Owen Jones, whose recent book Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class has been making some waves, shares his thoughts with The Third Estate.
The Third Estate: You’ve said before, Owen, that the reason you wrote this book was to get a debate going about class; do you think that’s been successful, is this becoming more a part of political discourse?
Owen Jones: Yeah, I think what’s interesting about the book is – even if it had been released three years ago it wouldn’t have got even half the reaction it’s had. I think class crept back on the agenda, and I think that’s to do with partly the recession because that really focuses peoples’ minds on unjust distributions of wealth and power in society; that orindary working people are being hit very hard and people at the top, well, their wealth is continuing to boom at historically unprecedented levels.
Also there’s other things, like we’ve got a government full of Old Etonians in power and I think that’s focused peoples’ minds on class divisions, because for a long time the idea of there being any class divisions was almost airbrushed out of existence by New Labour and by Thatcherism. So, I was taken aback by the response to the book, I have to say, I didn’t expect it to have as much of an impact and, as much as I’d like to take the credit for that, it’s got nothing to do with me or the book per se, because I think there was an appetite for a debate about class and this was just a prompt.
So, in that sense the debate’s been brilliant. Obviously not everyone agreed with me but that’s how you have a debate, and I think the best part of the debate is people talking about their own experiences, and I’ve found that doing these speaking events where people will talk about their experiences, their backgrounds and just getting that, people being able to talk about that in the open, is great and that was the aim of the book. Actually getting people to buy the book was actually secondary to people just having a debate about issues to do with class. So, yeah, that’s happened, and that’s fantastic – though not down to me.
TTE: Yeah, once the banks started going down it did become almost offensive not to talk about the fact that there are rich and poor in society.
OJ: It was impossible to ignore the fact that there was inequality – during the New Labour period the inequalities that exploded under Thatcherism carried on. You know, Peter Mandelson famously said we’re relaxed about people becoming filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes -
TTE: Which largely they didn’t.
OJ: [Laughs] Well, no: the top 10% pay less tax as a proportrion of their income than the bottom 10%. And Tony Blair would say that if David Beckham gets richer, he had no problem with that. So that idea of inequality being acceptable was something which New Labour certainly bought into. But I think what changed in the dying days of New Labour was that class did reemerge, but it reemerged in the form of ‘the white working class’, and that happened when the BNP were breathing down the necks of New Labour in constituencies like Dagenham, Stoke on Trent. And it became this racialised form of class. So, as I say, the recession did focus peoples’ minds in terms of looking at inequality through the prism of class. Because people looked at inequality through the prism of race or gender, and it was class that got shunted to one side, and I think that has reemerged now.
TTE: Yeah, that’s an interesting point you make because, obviously, class [rhetoric] didn’t go away. So, whenever some social democrat would say ‘Oh, inequality’s far too high’ they would be declared ‘class warriors’ for proposing really moderate social democratic policies. And there was also the ‘politics of envy’.
TTE: If you were complaining about the fact that there are 22 millionaires in the cabinet, it was just the politics of envy; you’re just envious of the fact that David Cameron went to Eton through his own hard work, and that sort of rubbish.
But you mentioned the working class becoming ‘the white working class’, it just reminded me of this: there’s an amazing quote [in the book] – because it isn’t just the right wing pushing this anti-chav agenda – by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. Because it’s analyzed through race, and because the white working class is presented as obsessed with race, if you have a go at the white working class you can still be progressive. And she’s just got this horrible quote: “Tax-paying immigrants past and present keep indolent British scroungers on their couches drinking beer and watching TV…We [immigrants] are despised because we seize opportunities these slobs don’t want.” Now, that’s pretty shocking, because it’s liberals who basically should know better.
OJ: Yeah, exactly. Well, just in terms of the first point you made outrage about envy, that sort of thing: in this country, to even – and that’s a result of Thatcherism – to even question the privileges of the wealthy and, well, capitalists is like taking a stick to a hornets’ nest. You know, the 50p tax -
TTE: Which was presented as an attack on the middle class [by the media].
OJ: Yeah, which is ludicrous because it affects the top 2% of the population. That was one of the most popular policies, according to polls, introduced by New Labour and all the media united in opposition to it. What I call ‘liberal bigotry’, and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is an example of that – it’s interesting, because you also get liberal bigotry used against muslims, that’s another example. ‘They’re all bigoted’, therefore they’re fair targets for us to attack. And some of the chav-bashing was the same kind of thing. They don’t subscribe to – supposedly – liberal values, they’re racist, they’re bigoted etc. And it’s not just people who think they’re on the left, you get often the Telegraph talking about, you know, ‘hard working immigrants’ compared to our lazy, feckless benefit cheats.
TTE: You interviewed David Davis, and there’s a really awful quote in which he was talking about the Evan Davies show When The Immigrants Left. He was talking about some of the white British workers who were offered a job picking squash for minimum wage and he said ‘they won’t do it!’. Well, would David Davies pick squash for minimum wage? No he wouldn’t.
OJ: Well his argument was that people are unemployed because they’re feckless, and that immigrants who come to this country are taking jobs which lazy people refuse to do. I mean, it’s a ridiculous argument because there are less than half a million vacancies in this country and there are two and a half million people unemployed and another million people on incapacity benefits who the government think should be in work.
