Owen Jones’ Chavs: who is working class now?

Amazon warehouse

Workers in the Amazon warehouse at Rugely Staffordshire

When Costa Coffee opened a new outlet in Mapperley, Nottingham recently, they advertised 8 vacancies (most of them part-time) for baristas and received 1,700 applications.  Several of the successful applicants were graduates.  Meanwhile, the Oxford Student newspaper reported that a member of the Bullingdon Club was fined last month for setting off a firework in a nightclub, having just been accepted into the club after an initiation ceremony which included burning a £50 note in front of a tramp.

I recently got round at last to reading Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones.  I had been put off for a while by the book’s title, assuming it would limit its attention to the media’s predilection for sneering at chavs – that curiously indefinable yet recognisable subgroup of undesirables – and denigrating the working class generally.  However, I found it to be a wide-ranging account of growing inequality and class division in modern Britain.  In fact, it is one of those rare books that manages to present the complexities of economic, social and political change in a lively and accessible style.  Jones’ main purpose, it soon becomes clear, is to trounce the notion that Britain is now a classless society, and to demonstrate how the gap between rich and poor has steadily widened since the Thatcher years.

But first Jones has to justify the book’s title.  The opening chapter, ‘The case of Shannon Matthews’ is a fine piece of journalism, exploring how the way in which the media covered story exposed prejudices that have become deeply rooted in British society.  The case gives Jones a way into examining how it has become possible for politicians or journalists to say anything about those caricatured as chavs, spewing out contempt and hatred towards an underclass portrayed as subhuman and disposable.  Jones provides a tour of this venomous landscape, taking in Little Britain and gym classes sold as ‘chav fighting’, the promotion of ‘chav-free’ holidays, Shameless, and vile websites like Chavtowns and Chav Scum. A subsequent chapter examines in more depth  the role of the media in propagating chav-hate, culminating in the tragic story of the treatment of Jade Goody.

Nevertheless its hard to pin down this chav business precisely: sometimes it can refer to a set of anti-social and threatening behaviours, while at other times it seems to be simply about behaviour that middle class snobs don’t like.  Take, for example, Amanda Platell, writing in the Daily Mail about

the shocking insight into Britain’s underclass that was provided this week when a Tesco store banned customers from shopping in pyjamas.  Welcome to the world of Britain’s slum mums, where women without an ounce of self-respect go shopping dressed like slobs in elasticated-waist nightwear and fluffy slippers.

Owen Jones was subject to a great deal of criticism when his book first appeared for its focus on chavs.  Critics argued that chavs are not synonymous with the working class, and some pointed out that in fact it is often working class people who most despise chavs – because they are the ones whose lives are most likely to be blighted by anti-social behaviour.

But actually, Jones is careful in how he couches his argument.  He states that the caricatures of chav-hate have had two main consequences.  One is the ‘ludicrous mainstream political view’ that Britain is now a classless society.  More importantly, ‘the chav phenomenon obscures what it means to be working class today’.  One quote from Daily Mail columnist Simon Heffer sums this up:

Something called the respectable working class has almost died off. What sociologists used to call the working class does not now usually work at all, but is sustained by the welfare state.

This is the mindset which most journalists and politicians have signed up to: that the great divide separating rich and poor is one between ‘hard workers’ and ‘shirkers’, between those who rise early to work and welfare scroungers who lie abed with the curtains drawn.

Cameron Bullingdon

Members of the Bullingdon Club, Oxford University, circa 1987

But Chavs is, more than anything, a convincing analysis of social class and inequality that explores complex questions of class, culture and identity, and Jones writes with a lightness and fluidity that keeps you reading. The book develops a sustained argument about the persistence of class inequalities in Britain. Quoting the Observer journalist Nick Cohen – ‘To say class doesn’t matter in Britain is like saying wine doesn’t matter in France; or whether you’re a man or a woman doesn’t matter in Saudi Arabia’ – he employs wide-ranging research findings to demonstrate how the gap between the wealthy and the rest has steadily widened since the 1980s.

There are parallels here with Ken Loach’s new film, The Spirit of ’45, which I reviewed in my last post. Jones suggests that there has been only one period when the status of being working class rose: the years after the Second World War.  Echoing the arument of Loach’s film, Jones writes:

Labour, the party created by working-class people to represent them in Parliament, had won a landslide victory and was there to stay as one of the country’s two major political forces. Sweeping social reforms were introduced to address working-class concerns. Trade unions enjoyed influence at the highest levels of power. Working-class people could no longer be ignored.

