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28 July 2011

Interview: Owen Jones

We talk to the author of "Chavs: the Demonization of the Working Class" about phone hacking, Ed Mili

By Androulla Harris

How widely used is the term “chav”?

I didn’t want to get bogged down with the etymology- which is cheeky because I’ve whacked “Chavs” in big black letters on the front cover of the book. I was looking more at the caricature, taking the idea that we’re all middle class apart from this feckless rump who are working class.

No one self-identifies with the term, some people say, “I’m a chav” as a joke- it’s not a subculture- and because of that it’s a horribly versatile word. It is still in broad circulation and the problem is that it’s often used in such a class loaded way. It’s the idea of the caricature that I have a problem with, it’s a symptom rather than a cause of an attitude.

How fair is it to see the book as a damning verdict on New Labour?

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To a large degree it absolutely is… Under Thatcher you had 4 million people unemployed, the systematic destruction of communities reliant upon industry and an explosion of poverty….You didn’t have the same things under New Labour, but those wounds were not reversed properly. Poverty remained higher than in most Western European countries… In terms of people’s attitudes, there was the sense that if even Labour won’t make the case about poverty and inequality, who will?

Do you think that there is an appearance of choice rather than a meaningful choice between parties?

I would always say that the worst Labour government is better than the best Conservative government. Tory governments always make the last Labour government look like a Socialist utopia in comparison- I think that’s stretching it… Labour tried to humanise, but broadly accepted [the Thatcherite consensus]. New Labour’s investment in public services…didn’t create a new consensus because all of that public spending has been trashed since they lost the election. The Labour party didn’t leave anything permanent behind apart from social tolerance on things like gay rights, which would have happened anyway [otherwise]…we would have been out of step with the entire Western world.

Could Ed Miliband lead a breakaway from the Thatcherite consensus?

I always avoid this “great man” view of history, where political change plays out like a soap opera at the top. Just like Blair didn’t create New Labour… if it wasn’t Blair it would have been someone else. Ed Miliband is susceptible to pressure from below. The problem is that the Blairites are still really powerful at the top and there isn’t a coherent and organised counterveiling pressure. It’s up to the left to start mobilising and organising. But I think David Miliband’s defeat certainly opened new opportunities which the left of the Labour party haven’t had in a long time.

You advocate a new class politics to counterbalance the influence of the wealthy, which could make a “society based around people’s real needs…feasible once again”- when did this stop being feasible?

From the late 1970s onwards with the rise of the New Right and the defeat of the labour movement…which led to defeatism and pessimism. After the Miners’ Strike there was a sense that if the miners can’t win, who can? The Soviet Union’s collapse dramatically shifted left movements towards the right across the world. By the end of the 1980s the idea of any alternative to free-market capitalism was completely discredited and that hasn’t changed since, despite the huge economic crisis. All economic crises have tended to benefit the right. In the 1930s fascism benefited in Western Europe and the British Labour party was almost wiped out. Thatcherism and Reaganism came out of an economic crisis.

Why do you think that the bankers’ responsibility for the economic crisis is not a more widely held public concern?

It was a stroke of genius on behalf of the Tory party and its allies which turned a crisis of the private sector into a crisis of public spending, because there wasn’t a strong left to challenge that in any meaningful way, they got away with it. The Labour leadership certainly didn’t. Despite the fact that there was state intervention on a massive scale, they didn’t make any kind of ideological case for it… [there was] the sense that the government was forced to act against its will. The deficit obviously caused by the banking crisis became, “Look, Labour spent too much.”

After the election of Cameron’s government there was this idea that people won’t resist; the hot-headed Greeks and French, they go out and fight. In Britain we had the student movement and rumblings with the union movement. If that can be combined with an alternative case that challenges neo-liberal capitalism, there’s a chance that we can shift to other possibilities which haven’t had an airing for a long time.

Did your experience of studying at Oxford University sharpen your awareness of class inequality?

Massively. I grew up in Stockport but had a very different experience there compared with my friends. My dad worked for Sheffield Council and my mum taught IT at Suffolk University. Virtually none of my friends nor their parents went to university. Their parents were often out of work or if they were in work, it was quite insecure or low paid. I was always aware of that contrast, but when I went to Oxford it was a bizarre turnaround… I remember someone I met, who was from a private school and had gotten into Oxford after being rejected once before, said to me, “The reason why people from comps like you are getting in, is because there are quotas”… It’s the naivety… some people had never mixed with people from a different background. It’s easy in that situation for these stereotypes to have fertile soil. I came across people who just weren’t aware of the odds stacked in their favour… That was when I really thought about class.

What would it take to change the hugely disproportionate ratio of private school to comprehensive school students at Oxbridge? Is the selection process at fault or are deeper social problems to blame?

I wrote an article which didn’t go down that well with some people, where I suggested that the Oxbridge system needed to be abolished. I’d get rid of private schools, or at least remove the charitable status from all private schools. It’s outrageous that they have tax exemptions- they are pillars of the class system. Also, there should be a lottery system in every area, with students randomly sent to a school so you don’t have manipulation of the school system by middle class people.

Often Oxbridge’s admissions process is very proactive in terms of trying to get people from comps to go. Lots of very bright people who I knew from home would never have wanted to go to Oxford. I think Oxbridge should have an automatic enrolment for the brightest working class kids. If you’re from an ex-mining community with mass unemployment, no one in your family has gone to university and you got an A and 2 Bs at A Level, that’s a far better result than if you went to Eton and got 4 As. I don’t like the idea of Oxbridge being a training ground for the establishment- it should be broadened out so you see a layer of top universities.

In your book you look at the case of Shannon Matthews and the right-wing tabloids’ keenness to find the most gruesome stories. Were you surprised by the recent phone hacking scandal?

There are systemic problems in the British media on a number of levels. When people speak of a free media they mean one which is free of direct government interference. But it’s not a free media, because it is run by oligarchs with very political agendas. What we saw at the end of the 1980s particularly, was Rupert Murdoch crushing the print unions at the Wapping dispute, which made it much easier to have control over journalists. They could be more easily bullied into doing things which were completely immoral. That’s partly what you see with the phone hacking, the fact that you’ve got… a total violation of the NUJ’s code of conduct. We have a media which is a power within its own right, a pillar of the establishment which is operating above the law, effectively.

How could the media be regulated without constraining its freedom of expression too far?

There should be one newspaper one owner, so you can’t have a concentration of ownership which allows wealthy individuals to have disproportionate influence. That’s what Murdoch’s empire has done, it has corrupted and subverted British democracy. Unionisation has to be encouraged… If you have strong unions willing to stand up for workers, then journalists can say, “I went through this without fear of being sacked.” I think that would help change the balance of power within the media. I’d like a media where there are readers’ representatives on newspapers boards who have a say.

You raise the idea that in our society, aspiration has come to mean an acquisitive and individualistic desire to become middle class, rather than a communitarian goal. Has this meaning of aspiration been absorbed by the working class as its own?

Civil servants who recently went on strike to defend their rights against pay cuts showed a form of collective aspiration. It became frowned upon in the 1980s when collective institutions came under attack…the idea of collective aspiration seems impossible. Seeing the trade unions as something which can improve your lot seems unrealistic, especially because in the service sector they don’t exist…it seems like the only way you can get on in life is by you individually pulling up your bootstraps. Whether or not people have embraced it, some have, for others it just seems like the only option…it’s very widespread.

“Chavs: the Demonization of the Working Class” is published by Verso (£14.99).