You know, Iain Duncan-Smith talked about Merthyr Tydfil, a Welsh town very badly hit by deindustrialisation in the 1980s and he said ‘why don’t they just get on a buss to Cardiff, it’s only an hour away?’, and then it was found that for every nine jobseekers in Cardiff there was one vacancy. So, this idea is, I think, very dangerous because it fosters divisions between immigrant workers and British workers who, I think, have common interests and playing divide and rule in that way is a very dangerous game to play. The fact is there is a lack of good, decent, secure jobs. And if you think about fruit picking, well, that’s a seasonal job, that’s not a long term solution for anyone. So, in those communities, as a result of the government he supported in the 1980s a lot of secure, middle income skilled jobs vanished and nothing really replaced them.
The fact is there aren’t enough jobs, regardless of their quality, there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around. But there is an argument to be made about the fact that a lot of work in this country is, well, very bad. In the sense that it’s not enjoyable. At all. So, call centre work: there are a million call centre workers, as many as were miners at the peak of the mining industry. And people are forced to sit in rows, they can’t talk to each other, they have to put their hand up to go to the toilet in some cases, they have to stick to a script, they get abusive customers, like four or five every day, and it feels very dehumanising. And I think the point there is to transform those jobs so people actually have power over their own labour but also to acheive dignity, basic dignity in work.
A lot of [industrial] jobs – though not to glorify them, often they were backbreaking, dirty jobs and so on (which mostly men did) – were jobs which had prestige, they were well-respected, people were proud of them and the jobs that replaced them often don’t have that at all. You know, they’re tedious, they’re dull, they don’t have any sort of community about them, there’s often very little dignity involved in those jobs. So this idea of just forcing lots of people off benefits into lots of really low paid, bad jobs which they’re not going to enjoy is something that should be resisted and we should campaign for not just jobs but good jobs.
TTE: Absolutely. If we could just return to call centre work, because this was an amazing part of your book. I obviously imagined that working in a call centre wouldn’t be too fun, but, we’re talking about really quite Dickensian conditions here. I mean, people are really psychologically affected by it. There’s a huge drop-out rate, peoples’ voices are often shot after a couple of years and, again, just that sense of being dehumanised. I think one worker you interviewed compared it to being like a battery farm chicken.
OJ: ‘A battery farm chicken’, yeah. I think that’s exactly how it feels for many people working in call centres. This has exploded in terms of jobs; I think it’s doubled in the last ten years or so, often in ex-industrialised areas. There are comparisons to be made, I think, with factory conditions in the late nineteenth century. People working in solitude, not allowed to talk to each other – that’s discouraged often – and very little autonomy over their own person, working for long hours and with, as I say, going to the toilet something which is frowned upon.
From the left’s perspective, there are positives in terms of organising workers. Call centres, because of the nature of having large numbers of people concentrated in one area, often doing very dehumanising work, at least that provides hope for actually organising those workers and more rights at work and better wages. Again, those comparisons have been made with the late nineteenth century and I think they’re absolutely valid.
TTE: So, what do you think are the prospects for private sector unionisation at the moment. I think the number’s something like 15% of private sector workers are unionised -
OJ: 14%, it’s gone down to 14% now, but what’s even more disturbing about that, as someone from the TUC told me, 11% of that, so 11 points of that, is made up of ex-public sector workers who have been contracted-out or privatised. So that suggests that, actually, levels of union membership in the private sector are virtually non-existant in any meaningful sense. Union density is very very low. I mean, USDAW [Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers] can say as a union that they’ve expanded, but the only reason they’ve expanded is because the number of people working in supermarkets has trebled since 1980. In actual fact I think the number usually hovers around 8-10% of supermarket workers who are in any union at all, which is incredibly low.
There is a problem with community; it’s difficult to have a community based around a call centre or supermarket. Work is often more transient, there are more temporary workers now, part-time workers, all that makes it difficult to organise, it also makes it feel more fragmented, there’s a big turnover of staff. And, that does make for a more atomised existence. It doesn’t foster the same sense of solidarity, natural, organic solidarity that old industrial jobs certainly did foster. That does pose huge challenges for the labour movement.
That’s why, for me, the labour movement needs to have a new way of organising. That’s what happened with New Unionism at the turn of the twentieth century, in terms of going from [organising] skilled, relatively well-paid craft workers to organising unskilled workers. And that has to happen again. There has to be a big push to get service sector workers into unions because otherwise, well, frankly it’s a matter of survival for the trade union movement; the trade unions’ future is finished unless it does that. Because the public sector’s about to be attacked very savagely and that’s the stronghold of the union movement. So, the future of the labour movement is very bleak. Union officials say privately that they think – what is it now, 27% union membership overall? – because of these cuts it could go down to less than 20% in just a few years and then just go into freefall. The service sector is the new working class that’s expanding, and there’s been no, in my view, effective debate about how we’re going to organise those workers.