Jones quotes film director Stephen Frears: ‘The war changed everything. Novels started being about the working classes. Plays started being about the working classes. I found all of that very, very interesting. There was suddenly a whole group of people who’d never been heard before, really . . . The focus before had been on such a narrow range of subjects in Britain, which was those who live the life of the upper classes or middle classes. So suddenly the world became more interesting’.  This is at the outset of an interesting chapter in which he analyses how the portrayal of working class in drama and the media changed from 1980s, culminating in the ‘chav’ stereotype.

His key point is that the chav caricature has obscured the reality of the modem working class. We are fed the impression of a more or less comfortable ‘Middle England’ on the one hand, while on the other the old working class has degenerated into a hopeless chav rump. Jones’ purpose is to dispel this myth by arguing that ‘working class’ is not coterminous with ‘chav’, and that the working class not only remains, but still forms a majority in British society.

It’s just that it used to be easier to answer the question: ‘Who is the working class’.  Jones notes that when the historian David Kynaston was writing his book on post-war Britain, Austerity Britain, it was easy to identify the three emblematic occupations that defined the working class: miners, dockers, and car workers. But now the mines have closed, the docks are deserted, and most of the car factories are empty husks. As these old pillars of working-class Britain crumbled, it became easier for politicians to claim that we really are all middle class now. The demise of the industrial working class began but did not end with Thatcher, writes Jones. Even in 1997, when Blair swept to power, manufacturing made up more than a fifth of the economy. It was a paltry 12 per cent by 2007. Back in 1979, there were nearly 7 million people working in factories, but today it’s just over 2.5 million.

So who is working class in today’s Britain? The definition that Jones opts for is ‘people who labour for others, and who lack autonomy or control over their labour’:

Both a university professor and a retail employee must work to survive; but a professor has huge power over their everyday activity, while a shop assistant does not. A professor does have broad parameters within which they must work, but there is ample room for creativity and the ability to set their own tasks. A shop worker has a set of very narrowly defined tasks with little variation, and must carry them out according to specific instructions.

Using this definition, the working class remain a majority in British society:

Over eight million of us still have manual jobs, and another eight million are clerks, secretaries, sales assistants and in other personal and customer-service jobs. That adds up to well over half the workforce and still excludes teachers, health workers such as nurses, and train drivers, who are assigned to categories such as ‘professional occupations’ Most people work for others, and lack control over their own labour. But many of them are no longer toiling away in factories and mines. The last three decades have seen the dramatic rise of a new service-sector working class. Their jobs are cleaner and less physically arduous, but often of a lower status, insecure, and poorly paid.

Moreover, as Mark Serwotka, leader of the Public and Commercial Services union, observes in Chavs, ‘I think the jobs that working-class people do are changing and quite clearly now there aren’t miners, there aren’t big steelworks in the way there was when I was growing up. But in the new industries, I think we actually see exploitation of working people on a par if not greater than we’ve ever seen before.’

Owen Jones offers the example of Mary Cunningham, a fifty-five-year-old supermarket worker in Newcastle. She is a child of the old industrial working class, since her father was a miner until the pits closed.

She left school in the middle of O-levels to look after her dying mother, although school wasn’t for her in any case. Her first job was working on ‘the old, press-down tills’ at the now defunct Woolworth’s, and she remembers being there when decimalization came to replace the old pounds, shillings and pence in 1971. Mary is an important part of the puzzle of modern working-class Britain. Supermarket workers like her, derided as ‘chavs’ by websites like ChavTowns, are one of the chief components of the new working class. Retail is the second biggest employer in the country, with nearly three million people working in British shops: that’s more than one in ten workers, and a threefold increase since 1980. And then there’s the pay. If you work on a checkout in Mary’s supermarket, you can expect to make just £6.12 an hour. Lunch is unpaid. This is pretty standard.

But if you think shop workers have it bad, consider call centre workers, says Jones. He reckons there are now nearly a million people working in call centres, and the number is going up every year:

To put that in perspective, there were a million men down the pits at the peak of mining in the 1940s.  If the miner was one of the iconic jobs of post-war Britain, then today, surely, the call centre worker is as good a symbol of the working class as any.

