thatcher. But there is no reason to deny that some communities have suffered in recent decades even as the overall economy prospered.
Finally, I will single out Jones’ account of how terrible decision-making and mindlessly following procedure at Hillsborough in 1989 caused such loss of life. I do hope, though, that his righteous anger extends also to the fatalities caused by our over-zealous health and safety culture. On more than one occasion, I’ve had perfectly ordinary professional people, who otherwise seemed not the slightest bit cold-blooded, explain to me quite matter-of-factly that workers without the appropriate health and safety training were right to let someone drown rather than walk into shallow water to save a life. Perhaps one day, as political correctness goes from strength to strength, everyone in Britain will think this way.
So what does Jones get wrong?
I was most troubled by the Jones aversion to crediting working class people with any real autonomy when thinking about politics and policy. He admits that “If you are someone scraping by in a low-paid job, the feeling that there are people down the street living it up at your expense may well infuriate you more than anything else.” But in the very next sentence he continues: “It’s an age-old example of ‘the poor against the poor’, and right-wing politicians and journalists exploit such sentiments ruthlessly.” He writes elsewhere that “it became a fixture of politics to play groups of working-class people against each other.”
In Jones’ world, the working class is almost entirely passive in its politics, gullibly believing whatever myths are concocted by right-wing politicians and press barons. He laments that “New Labour took the rising working-class backlash against immigration at face value, instead of examining underlying causes such as a lack of affordable housing or secure, well-paid jobs.” They may say they want welfare reform and an end to mass immigration, but don’t take that at face value – give them a more left-wing housing and industrial policy and they won’t mind a bit!
When working class voters want to own their own homes, Jones similarly understands it as a response to propaganda from others rather than a legitimate aspiration. He apparently sees it as quite an indictment that “before the Thatcher government launched the ‘right-to-buy’ scheme, more than two in five of us lived in council housing. Today the figure is nearer one in ten”. He moans that new Labour “encourages the idea that working-class people belonging to different ethnic groups are in competition with each other for attention and resources”.
But in a country where planning law makes supplying new homes so difficult, increasing the demand through mass immigration does indeed create shortages. Larger families – more common among recent arrivals – really are given priority in council housing. Whatever one’s ethnic group, one is naturally in competition in the labour market with people of similar skill levels. So the mass immigration of unskilled labour and of people with manual skills of course drives down wage levels for people with similar skills. It is absurd and insulting to write as if working people who recognise these economics are somehow being deceived.
It is perhaps on crime that Jones’ liberal politics lead him most astray. He comes very close to suggesting that tackling yobs and anti-social behaviour is some kind of attack on working class people rather than a blow for decent people of all backgrounds. Of the thugs and thieves sentenced during the riots of Summer 2011, he writes: “Steal bottles water and end up in prison for six months. But help push the world into the most catastrophic crisis since the 1930s …” Eugh. He mentions how many of the rioters were on out of work benefits as evidence of their poverty, but not that the average rioter in London had committed 15 previous offences.
Far, far more than it was a riot by the poor or by a demonised working class, this was a riot of hardened criminals, freed to roam the streets by a still-too-soft criminal justice system. Only a third of them had ever been in prison. Little wonder that people living in the working class communities terrorised most by these degenerates conclude that more of them should be kept locked up. Little wonder too, as Jones notes, how hostile they are to the police. Criminals tend to be.
The very soundness of so many working class voters on issues such as crime, immigration and welfare reform, and their willingness to vote for right-of-centre politicians who pledge to address these concerns, must drive Owen Jones up the wall. Hence the old Marxist notion of false consciousness is back, and working class good sense must be attributed to an elite conspiracy to turn working class people against one another.
This aversion to believing working class people often really do want right-of-centre policies also leads the author to attack New Labour time and again for any moves it made in government towards political and economic realities. Jones seems deeply nostalgic for the Labour Party of the 1980s, and Tony Blair is arguably every bit as much a villain of the book as is Margaret Thatcher. He is at his fiercest towards politicians who admit and deal with the scarcity of government resources, or rather, with the unwillingness of taxpayers to pay ever more for ever less in return. So the idea that council housing should be prioritised for those in greatest need, rather than be a lifetime bonus, irks him greatly.
About as troubling is how little time Jones has for the notion that ‘chav’ and ‘working class’ are different concepts. In the preface to the new edition of the book, he skates over the point very briefly but does nothing to rebut it. After this, he’s back to treating every chav caricature as if it’s indubitably an attack on all working class people. He argues rather persuasively, if obviously, that drinking too much extends very much beyond working class people and to middle class people. But isn’t that the point? Working class and middle class people have far more in common with one another than either has with the alcohol-fuelled louts, motiveless in their hostility, who generate so much anti-social behaviour and crime. It is only by falsely conflating them with working class people that Jones can make them seem sympathetic.
As is clear from the above, ‘Chavs’ is not a purely partisan book. But the author still has phases of hilarious partisan blindness. “Labour governments introduced all the major reforms of the post-war period that have improved the lot of the working classes, from the NHS to workers’ rights”, he writes. Quite. It must have been Labour governments that ended food rationing, oversaw the prosperity of the 1950s, the early 1960s, the 1980s and 1990s, gave control over trade unions back to their members, introduced the assisted places scheme and the right to buy council homes, scrapped the exchange controls that (among other effects) limited severely family holidays, brought immigration under control in the early 1970s and again in the early 1980s, and began the major fight-back against crime by growing the prison population in the early 1990s.
And that is to ignore the pre-World War II Tory reforms that improved the lot of the working classes, such as extending the franchise repeatedly. It also forgets how often Labour harmed working class people: by further extending wartime rationing after the War was won, introducing all manner of liberal policies on crime under Roy Jenkins, waging war on grammar schools, releasing hundreds of terrorists who murdered working class soldiers, women and children, imposing wage controls resulting in the winter of discontent, turning the welfare state from a safety net into major weapon undermining the family, and permitting mass immigration – especially under Blair and Brown.
This review is already too long, so I’ll touch only briefly on a few other problems.
His account of salary determination gives far more credit to trade unions than to productivity, which he mentions once. Equally, he laments that “partly because of the ruinous economic policies of successive governments, the mines have closed, the docks are deserted, and most of the car factories are empty husks” as if militant trade unionism played no part in all three cases.
Jones’ view of conservatives is interesting, but confused. He seems unsure whether Tories are deeply class-conscious, and fighting a secret war on working class people, or oblivious and contemptuous of the very notion of class. He goes so far on page 47 as to accuse Margaret Thatcher of both loathing working class people and hating thinking of people in class terms.
The book is very journalistic. The author quotes at length those who share his views as if they provide independent evidence. Meeting with a counter-argument, he largely responds to the effect that “several people disagree with you”. At other times, he drearily quotes right-of-centre voices with outrage, scarcely bothering to explain why they are wrong.
I’ll close by noting another striking moment in the book. Jones comes back repeatedly to his discussions with Neil Kinnock, whom he quotes at one point as saying: “they’ve never had to engage in a class war. Largely because we signed the peace treaty without realising that they hadn’t”. It is both an intellectually interesting and defensible view that working class people are on the receiving end of class warfare, along with its obvious implication that working people should wage a class war of their own. But this is not the face Neil Kinnock showed British voters in 1987 and 1992. Such statements put his dramatic defeats in those elections in a new light, and underline British voters’ wisdom in rejecting him.