TTE: A lot of the book’s a history, and I was wondering if we could just deal with the ‘Winter of Discontent’. Whenever industrial action is threatened, paricularly by public sector workers, this is always used by the media and it’s a very powerful idea. So could you just address that, because we’re always going to have that problem.
OJ: Look, the Winter of Discontent was an avoidable set of strikes and they happened by the then Labour government attempted to make predominantly low-paid public sector workers pay for a crisis they had no role in creating, which is obviously very familiar. They went to the IMF to be bailed out with all those strings attached, and they were unnecessary because they were based on false, high estimates of the proportion of GDP that went to public spending, which was later revealed. And there was also the argument that inflation was caused by union pay claims, which is just not true at all; inflation at the time was general all over the western world, regardless of how strong the respective union movements in each country were. And there was a huge range of reasons for that, like the Vietnam war: the US government effectively printed huge amounts of money to pay for the war, without raising taxes, and that helped raise inflation everywhere.
So as the living standards of the unions members went into decline because inflation was around 20-odd%, they were actually just following inflation, rather than inflation being pushed by pay claims…There was massive frustration as a result of those strikes, but the point is that people were forced into them. I don’t know what else people are supposed to do when their living standards are in collapse because of inflation rather than have pay claims which are in some way at least linked to inflation.
The whole point about the Winter of Discontent is that it’s become a kind of right wing bad folk memory which is constantly used to terrify people about the unions, when that’s not even on the cards in any meaningful way.
TTE: Which brings us on to Thatcher, because as one of the interviewees in your book, I think someone from the Conservative Party, said, ‘the Thatcher government was basically the Heath government given a second chance.’
OJ: Yeah, that was Geoffrey Howe. Well the Heath government was defeated because of the miners’ strike of the early seventies. Heath went to the electorate during the strike, asked ‘Who Governs?’ and didn’t win the election.
TTE: Which was a hugely radicalising thing for Conservatives.
OJ: Yeah it was very radicalising for them. The miners were always the forward advanced guard of the trade union movement, and the Tories felt that they had to be defeated. So the fight with the miners was partly vengeance, because they felt that they were toppled by the miners, but it was also lesson to be forced on all trade unionists. And they prepared for that strike very carefully. They had the Ridley Plan, for instance, which made sure they were prepared for it as they weren’t in the early 1970s. And they wanted that strike and they wanted to defeat the miners to encourage that sense of ‘if the miners can’t do it, who can?’ And that had a crippling effect on the trade union movement.
And the way Thatcherism defeated the unions was through a series of set piece battles – the miners’ strike, earlier on the steel workers, then, of course, Wapping. Also, mass unemployment, because that terrifies people. It doesn’t make people more militant, people don’t go on strike under those conditions. And Sir Alan Budd, an advisor to Thatcher said later, made it clear that he suspected that ministers weren’t following his plans to curb inflation, but to increase unemployment.
TTE: And couldn’t you argue that a similar thing is happening now with the cuts agenda? Probably a lot of ministers don’t think at all that the cuits will actually decrease the deficit, but they know that it’s a brilliant way to attack the public sector.
OJ: Oh yeah. Look, there’s no question at all that the Tories are ideologically opposed to public sector provision, they want to open public services up to private companies -
TTE: And most of the Big Society contracts so far have gone to private companies., not charities.
OJ: Exactly, and that was always going to happen, and charities have actually themselves suffered because of withdrawal of funding and so on. And it’s also a way of destroying the public sector unions as well, which is an added bonus.
The Tories are profoundly ideological. I interviewed Niel Kinnock for the book and I asked him ‘Are the Tories the class warriors of British politics?’ and he said ‘well, they never had to fight a class war because we signed the peace treaty and didn’t realise that they hadn’t', which is a very revealing, damning comment about the Labour leadership to be honest with you. The Tories have fought a class war, and they’ve fought it very cleverly because they have to fight it within the context of a democratic system. That’s what they did in the 80s very effectively against a pathetic, divided opposition. And they’re doing it again even though they’ve not won an election for nineteen years, since I was eight years old. Even though they got only 36% of the vote, despite very favourable political conditions, they’re implementing a hard right wet dream.
Both Clegg and Cameron before the crash were talking about ‘big government’ and the ‘end of big government’, part of the Orange Book Liberal tendency in Clegg’s case. And, ideologically, both the Orange Book Liberals and the Tories want to dismantle the public sector as much as possible, and they’re using this crisis in order to do so, and to remodel British society. Rather like Thatcher; she said she wanted to create a new state of mind. She was very clear she wanted to change British psychology. This government wants to do the same, but it’s cleverer in some ways than Thatcherism because they talk in softer terms, they don’t talk in such an aggressive fashion.
TTE: It’s just struck me that we haven’t actually talked about chavs yet. Which is, after all, the title of your book – although it’s important to say that this isn’t just a book about chavs, it’s about the working class in Britain.
OJ: Well basically it’s challenging the idea that we’re all middle class apart from this feckless rump of the old working class. So the old working class has either become middle class or disintegrated into a chav caricature.
TTE: And I think we’ll have to leave it there. Owen Jones, thank you very much.
OJ: Cheers, thank you.
Owen Jones is the author of ‘Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class’, which is published by Verso.