The other striking feature of the new working class is the rise of the part-time worker. Over a quarter of Britain’s workforce now works part-time, one of the highest levels in Europe. The number has soared during the recession as sacked full-time workers are forced to take up part-time work to make ends meet, helping to keep unemployment figures down. Some call call it the ‘hourglass’ economy: highly paid jobs at one end, and swelling numbers of low-paid, unskilled jobs at the other.  Increasingly, jobs are temporary, too.  Across Britain, the number of people in temporary jobs has swelled 20 per cent since the start of the financial crisis in 2008, and the proportion of that group who say they cannot find permanent jobs has increased from 26 per cent to 40 per cent.

A good example of the transformation of work that Jones is highlighting appeared in a report recently in the Daily Mail, Amazon’s human robots, which described conditions at the Amazon distribution warehouse just opened in Rugely, Staffordshire, a town  that has never fully recovered from the closure of the local coal mine in 1990:

Hundreds of people in orange vests are pushing trolleys around a space the size of nine football pitches, glancing at the screens of their hand-held satnav computers for directions on where to walk next and what to pick up when they get there.They do not dawdle — the devices in their hands are also measuring their productivity. They might each walk between seven and 15 miles today.Before they can go home at the end of their eight-hour shift, or go to the canteen for their 30-minute break, they must walk through a set of airport-style security scanners to prove they are not stealing anything.

The article explains that workers are employed, not by Amazon, but by a global employment agency called Randstad, which pays a near-minimum wage. After three months, if a worker has performed well, they can apply to be an Amazon employee, though there is no guarantee. Randstad calls this sort of system ‘Inhouse Services’ and describes it as a ‘flexible work solution designed exclusively for each client to optimise the work force and drive cost-effectiveness’.

There are still only about 200 Amazon employees, with the rest supplied by Randstad. Inside the warehouse, Amazon employees wear blue badges, and the workers supplied by the agencies wear green badges. In the most basic roles they perform the same tasks as each other for the same pay of £6.20 an hour or so (the minimum adult wage is £6.19), but the Amazon workers also receive a  pension and shares.  Chris Forde, a professor of employment studies at Leeds University, says arrangements such as Randstad’s with Amazon are becoming increasingly common in Britain. He has encountered situations in which workers on these sorts of contracts make up 90 per cent of a company’s workforce in sectors such as car manufacturing, food processing, hotels and restaurants.

Another thing that distinguished the old industrial working class was a strong trade union movement. In the late 1970s, over half of all workers were union members. Today unions remain the biggest civil society organizations in the country, but their membership has steeply declined from thirteen million in 1979 to just over seven million. The new service sector jobs are more or less a union-free zone. It is particularly difficult to organize in hotels and restaurants and pubs because there are thousands of them.  There’s a very high tumover of labour and large numbers of migrant workers without English as their first language, particularly in hotels.

As well as being poorly paid, many of the service sector jobs have a markedly lower status than the manufacturing jobs they replaced. Miners and factory workers had a real pride in the work they were doing (another aspect paralleled by the interviews in Ken Loach’s film). Miners were supplying the country’s energy needs; factory workers had the satisfaction of investing skill and energy into making things that people needed. The jobs were well regarded in the local community. Owen Jones cites the sociologist John Goldthorpe who says that kind of strong, community-based working-class culture has been markedly reduced, something he has noticed from visiting the former pit village where he grew up. ‘Society has become increasingly atomized,’ says former Labour Cabinet minister Clare Short:

In the street I grew up in, all the kids played together, they went in and out of the adults’ houses, everyone knew roughly who each other were, what they did, and helped each other . . . There were always people in the houses because not so many women worked. It was culturally completely different. And there’s been a lot of loss, in my view, in the changes. They’re not all for the better, and the sense of community and belonging is massively reduced.

In analysing the trends that have led to a growing sense of working class powerlessness – the waning power of the unions, the destruction of traditional jobs and the communities they fostered, the impact of globalisation and the deregulation of markets – Owen Jones makes a good case.  The book is weaker when it comes to his thoughts on how a new class-based politics might lead to change. Again, this is something that the book shares with Ken Loach’s film. I would like to believe in the vision that Jones outlines in his concluding words, but given the atomisation of the working class that he has identified, I am unsure how it might come about:

It does not have to be this way. The folly of a society organized around the interests of plutocrats has been exposed by an economic crisis sparked by the greed of the bankers. The new class politics would be a start, to at least build a counterweight to the hegemonic, unchallenged class politics of the wealthy. Perhaps then a new society based around people’s needs, rather than private profit, would be feasible once again. Working class people have, in the past, organized to defend their interests; they have demanded to be listened to, and forced concessions from the hands of the rich and the powerful. Ridiculed or ignored though they may be, they will do so again.

