Unquestionably the best book I’ve read this year is Chavs: The Demonization of the Working-Class by Owen Jones. I wish it wasn’t. I wish it was apocalyptic tripe based on isolated examples and as sensationalist as the press it hits out at. But it’s not. It hits the nail on the head as much as any piece of literature I’ve picked up, and that says it all about the state of the country and the destructive victory of Thatcherism.
It starts off with an anecdote that led him to write the book. Jones was appalled at a dinner party not so much at a ‘joke’ a friend had made but the approving, uncritical reaction. It was a multi-ethnic, mixed group where not everyone was straight, everyone would have considered themselves left-of-centre and none of them would have considered themselves bigots.
It got Jones thinking: how has hatred of working-class people become so socially acceptable? Privately educated, multi-millionaire comedians dress up as chavs for our amusement in popular sitcoms like Little Britain. Our newspapers eagerly hunt down horror stories about ‘life among the chavs’ and pass them off as representative of working-class communities. It seems as though working-class people are the one group in society that you can say practically anything about.
The book goes into great detail about the way policies of successive governments – Tory and New Labour – hit the working classes extraordinarily hard which I won’t go into too much detail about. Not only did reading it give me a feeling of depression, I several times felt a sense of guilt at my own reaction to big events in the news.
One of them was the Jade Goody racism row. I was an impressionable 13-year-old Big Brother viewer (mistake number 1…) when the media storm erupted following her arguments with Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty and had no sympathy with Goody. From day 1 of the first series she appeared in, the press set out to portray Jade as a ‘pig’ who represented Britain’s ‘underclass’, mercilessly ridiculing her for not knowing what asparagus was (the horror!). Tabloids ran headlines like ‘Vote the pig out!’ and ‘Ditch the Witch’! Yet what Jones called her ‘almost boundless honesty' gradually endeared her to millions and she finished fourth, gaining enough popularity to be called back for the celebrity edition in 2007, when the racism row erupted.
By the end, she was a hate figure receiving death threats after a row wrongly understood (by myself among others) to be fought on racial grounds. The tabloid press conveniently neglected to mention the class jibes Shetty had thrown at Jade in the build-up. The Bollywood star who’d had an upper-middle-class upbringing had suggested Jade needed ‘elocution lessons’.
She unwisely and unthinkingly made the racially tinged ‘Shilpa Poppadom’ reference, though even Shetty later said she ‘didn’t feel there was any racial discrimination happening from Jade’s end’. ‘Ultimately, we were fighting because we were from different classes’, Goody later described. By then it was too late. Not only was she under attack, but so was a whole class. Goody was 'held up as a terrible archetype of the white working class’, as Fiona Sturges put it. The press focused little on fellow housemate Danielle Lloyd calling Shetty a ‘dog’ who should ‘f*** off home’. It worked tirelessly to paint Jade as the villain and ‘proof of Britain’s underclass’. The level of abuse she got was unbelievable. That's not to say Jade didn't engage in what you might call bullying against Shilpa; but if she did it was with her mates Danielle and S Club 7 singer Jo O'Meara - who went almost without criticism compared to Jade - and not racist in intent. What's more shocking is the vilification in the media and the holding her up as an example of 'chav' culture.
Referring to Jade as ‘the coarse, thick, Bermondsey chav’, Spectator columnist Rod Little suggested that the cancer she was later diagnosed with had been invented by her publicist, Max Clifford. The Mail’s Jan Moir, notorious for her equally insensitive article following Stephen Gately’s death, moaned about ‘the ultimate chav state funeral’ held after Goody lost her battle with the disease.
The cruelty towards Jade typifies the attack on the working-classes that has gone on over the last few years. BBC comedies I used to watch like Little Britain and The Catherine Tate Show surely can’t be implicated in this. Oh no…
Protagonists are chav caricatures Vicky Pollard and Lauren Cooper. Jones writes: ‘Pollard is presented as a grotesque, working-class teenage single mother who is sexually promiscuous, unable to string a sentence together, and has a very bad attitude problem.' In one sketch she swaps her baby for a Westlife CD.
Surely this shouldn’t matter. Surely viewers know such characters are unrepresentative of working-class culture. But a majority of people working in television, according to a 2006 YouGov poll, thought Vicky Pollard was an accurate representation of Britain’s white working class. Yeah, but what about the other characters? I hear you ask. The Aga Saga Woman, the exaggerated upper-middle-class mum in The Catherine Tate Show, for instance. Everyone who watches it knows most upper-middle-class parents aren't like that. Yet most people seem to be under the impression that Vicky Pollards fill up council estates.
The perception of such characters being representative of working-class backgrounds is a gift for politicians (Tory and New Labour) who – to justify welfare cuts – claim most people on council estates don’t want to find work. Having seen uninterested, demotivated characters like Lauren who never want to work, viewers and voters genuinely think that is the case.
Jon Cruddas, who I don’t always agree with, thinks that 'the welfare debate is premised on the notion of “the mob that we have to control”, which is reproduced culturally through forms of representation of TV – the whole language around “chav”.' New Labour, through programmes like its welfare reform, has propagated the chav caricature by spreading the idea that people are poor because they lack moral fibre. If people observe that even Labour – a party born to represent the interests and needs of the proletariat – holds the less fortunate to be personally responsible for their fate, why should they think any different?
In part 2, I’ll stop and examine the specific examples of football and the music industry that Jones mentions, but for now my conclusion is as follows. Disregarding economics, society has progressed considerably in things like tolerance, with discrimination reduced. Racism is still too common (and still in football among other places) but something we’re generally taking on and fighting. The storm when Moir displayed such blatant homophobia in the Stephen Gately article and that a Conservative-led government is considering extending civil marriage to same sex couples shows we’re moving in the right direction with regards to eradicating homophobia. Sexism is still rife and something I still regard as a massive problem which we’re not tackling nearly well enough. But discrimination based on class seems without consideration, without sanction and without limit. I haven’t even mentioned the shocking statistics of things like how much less likely working-class people are to get jobs as lawyers, journalists, MPs and chief executives. Should we be bovvered? Yes.