Report: Owen Jones, author of Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class

Posted on September 13, 2011

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5.45pm: Bookmarks Bookshop, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London

Cover to Jones' book

He’s become a bit of a wunderkind of the Left since his first book, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class was published earlier this year, but Owen Jones justified his newfound position at tonight’s talk at Bookmarks.

Jones, the Sheffield-born and Stockport-bred Labour-Left campaigner and one-time parliamentary researcher for the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), is now establishing himself as a proper leftist journalist.

The event, in conjunction with the annual TUC Congress, (itself running until Wednesday), began with a talk by Jones, followed by extended questions and discussion with a large and engaged audience. Bookmarks is balmy at the best of times, not least when there’s 30-odd leftists bunched in, getting collectively irritated at society outside.

“Chav” becomes a nominal hook which allows Jones to explore the sometime ‘comic’, sometime eugenicist, always pervasive use of the word within the class system, its prejudices and its ongoing neo-conservatism. “The thing about the word ‘chav’ is that it’s very flexible’, he argued. He readily proved how it has been banged and bended in the past decade and a half.

Jones pretty quickly ripped through a devastating twentieth-century history of the working-class. He stressed the importance of the post-war period, though “not to glamorise it”, he added. This was the age of Bevan and Atlee, the creation of the National Health Service, the strengthening of the labour movement.

But rather than romanticise the muscular Magnitorsk miner or the intrepid Sheffield steel worker, like a fetishistic Soviet town square might, Jones used changing media presentations of the working-class to make his point. Programmes like The Likely Lads, The Rag Traders and Only Fools and Horses might have presented working men and women in sometimes patronising or idealised forms, he argued. But that was nothing compared to what came with Thatcherism.

Dole queues in Brixton, 1981. Another year of widespread rioting under a Tory government

A National Union of Miners (NUM) picketer meets with police at the Orgreave picket, South Yorkshire, June 1984. The Battle of Orgreave was one of the worst and most infamous clashes of the Miners' Strike.

Thatcher’s “enemy within” and her host of new ideas brought on a radically imbalanced way of looking at society. Along with savage cuts, the use of unemployment as economic weapon and the wilful destruction of the trade union movement, the sympathetic working-class faded from television screens and newspapers. Out of sight and out of mind. The working-class were no longer to be laughed with or thought about. They are shit, laugh at them. Hate them. Basically – you get the Eighties and you end up with Little Britain, you end up with Vicky Pollard.

Jones seemed to sigh but, he said, in 2007 Yougov conducted a poll of those working in television at the Edinburgh Fringe festival. Around 70% of those said they thought Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard was a realistic depiction of the modern working-class. “It’s a fact that throws me every time I say it”, he admitted.

Jones is very well-versed in the histories of Thatcherism and neo-conservatism. He might not tell a new history (other than explaining the etymology of “chav” as a prejudicial term and idea), but he tells it well. The Eighties, as Jones sees it, represented a “concerted attack on many of the pillars of working-class society” – on industry, on values like solidarity and “common aspiration”, and on the communities themselves.

So Jones told us of people he met in Ashington in Northumberland, once the so-called “world’s biggest pit village”:

I met miners who’d been out of work – since 1986. I met someone not much younger than me – about 24 – who did a 6-hour round-trip everyday just to work in a factory in Scotland. I met one woman who very eloquently put it: ‘We were stabbed in the back by Thatcher and they left us to bleed to death.’

It’s always a shock to re-hear stories like this, but less and less a surprise each time. It shouldn’t be when you remember, as Jones did a couple of times through the talk, that Thatcher said the working-classes’ “circumstances can largely be explained by their behaviour”, just as she called poverty “a personality character defect”.