Here’s something else worth reading on this question: Lynsey Hanley who lives in Liverpool, is a journalist and author of Estates: An Intimate History. In an essay for Aeon last month – Hidden in plain view – she summarized recent research on class inequality in Britain and argued that British society is still deeply damaged by class differences. Her essay concluded with these words:

Nothing can be done if not done together. And if we refuse, or are unable, to work together, because the classes have ossified into groups that don’t trust each other and don’t meet, does that mean an end to progress?

Simply seeking to make living conditions better for the working class suggests that most people do not believe the status quo can be altered. Rather we should be striving for a transformation of society so that individuals are not so thoroughly bound by the circumstances of their birth. If the best work of our social scientists was made common knowledge, I can’t help thinking there’d be a revolution.

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9 thoughts on “Owen Jones’ Chavs: who is working class now?

  1. I have not even heard the word ‘chav’!! I may be on a steep learning curve when I visit England in May. On another note, have you read “Watching the English” written by an anthropologist whose name escapes me? It is very funny, especially English/American comparisons. Another hilarious observation is the old Jilly Cooper classic, “Class”.

  2. I am out of it in Venezuela but, from what I could glean and what I have osmosed, so to say, over time via ongoing family and mate contacts, the use of ‘status quo’ in that last pragraph would obscure what I have come to view more as a nation with a severe identity crisis and which has been in a confusingly blurred state of flux for the last three decades (I’ve been gone for over four) or so. Wherefore, if allowed, I’d posit that there has’nt been an identifiable “status quo” for a long time, rendering the generation of community consciousness pretty difficult. Any corrective comment welcome! PS: I hadn’t been aware of “chav” either until quite recently and only after this piece today do I have any real idea of what it is.

  3. Well Written!

    Until I had to stop working as a teacher due to ill health recently, even on a full teacher’s salary I was still in receipt of benefits as my income was not sufficient to support our family of 4 (living in a council house, so NOT overpriced accommodation)

    How is it that a teacher with a master’s degree in physics can not earn enough to be below the minimum that is needed for an average family?

    Now I am ill, i feel like a benefit scrounger, because that’s what the media tells me I am, despite the fact that my doctor says I am too ill to work, and I know that I am, I feel miserable and depressed to be in this position.

    I have to be assessed by an external agency to see if I am ill or not? (My employer was legally required to accept my medical certificates, why is the Benefits Agency not?)

    On another note, the word Chav comes from the Traveller word for child. It’s use in the book’s title put me off too. It’s a pity, the book sounds really good.

  4. Simon Heffer: “This is the mindset which most journalists and politicians have signed up to … the respectable working class … does not now usually work at all, but is sustained by the welfare state.” Ah, ironic thanks for this – it explains why my letters to the BBC on the topic of council housing – and how its cessation and selling off have triggered the housing crisis – go unacknowledged and unreplied to.

    Yes ‘chav’ is Romani for child ‘chavi’ – there is an article here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chav

    This is unfortunate. Travellers are victimised by both rich and poor the length and breadth of the British Isles simply because settled populations are antipathetic to cultures which move about. The fact that a Romani word has been given a perjorative sense speaks volumes about the society we live in.

    I defend erudition but one thing I will never understand about modern Britain is why its people allow themselves to be ruled by an Oxbridge minority, that is surely at loggerheads to the concept of democracy?

  5. Thank you Gerry. Another great piece of writing. The last sentence “If the best work of our social scientists was made common knowledge, I can’t help thinking there’d be a revolution.” raised a couple of questions for me. How do we make it common knowledge? Why hasn’t there been any work by social scientists (perhaps there has but I am unaware of any) on why we have become so complacent and lost that spirit of ’45?

  6. Thank you Gerry and I think the basic points are made well,
    Chav is a derogatory term. Decent , hardworking people from all kinds of social backgrounds do not make the kind of news the various media want to feed us. The BBC is increasingly part of the shaping of the news we are allowed to hear.
    Thatcher and Blair, especially the latter have done much in the last thirty plus years to ruin our nation. Blair even thinks that going into Iraq and Afghanistan was still the right decision.
    Our politicians have badly let us down. And the laws passed even recently in our country do not support equality or strong family life. Call centers are slavery in many respects. But so too is working for Tescos!
    Answers are not easy, but one cant help thinking we need some soon..

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