Chavs

After last week’s review of The Iron Lady, the recent biopic of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, this week we look at a book that takes a more critical look at Thatcherism.

Owen Jones’ book, Chavs -The Demonization Of The Working Class, is a timely reminder of why Thatcher is particularly unpopular in many former industrial towns that suffered the results of her policies on both jobs and communities.

Jones focuses on the working classes and how they’ve not just been forgotten over the last 40 years, but how successive governments have convinced the public that they no longer exist. Instead we have the mantra that we’re all middle class now and those who fail to ascribe to middle class values or are unable to find a job to move beyond the benefits system are damned as an underclass.

The word for this underclass is chav. Jones attempts to unpick how the term has become socially acceptable and assesses what its widespread use says about us as a country.

For example, he compares the media’s reactions to the disappearances of Madeleine McCann in 2007, the doctors’ daughter who was taken in Portugal, and Shannon Matthews who was taken from Dewsbury in West Yorkshire in 2008. Some £2.6m was raised for the safe return of Madeleine whereas the initial search for Shannon only got £50,000.

The media ultimately turned on the parents of both girls, but when it was revealed that Shannon’s own mother had arranged her kidnap, he provides countless newspaper stories presenting Shannon’s mother as embodying all that was wrong in working class communities and council estates, rather than one woman with a twisted mind.

The reason for this, he argues, is that the media, like politicians and other professions, has no concept of what it means to be poor and no understanding of what it’s like to live on council estates. Crude caricatures like Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard are how many of us imagine people on council estates to be.

From a housing perspective the book makes a typical stab against the Right to Buy scheme which depleted social housing by incentivising tenants of council homes to buy them.

Although pre-Thatcher there were fewer than 75,000 council houses a year built, by 1999 this had dropped to just 84. But Jones makes a convincing argument that it’s the failure to build enough properties, coupled with not enough jobs for low-skilled workers, that lies at the heart of many of today’s social problems.

This is no one-sided polemic – Jones speaks to politicians from both ends of the political spectrum and gets some interesting observations of the class divide and housing issues.

Asked why council houses were left to rot and nothing was done to alleviate the housing crisis, Labour MP and former secretary for communities and local government Hazel Blears says there was prejudice against local authorities doing anything and allowing them to rebuild housing stocks was a low priority.

Then she admits no-one in the Labour government was interested enough in housing. Unfortunately, this seems to have continued in this government.

Jones gives an easy-to-read analysis of class in the 21st century and how working classes have been marginalised.

Many have warned that last summer’s riots were just the beginning and Jones’ book expertly describes what lies at the heart of much of the current social unrest within the country.

Book review by Robert Thickett