:: Article

Vox Populi, Vox Dei: Trapped Like A Rat in Dave’s Big Society

By Max Dunbar.


Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, Owen Jones, Verso 2011

You load sixteen tons, and what do you get

Another day older, and deeper in debt

Saint Peter, don’t you call me, I can’t go

I owe my soul to the company store

– Merle Travis, ‘Sixteen Tons’

There is a great book, that exists in potentia, called ‘How the Working Class Lost the Class War’. Owen Jones gives a devastating account of their defeat. As an Oxford undergraduate in the 2000s, Jones saw a speech by a moderate, senior Conservative politician.

So that he could speak candidly, aspiring student journalists were barred from reporting on the speech and we were sworn to preserve his anonymity. It soon became clear why. As the logs crackled in the fireplace on a rainy November evening, the Tory grandee made a stunning confession.

‘What you have to realise about the Conservative Party,’ he said as though it was a trivial, throwaway comment, ‘is that it is a coalition of privileged interests. Its main purpose is to defend that privilege. And the way it wins elections is by giving just enough to just enough other people.’

Jones makes a convincing case that what happened over the thirty years of doctrinaire monetarism was not just ideology, or the tide of economics, but actual class war. In Britain manufacturing disappeared faster than in any Western country at that time. We know from the Ridley memo of the early eighties that the government stockpiled coal so that it could kill the mining union, the great symbolic hub of working class power. Anyone who protested was character assassinated in Thatcher’s client media, and beaten up by a politicised police force on limitless overtime. As Baldwin said: ‘The Conservatives can’t talk of class war. They started it.’

The loss of the manufacturing base has left a hole in working life that hasn’t yet been filled. Today there are entire communities, like that in Morvern Callar, that revolve around the supermarket or the industrial park. Service sector jobs were less dangerous than mining or textiles, but the regimented monotony of the days brought a twenty-first century cruelty that in its own way mirrored the nineteenth-century workhouses. Paid overtime, free weekends, autonomy, job security, creativity, camaraderie, flexibility, professional pride: for the average phone monkey it is as if everything that made work worthwhile has just vanished into a forgotten past.

Jones’s book will destroy any illusions you may have about the dignity of labour. He has travelled to the country’s forgotten places (which is most of it) and interviewed checkout assistants and customer service drones. In a quiet, compelling narrative he lays out the reality of work as most people experience it: abuse from customers and managers, six-hour commutes, endless monitoring and self-monitoring, loss of social life, family life, faculties and privacy. Jones speaks to workers who have to put their hands up to go to the toilet (‘some people, like pregnant women, could really struggle to stick to that,’ a County Durham headset man says) in environments where a fifteen-minute early finish has to be cleared through head office.

It is compelling because the reality of labour is something that is not often portrayed by the little cabal that runs the UK’s news media. It’s a truism that the opinion formers of our country live in a gilded echo chamber where – in Nick Cohen’s marvellous phrase – half the people think that North London is the centre of the world and the other half think that North London is the world. ‘Johann Hari often asked other media people what they thought the media income in Britain was. The reply was always dramatically above the actual figure.’

The average wage is around £21,000. One senior editor estimated it at £80,000 – £80,000! England’s commentariat simply does not understand how little most people have to live on, that so many people have to work just to work. Even liberal journalists ignored the cities where everyone owes their soul not to the company store but to the payday loan company. Similarly, the growth of the exploited temp labour class and the boom in social overcrowding barely troubled national newsprint. If anything Jones could have gone further. He could have found four children sleeping in single rooms, and adults sharing beds with elderly relatives. This book could have been a Wigan Pier for the National Government years.

And there is no escape. The great professions – law, politics, journalism – are closed off to most people by the internship system. Social mobility is in fact closed off to most bourgeoisie, never mind workers. More and more graduates and postgraduates have joined former skilled tradesmen on the checkouts and headset hubs. There is a case for saying that ‘we are all working class now’ as more and more educated middle class people sink into proletarian levels of income. According to the stats, eight million people work admin or customer service, another eight million in manual work – more than half the workforce.

