It is rare for a book on class to gain as widespread media interest as Owen Jones has achieved with his debut. Ironically, it is Jones’ critique of the ‘chav’ stereotypes portrayed by the media from Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard to Big Brother’s Jade Goody
which has captured the imagination of headline writers and radio producers and given greater traction to this important exposé of the treatment of Britain’s working class at the hands of the establishment.
The most powerful voices in Chavs are those that rarely feature in a media dominated by Oxbridge graduates and middle-class urban professionals. From the residents in the former mining village of Ashington to the communities hit by the closure of Rover’s Longbridge plant in Birmingham, Jones gives a rare platform for those affected by social and economic turmoil to describe the impact on their lives, and he does so with great care and authenticity.
The author pulls no punches when it comes to apportioning blame on the political class for failing these communities. Just as Jones weaves the subject of his book into a social history of Britain, so, too, he moves seamlessly between Thatcherism and Blairism. If taken alone, this could leave the reader under the illusion that 13 years of Labour government were simply an extension of the Tory governments that came before.
But it would be a mistake for modernisers to junk an otherwise compelling insight into Britain’s working class and the powerful case that Jones, who hails from the Labour left, sets out with the aid of a series of case studies and interviews with a range of household names. Hazel Blears and Jon Cruddas make particularly thoughtful appearances to critique some of New Labour’s shortcomings.
In the 1990s, Labour’s challenge was to persuade middle England Tory voters that Labour could be a one-nation party for them too. In recovering from one of Labour’s worst electoral defeats in history, Ed Miliband’s challenge is not only to win back those voters, but to rebuild Labour’s working-class base. Jones’ book is an essential reader for those wrestling with the challenge of rebuilding a new politics for a Labour century.
Wes Streeting is chief executive of the Helena Kennedy Foundation and a Labour and Cooperative councillor in the London borough of Redbridge
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