Archive for June 2011
If you are a Labour Party member and you back public sector workers who have been forced to take strike action by the Government, please sign below: just leave your name, CLP and any relevant position you hold. All signatures are in a personal capacity unless otherwise stated.
“As members of the Labour Party, we want to express our wholehearted support for our public sector workers who have been forced to take strike action by the Government’s unjustifiable attack on their pensions.
The Government has claimed public sector pensions are unaffordable. This is untrue. As the Hutton Commission Interim Report makes clear, public sector pensions as a proportion of GDP will fall over the next fifty years. The deal negotiated with the Labour Government and trade unions in 2006 ensured that public sector pensions are sustainable, saving the taxpayer £67 billion.
In reality, the Government is imposing a pay cut on public sector workers to help pay off a deficit they had no role in creating.
It has also been claimed that public sector pensions are “gold-plated”. This is completely untrue. For example, the average pension for civil servants represented by the Public and Commercial Services union is just £4,200 – or £80 a week.
The Conservatives’ other argument is that pensions in the public sector are much better than in the private sector. It is true that private sector pension schemes have gone into collapse over the last ten years. Two out of three private sector workers get no employer help in building up their pension. This is a scandal. But the Government’s argument amounts to supporting a “race-to-the-bottom”. Rather than dragging public sector pensions down, we should fight for decent pension coverage in the private sector.
Strikes are always a last resort. Taking industrial action is not a decision workers take easily. But we believe that the scale of the attack on public sector workers has left them with no choice. We fully support them in their campaign, and will do all we can to make sure that the Government is defeated on this issue.”
I’ve written a piece on BritainThinks’ report on attitudes to class in modern Britain; there’s others point I want to make, so I’ll cobble something more detailed together this week
“It’s not the existence of classes that threatens the unity of the nation, but the existence of class feeling.” Those words appeared in the Conservative Party’s statement of aims in 1976, just three years before Margaret Thatcher began to transform British society. The document’s authors would undoubtedly find much satisfaction in the complex and disturbing portrait of attitudes to class uncovered by the research firm BritainThinks in modern Britain.
The most striking finding is that fewer than a quarter of those surveyed define themselves as “working class”. The findings depend heavily on question wording. Ipsos MORI found that two-thirds described themselves as “working class and proud of it” in 2002; and the 2007 British Social Attitudes survey found that 57 per cent called themselves “working class” or “upper working class”.
In thirty years time, school kids studying history will be asked to answer the following question: “How did the British Conservative Party transform a private sector crisis into a crisis of public spending?” However it is answered, the maddening injustice of what the Tories are trying to pull off will scream through the ages. An economic collapse caused by neo-liberalism is being “solved” with the most extreme dose of neo-liberalism yet. A catastrophe unleashed upon us by a deregulated banking industry is being used to hack further chunks off the welfare state established by the 1945 Labour government. A nightmare triggered by the greed of the wealthy elite is being used to kick working people and the poor.
Resistance to this project isn’t just a right: it’s a duty. The last time the Tories won an election was 1992. I remember it well: I was 7 years old. My teachers all came to school dressed in black. The Tories lost the 2010 election, despite the worst economic crisis since the 1930s and a ludicrously unpopular Labour Prime Minister. They won just 36% of the vote, and – in any case – they did not put their extreme policies before their electorate. The government has no democratic legitimacy for what it is trying to do, and it must be forced to retreat.
That’s the moral case for resistance, if you like. But the political case is equally compelling. Unless the Tories are stopped now, there’s every chance their policies will remain in place for a generation or more. As Thatcherism forced Labour to capitulate to its key tenets, Cameronism wishes to do the same. The political consensus will be driven even further to the right.
Well, it’s been a hectic couple of weeks because of the publications of ‘Chavs’. If the book had one over-riding purpose, it was to be a modest contribution to kick-starting a long-neglected debate about class, as I wrote in a piece for the Indy.
Since my first update, there’s been lots of interesting stuff about the book – and themes of class – in the press. The Independent made it their ‘Book of the Week‘: Jon Cruddas’ review was very thoughtful and I’m glad he picked on the book’s key purpose – “to reintroduce class as a political variable.”
The Beeb had a really interesting and balanced overview of the word ‘chav’, featuring yours truly.
Suzanne Moore rightly called in the Guardian for the debate to be refocused away from simply debating the word ‘chav’, and back on to class.
In the Observer, Carole Cadwalladr had a brilliant piece looking at how the representation of working-class people on TV has changed.
In the Guardian, Lynsey Hanley wrote an extremely thoughtful, engaging review with lots of food for thought.
I wrote an article for The Sun – yes, really – about how working-class people are portrayed on the TV.
I was really pleased with Andrew Neather’s review in the Evening Standard, above all because he highlighted the book’s call for a new class politics.
In the Independent on Sunday, DJ Taylor backed my call for a national debate on class, although disagreeing with my own take – but of course that’s exactly how a debate will have to proceed!
On the other hand, libertarian website Spiked hated the book, although I was far from the only one amused by being portrayed as an apologist for Labour’s time in government (contrast with Cruddas’ criticism that “Apart from a fleeting aside about the minimum wage and public-services investment, there appears no redeeming element to 13 years of Labour rule”). The line that particularly made me spit out my tea was the revelation I was a “keen fan” of Beatrice Webb who – funnily enough – was savaged in an early draft for her eugenics.
There’s been some really interesting blog reviews too. Carl Packman, one of the cleverest and most thoughtful thinkers on the Labour left, had his take over at Though Cowards Flinch.
The prodigal Daniel Frost also wrote a fascinating piece over at ‘Musings of a Radical’.
