Owen Jones is about ten years younger than me, but we both grew up in Stockport, him in Edgeley, me in Hazel Grove. Economically, Stockport ranges from extremely poor to extremely rich and we both grew up with parents working in reasonably (but not excessively) well paid jobs in the public sector, and seem to have both grown up with an awareness of social class and inequality, probably because of where we grow up and an awareness of those around us who were not so privileged. I remember this sense of variety being less obvious at junior school than at high school, possibly because at junior school the catchment area seemed a lot smaller, but also because my high school seemed to take kids from all over Stockport, plus some bits of Derbyshire and kids who’d been uprooted and moved from bits of Manchester and Salford. At sixth form college the net was cast even wider and we had a significant Derbyshire contingent as well as a large group of kids from Parrs Wood.
All of this seems very healthy in retrospect but, at the time, it did mean our high school was a seething mass of snobbery, elitism, bullying and territorial behaviour, both as a result of class divisions but also geographical territories. I didn’t go to under 18’s club nights in Stockport town centre in the early to mid nineties, but a classmate who did talked of those from different high schools standing in different corners, glaring at each other mistrustfully. Regular end of term rucks with rival high schools on school turf were also a curious tradition at our high school which, given the irregular nature of the buses, showed a certain degree of dedication if nothing else.
Owen Jones was the only child from his primary school to go to university but, unlike Owen, I went to an ex Poly, not Oxbridge. My mum had been to university as a mature student to train as a social worker, she had been to a grammar school. My dad went to a secondary modern before doing an apprenticeship. Both of them were lucky in their career paths and, as such, could afford to pay for me and my sister to attend university at a time when grants were being scrapped and tuition fees were being introduced. Both of us now have jobs in what would loosely be described as “the service sector”, and we both earn less than £20,000 p.a. We are lucky in that we like our jobs and find them rewarding, something of a minority view these days.
When I was a teenager, the kids who bullied you at school wore spliffy jackets, Joe Bloggs coloured jeans and listened to rave. They were called townies, they weren’t necessarily distinctive of a particular class, they were defined by fashion, music taste, and a perceived aggressive narrow-mindedness towards other teenagers who weren’t like them. They were the natural progeny of casuals and skinheads.
After them came scallies, whose very particular dress code included Lacoste sportswear, the trousers of which were tucked into Reebok sports socks, and Nike trainers. The style was widely believed to have derived from scallies in Liverpool, who had started the sock and trouser thing. Stockport still has scallies, but we never had many chavs, at least, by the strict stylistic definition: We had a severe shortage of people wearing Burberry. Possibly because I don’t think many local shops sold it.
Owen Jones’ polemic, Chavs: The demonization of the working class suggests that the term ‘Chav’ has been used as a term of abuse to label and demonize the working classes, and that politicians and the media – two professions dominated by the upper and middle classes – have been particularly culpable in this. In the course of his book he systematically interrogates every single statistic, accusation, slogan and stereotype, revealing a very different picture of the British working class.
Points he make include: The figures for benefit fraud are eclipsed not only by white collar crime, but also by the amount of benefits that those on low incomes are eligible for but do not claim due to the bureaucracy involved and fear of later re-payment demands when the goal posts are moved by the Department of Health, HMRC etc.
That the racialisation of the working classes into “White working class” rather than taking the working class as a whole, across ethnic divides, has encouraged the BNP and UKIP and given them a platform in communities that have long been Labour strongholds but who have long since lost faith with a party they feel no longer represents them: If disenchanted Labour voters in the D/E social codes had voted instead of simply staying at home in 2010, Labour would have won the 2010 General Election.
Some of the books findings are less surprising than others: that the media and politicians believe the average persons income to be around the £50,000 mark, and ‘middle class’ people to be earning £50,000 at least is relatively well known, and it does seem to be an attitude shared by the BBC and the broadsheets also. Still, its good to know that Jones has noticed this in that, he effectively re-defines the modern working class, challenging stereotypes and speaking to those who are labelled as well as doing the labelling. He also finds allies in surprising places, for example Rachel Johnson, editor of The Lady and sister of Boris.
Social commentaries, social histories and sociology from the late 1960s through to the mid 1980s were all full of discussions of the working classes but, as the 80’s ground on, class, also notions such as society and community, were subsumed by individualism and naked greed as the economy improved and council housing was sold off under ‘Right to Buy’.
Britain has yet to fully address the legacy of the 1980s and 1990s, politicians in particular seem incapable of taking the long view of anything: They will not look to the past and learn from it, and they fear the future and, as such, no government for the past twenty years or more has thought beyond eighteen months into the future. This is a legacy we will have to deal with one day, sooner, rather than later.
Had Jones’ book been published in 2012 rather than 2011, he would undoubtably have discussed the 2011 riots and, perhaps, the Olympics. So far as the riots in Salford and Manchester were concerned, TV footage showed white children and teens in hoodies and sportswear smashing and looting, or riding aimlessly on bikes. When the Manchester Evening News published mugshots of those arrested and whipped at lightning speed through the courts, the picture was decidedly more complex. True, about 90% of those arrested were white, but a surprisingly small group were under 18. The localities of those named and shamed in the mugshots also revealed that those taking parts in the Manchester rioting and looting were from all over Greater Manchester not just areas close to the city centre, or previous crime spots. This suggested all sorts of interesting possible reaons as to why people were in Salford and Manchester at the time, whether they had come in especially, or were simply around and got caught up in events: A significant number of those arrested were middle aged men in their forties or fifties, a number of whom were listed as having ‘no fixed abode’, whereas another participant was a university student from Marple. In the first instance, this suggests homeless people may have been involved in the rioting, in the second instance, a radical leftist student faction inspired post Millbank. Also mentioned was the amount of alchohol some of the participants had consumed (including the student from Marple) further muddying the waters. What Owen would have made of it all, I can only guess.