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What ever happened to the chav? Owen Jones in conversation with Ash Sarkar

Over a decade after his seminal book Chavs was first published, Jones discusses whether – after Brexit, Corbyn, and Boris Johnson – his political thesis has withstood the test of time

In our new Class Ceiling series, we unpack how class actually affects young people today – from our jobs, to the way we have sex, to our general experience of the world.

For the first time in over a decade of knowing him, I’ve just seen Owen Jones stumped. Whether rallying the UK left, or going mano-a-mano with broadcasting giant Andrew Neil, Jones is someone who prides himself on having an answer to everything, even in the most hostile conditions. He’s been harassed by far-right activists, beaten up by homophobes, and boiled enough columnist piss on Twitter to power the national grid. But you still can’t shut the guy up. That is until we sat down to reflect on his 2011 book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, and I made him watch an FKA twigs video.

He leans forward in his seat, frowning a little as he tries to make sense of the images flitting past on the screen: twigs in a Burberry bikini, draped over a motorbike, in a carpeted living room. Are chavs back, I ask, only this time being celebrated at the height of art and fashion? Or is this a kind of middle-class cosplay, dressing up as a stereotype because it was never harmful to them? Jones rubs at the furrow in his brow. “Hmm, yeah, I dunno.” He grimaces, scouring his brain for a historical or political hook that could possibly make sense of what he’s seeing. “There’s a kind of reclamation you see with every oppressed group, like ‘queer’ for LGBTQ+ people, where they take the insults of the oppressor and spin them around. It’s an act of defiance.”

As twigs stalks a housing estate in the notorious beige check, pushing a pram containing a baby goat, Jones thinks again. “I mean, there’s not ridicule here, but it seems very stripped of social context.” In the 2000s, he explains, the symbols and tropes of ‘chavviness’ were laden with contempt. “I don’t know if she’s doing this, because I don’t know her,” he begins carefully. “But there’s a very old phenomenon of the privileged trying to wrap themselves in the clothes of those who aren’t privileged, and downplaying their backgrounds.” Jones flops back on the sofa and sighs. “This is my lack of cultural knowledge!”

For Owen Jones, Chavs was never really an interrogation of popular culture. It was part of his mission, as a young socialist in the pre-Corbyn wilderness, to popularise class consciousness. Between 2000 and 2015, the UK was in the grip of a moral panic about chavs: a Burberry-clad underclass of thieves, teen mums, and benefits cheats terrorising the nation’s shopping centres. It’s hard to remember now just how deranged the country’s political and media class were when it came to chavs. From Little Britain to Benefits Street, Tony Blair’s ASBO-crackdown and David Cameron’s “hug a hoodie”, the idea of a degenerate lumpenproletariat of wrong’uns was utterly pervasive in the decade following the turn of the millennium. The working class, argues Jones in Chavs, went from “salt of the earth” to “scum of the earth”. Ten years after the paperback was published, we met up to discuss whether – after Brexit, Corbyn, and Boris Johnson – his political thesis has withstood the test of time.

Ash Sarkar: Why did you write this book? Sorry, I made that sound really aggressive.

Owen Jones: Yeah, why the fuck did I write this shit?! I’d worked for a while for the Labour left in Parliament, for John McDonnell. And in 2007, our attempt to get him on the ballot paper for Labour leader failed. And that was a hugely crushing moment for me. I remember vividly Tony Benn rang me up on the phone about it, and he was like [unintelligible posh Tony Benn noises]. He was going on about Nelson Mandela being locked up, and how terrible it would have looked at the time, but history is full of setbacks. It might be miserable, but that doesn’t mean it’s over.

I was committed to the left, and trying to make the left a massive political force. So I was thinking “how can I popularise this?” I wasn’t convinced academia was the way forward. So then I decided the best way of getting left ideas out was to write a book and provoke a debate. And the whole point of Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class was that left politics, at its root, was class politics. Who’s got wealth and power, and who doesn’t. But my frustration with a lot of left academic books was that they were aimed at quite niche markets and weren’t read by the sorts of people who needed to read them.

Ash Sarkar: And also their idea of what constituted the working class hadn’t changed since 1957?

Owen Jones: Exactly. In that period, the whole idea of class had been erased from the public conversation. The whole mantra was, “we’re all middle class now”. And the old working-class have either become middle class, or it was this residualised lumpen rump and chavs was one way of describing that. So for me, it was like, well, class has been erased from public discussion. And you can’t have a revival of left politics without class politics. So I wanted to write a book which kind of pushed back at the idea that class doesn’t matter in society. I wanted to find a way of getting people to talk about class, to puncture that very hegemonic narrative at the time, that class distinctions and class inequalities aren’t how you understand society. Because that was the basis of New Labour: the working class are not an organised force capable of producing social change.

Ash Sarkar: I remember buying the book, and it had the Burberry cap emblazoned across the front of it. That image made the whole argument so tangible to me. Is that something you felt at the time, that as a country we talk about class as culture rather than as economics?

Owen Jones: The book was trying to pivot from the cultural understanding, which still remains, to an economic one. I quoted research by Deborah Mattinson – who’s now Keir Starmer’s chief strategist – in the introduction, which found that people’s understanding of being middle class was having a cafetiére. It’s this very cultural idea of “which newspaper do you read?”, or “do you listen to Radio 4?” But my understanding class is about your relationship to the means of production. The demonisation of the working class was based on cultural concepts: [they were presented as a] vulgar and consumerist working class, defined by everything from antisocial behaviour to being tacky. And part of it was racialised as well. You had Vicky Pollard in Little Britain...

Ash Sarkar: ...with her children of many colours! Because that’s how you knew she was “a slag”. If you have white kids, that’s one thing, but if you have mixed-race Black and Asian kids, you must have done something really bad.