I’ve started doing ‘Chavs’ events (which I’ll update asap) too. I was honoured to debate the book with Johann Hari and Suzanne Moore at the excellent Stoke Newington Festival last Saturday.
I’ve also done a lot of radio interviews and debates this week: a number of BBC local radios have been doing phone-in debates about class, which has been absolutely fantastic.
This week I’m doing Radio 2’s Nightwaves on Monday; the Jeremy Vine Show at 1pm on Wednesday; and Radio 5 Live at some point. I’ll try and keep it updated!
But above all I’d like to just try and encourage a debate about class, no matter how strongly that may mean people disagreeing with me.
Below is an article I’ve written for the Independent
Margaret Thatcher was nothing if not ambitious. As part and parcel of one of the most audacious attempts at social engineering in British history, her government set about stripping class – ‘a Communist concept’ – from the nation’s vocabulary. Even as wealth and power became increasingly concentrated at the top, the conspiracy to deny class has faced few challenges. Both New Labour and the Tories alike preached the myth that – as Tony Blair put it – ‘we’re all middle class now'”. Narrow definitions of ‘aspiration’ and ‘social mobility’ have encouraged the idea that being working class is something to escape from.
Things have begun to change: there’s nothing quite like an economic crisis to highlight profound injustices in the distribution of wealth and power. When the paypackets of FTSE 100 directors go up by a third, while the average working Briton suffers the biggest squeeze in living standards since the 1920s, denying the existence of class becomes a form of Flat Earth-ism.
That’s not to say class has been entirely squeezed out of the nation’s conversations, but it often emerges in a deeply pernicious form. A few years ago I sat at a dinner table surrounded by middle-class professionals when one quipped: “It’s a shame that Woolworth’s is closing. Where will the chavs buy their Christmas presents?” It’s a scenario that many will recognise. Chav-bashing by those from pampered backgrounds is a continuing national scandal and must be opposed. But – whether people use the word “chav” or not – there’s a deeply distorted, but entirely mainstream, view of class that must also be challenged. It was most eloquently summed up by The Daily Telegraph’s Simon Heffer: “Something called the respectable working class has almost died out. What sociologists used to call the working class does not now usually work at all, but is sustained by the welfare state.”
For the right, those outside the new supposed middle-class majority were the “underclass”, whose numbers were expanding because of supposed behavioural defects and the collapse of marriage. But New Labour’s spin on it – “social exclusion” – has had an equally damaging effect on the popular view of class. With class no longer an accepted way of describing divisions in society, those at the bottom of the pile were held partly responsible for their lot in life.
It’s a theory that’s trickled into popular culture. Take TV comedy: it either showcases nice middle-class people, like My Family; or, on the other hand, grotesque or one-sided caricatures of working-class people, like Little Britain’s feckless Vicky Pollard or The Only Way is Essex, which caricatures the supposedly “tacky aspirational” working class who can’t spend money with the taste and discretion of the middle class.
But the real working class – the 16 million manual workers, clerks and sales assistants who make up half the workforce – has been all but airbrushed from existence. Part of the confusion is down to the fact that the working class looks a lot different than it did thirty years ago. Before the Thatcherite assault on industry, more than 7 million worked in manufacturing; today, it’s little over 2.5 million. Instead of working in factories, mines and docks, most working-class people now earn their keep in call centres, supermarkets and offices. There are a million call centre workers: that’s as many as worked in pits at the peak of mining. A woman who works part-time in a supermarket is as good a symbol for working-class Britain as any: but she is all but invisible as far as our politicians, journalists and TV programme-makers are concerned.
Denying class has proved all-too-convenient in ignoring the concerns of working-class people. We don’t talk about the fact that people from unskilled backgrounds are ten times more likely to be unemployed than professional people or that five million working-class people are languishing on social housing waiting lists. Nothing makes sense without class. If we don’t talk about it, millions will remain disenfranchised, marginalised and ignored. Thatcherism closed the national debate on class: now is the time to re-open it.
My book ‘Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class‘, published by Verso, is now out. It’s a slightly bizarre feeling that it’s actually hit the bookshops – I started writing it back in December 2009, which now seems like another age. And I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t been a nerve-wracking few weeks: it’s such an important issue that it’s better not to write it at all than screw it up. (I hope I haven’t).
But so far so good. It was the Times’ ‘Book of the Week’ on Saturday although, I’m afraid, the review is behind the paywall.
Polly Toynbee talked about it in her column yesterday:
“A superb and angry new book, Chavs by Owen Jones, published next week, pulls together the welter of evidence on the demonisation of the working class. Read it for a strong analysis of the conspiracy to deny the very existence of a working class, even to itself. New Labour colluded with this vanishing act but Ed Miliband’s espousal of the “squeezed middle” may be tiptoeing towards giving a voice back to the great disappeared.”
And Michael White has also mentioned it in a piece on class on Monday.
You can also hear me debating with the Telegraph’s James Delingpole on whether posh people are an oppressed minority (yes, seriously) on BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme, broadcast on Monday.
Richard Seymour has also written a really fascinating piece on ‘chavs’ and class over at Leninology; and I’ve read an absolutely fantastic piece on ‘chavs’ and council tenants, written by two housing policy experts. Thoroughly recommended.
If you want to hear me rambling about the book, here are some upcoming events. My first event is at Stoke Newington Literary Festival this Saturday at 4pm at Abney Hall. I’m very privileged to be doing the event with the journalists Johann Hari and Suzanne Moore. You can book tickets here – and say hello if you come along.
Above all I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts on the book when they’ve had a chance to have a shufty. If this book has any purpose, it’s to get people talking about class again – however small my contribution to that will be.
And, finally, I’m writing a post later which will try to answer ‘is chav-bashing really attacking working-class people?’