He is a never-ending source for the kind of information that will make socialists squirm, sigh and splutter. Jones lists quotations that, together, read like an unbelievable hit list of right-wing journalists, politicians and personalities. Thatcher said this, Heseltine said that; Telegraph journalist Simon Heffer called them this, Carole Malone said that. In fact Jones didn’t even share what Malone said, “because it might get people annoyed”. You can’t blame him, because it’s incredible. In fact, in 2008 Geordie Malone referred to the Matthews in Dewsbury Moor (those involved in Shannon Matthews’ “abduction” scandal which shocked Middle England that year). She said they:

belonged to that sub (human) class that now exists in the murkiest, darkest corners of this country […] Good-for-nothing scroungers who have no morals, no compassion, no sense of responsibility and who are incapable of feeling love or guilt.

This journalist is still at large

If only we could all feel the seemingly metaphysical moral concern of Malone. I could go on because, unfortunately, there’s more. It’s mad. Read the book.

Some of these voices were even (supposedly) left-wing, including Yasmin Alibhai Brown (The Independent), who wrote in 2006:

Tax-paying immigrants past and present keep indolent British scroungers on their couches drinking beer and watching TV. We are despised because we seize opportunities these slobs don’t want.

Jones has obviously dug around. Dug around deep. For someone who admits to me he has entered journalism by “an unconventional route” (book first, articles second) and did not set out to become a journalist at first, this is particularly impressive. He has amassed a wealth of interview material; speaking to ex-miners, Neil Kinnock, members of Thatcher’s Cabinets, backbench (as well as leading) MPs, journalists. And the information they give is just as staggering. Jones provides an army of statistics which quite soundly lay to bed any of the defences given for what Thatcherism did to the economics, politics and proletarian “rump” of this country.

He also uses current examples, no less shocking for the outright class hatred they espouse. Chavtowns.co.uk, a list of “Britain’s worst places to live!” [sic], regards itself as an alternative geography lesson, in what “estate agents, local councillors, Polly Toynbee, Owen Jones and The BBC don’t want you to know”. Jones describes it as “a little bit like wading through sick”.

(I can attest to this, after chancing on the website’s entry on Pitsmoor, an area of north Sheffield adjacent to where I lived until fairly recently. A one-time steel industry powerhouse, Pitsmoor is now full of the kinds of “Council Estate Associated Vermin that Chavtowns revels in hating. As Chavtowns would have it:

Pitsmoor is the major league slum of Sheffield, where chavs breed like frog spawn in their back to back terraces and concrete blocks. But Pitsmoor is not inhabited the white trash you see in ‘da Moor’ or ‘Medahall,’ but by the pakis and niggers who’ve adopted the Patwa language of their ‘brovas’ in London.)

Riots, anyone? Chavtowns almost sounds like the kind of Victorian racism that now-defunct historian David Starkey rolled out in front of Jones on Newsnight in the aftermath of the Riots. “I’ve just been reading Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech…”, he said, amidst an audible collective sigh. Starkey’s career is over but Jones has kept a solid commentary on the Riots, through his blog, appearances like tonight’s, as well as an (unsurprising) exponential rise in sales of Chavs.

Tonight Jones bemoaned “a debate that was deliberately shut down by the media and the political establishment” in the aftermath (and free and complimentary backlash) last month. It was refreshing to hear such a clear voice on the matter – that the Riots actually had a cause, that they were not isolated “criminal incidents”, that (as I said in this blog previously) they happened for a reason, and, that they will happen again if we do not address their causes – in a mush of reactionary class prejudice, forced evictions, draconian punishments, and all the rest.

And this was Jones throughout really. It was so uplifting to finally see a young leftist journalist – a mythical, elusive figure all too often absent from our media – so together; speaking solidly, confidently, and with just the right dosage of humour and rage, about the class system and its new, and ongoing, prejudices. It would be encouraging for anyone (no less another young -ish leftist journalist) but especially for our generation who have grown up with “chav” spitting in our mouths and ears. Jones’ book creates a generational window through which we can better understand the dour legacies of the Eighties, and the lingering acceptability of today’s class prejudice. It is important for us, no less so after the Riots. But Chavs in an important book. Read it.

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Posted in: Politics