A non-partisan journal of the left.

Book review: Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones

Fri 2nd Sep 2011

It is a book that is sure to irk readers of the Daily Mail, some of whose writers come under literary fire. On the other hand it has made the long list of the Guardian’s first book award.

‘Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class’ by Owen Jones is sure to prompt debate following the riots in August and the ensuing argument about their cause, with many right-wingers blaming the breakdown of the family unit and poor parenting among the working class for the lawlessness.

In this book, released prior to the civil disturbance, Jones aims to explain how the working class has lost its traditional identity as ‘salt of the earth’ to one of a criminalized, drug-taking, work-shy, benefit-grabbing band of people. How many have been disenfranchised, how the gap between the working and middle classes seems to have widened, how claims of Britain as a meritocracy is a myth and how it has come to this.

Much of the blame is laid at the door of a certain ambitious female prime minister and her attempts at social engineering but New Labour are also to be found to be culpable. Jones points out that both the Tories and their 1997 successors alike preached the idea that “we're all middle class now,” yet finds this is patently not true.

The media, as well as the political class, are criticized for their portrayal of the working class: one example given is the reaction to Jade Goody’s decision to allow the filming of the last days of her life against that of John Diamond’s account of his deterioration to death through throat cancer.

Jones himself grew up in Stockport, a working class area, yet he himself came from a middle class family. He describes how he was the only one in his class at Cable Green Primary School (described by Ofsted as being ‘located in an area of high economic deprivation’) to go to a Sixth Form College and later University (Oxford, where he read history and later gained a Masters focusing on the rise of US Neocons).

The writer seeks to expose the media and political establishment – most of who cannot connect with the working class being much removed from it from birth. He diligently moves from the halls and chambers of Westminster to nearby Dagenham and further afield to Dewsbury Moor and examines the desperation and fragmentation in the latters’ communities brought about by changes implemented by the aspirational governments that have ruled the country since the late 1970s.

He argues that the sterotype of a Chav is a poor byword for damning a ‘white underclass’ and avoiding addressing the problems that they face on a day-to-day basis, whilst seeking to build on the vote of the middle class in the meanwhile taking away from the pockets and hopes of those ‘beneath’ them.

The reader gets the impression that Jones has spoken extensively to well-known political, media and union figures, however he has also been on the ground to speak to those who went through the trauma of pit closures, and single Mums, with jobs and without. It is also crammed full of statistics, however, those can always be used by whatever side to illustrate their point.

It is a well written, well researched book, that, though a little repetitive (David Cameron, David Davis, Neil Kinnock et al are given their ministerial title or status from chapter-to-chapter) certainly deserves a read.
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