The stereotypical ‘chav’ may be a fairly recent phenomenon, but it has become so pervasive that few would struggle to conjure up their own image of what it represents. In a thoughtful, polemical examination of the changing perceptions of working class culture, Owen Jones draws on testimony from extensive interviews to unravel how ‘chavs’ have become a byword for David Cameron’s vision of ‘broken Britain’, used to blame the poor and dispossessed for ‘choosing’ their poverty and exclusion.
In part, Jones points the finger at websites such as the appalling ‘Chavscum’ and comedians such as the creators of Little Britain, famous for picking on society’s most vulnerable, as well as lazy journalism, for the spread of the new chav caricature. However, he argues persuasively that the roots of renewed and vicious class hatred are found in the destruction of working class communities under Thatcher, which led to a collapse in values such as solidarity in favour of rampant, dog-eat-dog individualism. For 30 years, the Tories and then New Labour have tried to persuade us that we are now ‘all middle class’. Those who failed to prosper during the boom years have been written off and ridiculed as a ‘chav’ rump, a despised underclass.
Jones argues that in truth, ‘the myth of the classless society gained ground just as society became more rigged in favour of the middle class. Britain remains as divided by class as it ever was.’ He makes a persuasive and at times exhaustive case, but it begins to lose its way when trying to explain support for the BNP in working class areas.
He rightly condemns Labour for abandoning communities like Barking and criticises liberal multiculturalism for ignoring class by descending into identity politics. But he is too quick to explain away the conscious racism that underpins minority support for the far right and at times embraces a simplistic economic reductionism that risks focusing on the grievances of the ‘white working class’ at the expense of other equally exploited and marginalised workers. Jones is also too ready to accept that the Labour Party remains the vehicle for a ‘new class politics’ that can mobilise the working class electorate, when the evidence suggests its only interest is in mild placation of its base.
Nevertheless, Chavs is a useful and informative book, not least because the wider left is ill-prepared to confront the open class hostility of the wealthy and powerful when it has no sizeable base in working class communities. Single-issue campaigns are important, but only if they become a stepping stone to a broader class-conscious movement.
Kevin Blowe is a community centre worker and activist in Newham, east London.