Sunday, 10 July 2011

Chavs, the Mystery of the Disappearing Working Class, and Other Stories

Whatever happened to the working class? A new book by Owen Jones tries to find the answer...
A debate on class in 2011 seemed like a rather archaic idea. We all define one way or the other though, and I suppose I’m middle class, if anything. Two degrees, a good job and living in a nice part of south London. Tick. But my parents are from proudly working class backgrounds – born in council houses in which they stayed until adulthood before earning half-decent money. And like a lot of baby boomers, they bought their first house in their early twenties and have been propertied ever since. Neither have resisted the allure of foreign holidays or nice cars, and made sure that my sisters and I got a good education.

We didn’t miss out on working class culture though, as kids. To say that the older women in my family love bingo is an understatement, while my grandparents took us shopping at the Co-Op before it became fashionable. We loved Only Fools and Horses. And we always mopped up the gravy from our Sunday roast with bread from a sliced loaf.
"All the things that were off the menu for my grandparents are the very things I’ve benefited from growing up and in adulthood".
Taking the contemporary sociological understanding of class  – you may be born into one class but it’s possible to move up or down – means that defining myself as middle-class now makes a lot of sense. All the things that were off the menu for my grandparents are the very things I’ve benefited from growing up and in adulthood.

Is the concept of working class still relevant? Does it really matter how you identify? The last fifty years have seen the fetishisation of middle-class values, if not lifestyles, as incomes have gone up and education is seemingly more accessible. Yet the gap between rich and poor has become ever bigger, which means that the group of people in society who would traditionally define as working class have become ever more distant from an all-consuming middle class.

So I was intrigued by a Young Fabians invitation to a discussion between Jon Cruddas MP and Owen Jones, author of the recent book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. But first, a disclaimer. I haven’t read Chavs – although I’m planning on doing so – which means my thoughts on the subject haven’t yet been shaped by the book itself.

Cruddas claimed that Chavs had reinvigorated the debate about class, an area which Labour is revisiting as it seeks to redefine itself. “Working class” no longer had any positive connotations, as according to the pollster Deborah Mattinson at BritainThinks, we’re all middle class now – 71% of us in fact, while 24% still consider ourselves working class.
At the same time Mattinson asserts through her research that the working class tag has become an insult – or rather the derogatory insult ‘chav’ – a word that no-one really knows the origin of. “It just means being poor” according to one of the people surveyed.

For Jones, the marginalisation of the working class was at worst demonstrated through the media’s sweeping generalisations of poor people, as opposed to the educated, affluent journalists. Dewsbury, the West Yorkshire town where nine year old Shannon Matthews was abducted and later discovered 24 days later, was a “white underclass” – the “tip of the iceberg” for all that was broken with Britain. New Labour and the Tories alike have since been sucked into linking the deprivation of poor white working class people – Iain Duncan Smith linked the deprivation of Dewsbury with reforming social housing and incentivising tenants’ good behaviour. All this because of a mythical, feral, lawless group of people whose only crime was to be poor.

Save for a few irrelevant interventions on the merits of electoral systems – which the working class had already made quite clear it wasn’t interested in -  there were opportunities to be romantic about big, extended working class families of the past.  It’s the sort of thing that Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour harks back to, and not necessarily in a hopelessly nostalgic way. But these families broke down. The working class had been destroyed economically as some people became more aspirational. For those left behind, the BNP and the far-right moved in to fill the void vacated by a new, latte-sipping Labour party.

Owen Jones claims that as a result of all this breakdown, we’re all much more insecure. Really? I wondered what my 96 year old grandmother would make of that. She’s lived through two world wars, became a single parent at 44 and had to struggle to make ends meet for pretty much all of her life. OK, she coped well enough to save her pennies and still had enough left over for the odd coach trip to Great Yarmouth, or a chalet on the Isle of Wight. But if anyone was ever insecure on low-wage, arduous work, benefits and the state pension, it was people like her. The point is, while old social structures have gone and jobs have changed, people are still better off than they ever before – there is more support and security for people now than at any time in history.
"Are there really still people who have never set foot in a branch of Iceland in their lives?"
The working class thing is still novel for some people though. One woman at the event talked about the “culture shock” of working alongside working class people for a whole two years. In 2011, I thought, are there people like this, who have probably never set foot in a branch of Iceland in their lives really so far removed from those who struggle to survive on a daily basis? I rolled my eyes in the direction of our principal speakers for the evening. Maybe they were just being polite, but they seemed to have glazed over. Maybe the middle-class spectrum is so wide that the two sides of it hardly ever see each other, let alone understand each other.

I doubt Jones’ book has been staple reading for the people who go to Britain’s bingo halls and bookmakers. It’s been book of the week for the Times and Guardian and has received favourable write-ups in the rest of the quality press, but it probably doesn’t tell us anything about the gap between rich and poor that we don’t already know. It could just be a sure sign of modern middle-class attitudes – that we’re still fascinated by the cultural and economic horrors of those less fortunate than ourselves. But whatever it is, I’m looking forward to reading Jones’ book myself.

This post was originally published on hackeryblog.

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