Owen Jones: Exactly. And she swapped one of her kids for a Westlife CD. You had a poll of people in the cultural sector and the majority of them said she was an accurate depiction of the so-called white working class. What was so important about chavs was that they became the basis for very reactionary political projects. New Labour’s defenders argue that they shifted the political culture to the left. But by the late 00s, there was a vicious, obsessive anti-welfare onslaught in the mainstream media – and it was indulged by New Labour politicians. You had the rhetoric of Yvette Cooper and James Purnell, Tony Blair doing “face, bovvered?” with Catherine Tate. And the media offensive, as well as popular culture, were all in sync with each other. It laid the foundations for what then happened with austerity when George Osborne took over.

Ash Sarkar: Do you buy into this idea that there is a working class, and then an underclass? Or is that a wholly manufactured distinction?

Owen Jones: It’s manufactured... People on benefits generally are desperate, the majority stuck in a cycle of low-paid work, then being in a period of unemployment for a few weeks, and then back into low-paid work. This idea of a static, so-called “underclass” – which is basically generational welfare dependency – is just so marginal in society that it’s barely a social phenomenon worth interrogating. There’s not a huge group of people who, generation after generation, are just living on “state handouts” and all the rest of it. The way that class was understood [when I was writing] was that everyone in the so-called aspirational working class had become middle class. And those that didn’t were defined by fecklessness; they were just work shy. And actually, the majority of people remain working class, but the working class isn’t homogenous.

You’ve always had distinctions and contradictions within the working class. There’s a difference between rural and urban; there’s a difference between Scottish and English and Welsh; there’s a difference between big cities and small towns; there’s a difference between manufacturing and service; there’s a difference between those who are born here and those who are migrants. There are always these differences within the working class, but it’s far more porous and much less static than people would have believed. The post-1945 settlement was based on the idea that there were social injustices that needed collective solutions. That’s what the welfare state was about.

Ash Sarkar: But then Margaret Thatcher said, “actually we quite liked some of those five giants [five issues – want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness – that the government pledged to tackle after the Second World War]!”

Owen Jones: Yeah, we bloody love a bit of want! Margaret Thatcher said in the late 70s, that there’s no such thing as primary poverty in rich countries anymore. You’re left, she said, with the result of individual behaviour and personality defects, people not being able to budget. So rather than poverty and unemployment being seen as social injustice, due to the structure of society (which therefore needed a collective correction), these are individual problems, being encouraged and subsidised by the welfare state. And that’s at the height of mass unemployment. 

This demonisation is the ideological backbone of an unequal society, because there has to be a way of rationalising how inequality gets bigger and bigger. It’s fundamentally irrational that you have some people who have huge amounts of the wealth, which is created collectively, and some who don’t. And so they justify it and say, well, actually, those people are at the top because they work hard. They’re the best. And those at the bottom are there because they don’t work hard. They’re lazy and they’re feckless. Then, inequality just becomes a rational distribution based on your efforts and your intelligence and your worth.

Ash Sarkar: You don’t really hear the word chav anymore, and the symbols of chavviness – like hoodies and sportswear – have become the garb of tech billionaires. Even Riski Sunak wears a hoodie! What’s changed in how we think of class?

Owen Jones: What I warned about in the book was that class had been abandoned by the Labour Party, and that left the vacuum, which meant that a savvy right-wing populist could present itself as the champion of an abandoned and demonised working class. And it happened. The BNP won a load of council seats in Barking and Dagenham, and then later you get the UKIP surge.

What they did was try to re-conceptualise the working class. Not in an economic sense, but as a cultural identity. It was about a working class who was looked down upon by these metropolitan middle-class people for being vulgar, and not sharing their values on immigration, multiculturalism or patriotism. The middle class looked at these people with revulsion and disgust. And that is what happened: a particular type of liberal centrist remainer were often the most guilty parties. They talked of this racist, bigoted lumpen working class who basically brought Brexit on the country. Cynically, what happened was the right-wing stopped talking about these people as chavs, and actually try to present themselves as the champions of the downtrodden against the liberal metropolitan elite.

Ash Sarkar: Since Chavs was released, a lot has happened. There’s Brexit, Corbyn, the pandemic, and we’re now looking down the barrel of a generationally catastrophic cost of living crisis. Do you have any sense of how class consciousness, or our cultural idea of class, might be changing again?

Owen Jones: I think class consciousness is much stronger. And that’s why the right has made such a play in trying to tap into it, and redirect it in a very reactionary way. The problem is, after 2017, the culture wars were politically toxic for the left. Because what that did is redefine class: everyone was suddenly a Remainer or a Leaver, as though a young working-class Black woman working in a supermarket who voted to remain is in the same political coalition as George Osborne and Peter Mandelson. Or a former miner with a disability, who voted leave, has the same political interests as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson. That’s obviously complete nonsense, but that’s what the culture war does. We’ve got to fight against the attempt to permanently forge cultural identities that are intended to snuff out the actual reality of class division in modern Britain. And unless the left can formulate an accessible form of class politics – that resonates, that’s relevant to how society is actually structured, that people can identify with and then make that popular – then, unfortunately, we’re screwed.

But it’s interesting to see the rise of Sharon Graham [the General Secretary of Unite the union]. There is an attempt, within the labour movement, to try and reformulate a concept of the model working class. It’s diverse and multicultural, and we’re going to use industrial muscle to fight for its interest. Because in the political field, it feels like there’s no one willing to fight for them. There are promising elements that exist at the moment. When I grew up, the narrative was young people are apathetic and reality TV and playing computer games. Now there’s a level of politicisation which exists amongst younger people, because of their economic and material circumstances and their social values. And that can’t just be snuffed out.