Still the class war continues. We have a cabinet of millionaires who give the impression that they all went to Eton, and secretly wish they were still there. Having decimated working class industry, the Conservatives now moan at working class people for being on benefits. Public money is being thrown at recruiting Job Centre Plus workers to hassle people into private sector jobs that don’t exist. People on disability benefit, some with serious medical conditions, are cleared for work on the basis of quack capability assessments. The link is to a case where a man with a heart condition collapsed and died after being put on a ‘work related activity’ course; I’m sure you could find many others like it. Things are at the point where JC+ staff are now, routinely, given pro forma guidelines on dealing with suicidal claimants.

George ‘Gideon’ Osborne claimed in his emergency budget statement that ‘there are some families receiving £104,000 a year in housing benefit’. When the Guardian phoned his department to check this figure, they were told that ‘We don’t have any figures on how many people are claiming that rate’ but that ‘a search of the Daily Mail and the Sun newspaper websites would throw up stories of people being paid the same if not more.’ This is what the Labour MP Karen Buck called government by anecdote, where policies that will affect literally millions of people are based on the Daily Mail web archive. They punish the powerless for the crimes of the powerful and still they are not satisfied. The Telegraph‘s personal finance editor recently argued, in all apparent seriousness, that unemployed people should be be denied the vote. This idea was endorsed by Benedict Brogan, the paper’s deputy editor, who has the ear of George Osborne.

And yet it’s hard to imagine a working class fightback on the level we saw in the 1980s. The UK proletariat has fallen to the corruption of defeat. It’s turned its back on the struggle for pay and conditions, and retreated into identity politics, double standards and self pity. Jones quotes the tax accountant Richard Murphy, who shows that tax fraud costs the UK seventy times more than benefit fraud. Yet it’s benefit fraud that excites people in Dewsbury and Dagenham. And the beserker over welfare fraud is nothing compared to the pathology about immigration. The working class rise up, not against the bankers and politicians, but against people as poor and marginalised as themselves. The nineteenth-century railroad baron and strikebreaker, Jay Gould, famously said ‘I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.’ He would laugh in his grave at working class Britons who will destroy each other for nothing.

The book is weakest when Jones swerves into cultural arguments. He gets his title from an insult and stereotype that was a big hit in the 2000s, largely because of the moronic and unfunny Little Britain variety show. Public schoolboys dressing up as working class women for the purpose of mockery is unsettling, Jones is right on that. And yet British entertainment would collapse without class hatred. There’s a great tradition of satires on the aristocracy, from Wilde, Saki and Wodehouse to Blackadder and Edward St Aubyn. Most sitcoms ridicule middle class workplaces (Fawlty Towers, The Office) middle class families (My Family, The Inbetweeners, Outnumbered, The Upper Hand, Friday Night Dinner) or middle class hipsterism (Spaced, Nathan Barley, Peep Show). The big working class sitcom is Shameless, not written by a giggling Hoxtonite but by the working class writer Paul Abbott, a man from Burnley, who based the characters on his own family. Jones complains that the series ‘fails to address how the characters ended up in their situation, or what impact the destruction of industry has had on working class communities in Manchester’ – perhaps because Abbott wanted to tell a story, not write a thesis.

There are a thousand holes in Jones’s premise that working class culture has been ‘demonised’. You could argue that working class people hate ‘chavs’ most of all, because they are most likely to have to live in an area dominated by antisocial, screaming yob scum. You could argue that working class people are not as oversensitive as Jones makes out. Throughout the 1980s you could see afro wigs at Amfield, in ironic homage to the Harry Enfield ‘Scouser’ sketch; as Irvine Welsh says, the working class does do irony, they just call it pisstaking. Even if you take Jones’s word for it that the working class are discriminated against in this way, what’s the solution? Should legislation be drafted to protect people from discrimination on the basis of class? Could Jacob Rees-Mogg sue the next person who laughs at his accent on Twitter?

We have to face the fact that there is a dark side to working class culture, and not all of it can be explained by Thatcherism. Commenters fall over themselves to downplay this dark side. When the BNP enjoyed electoral resurgence in the 2000s, liberal and conservative pundits turned Occam’s Razor on its head to justify its percentage of working class voters. It absolutely could not be that a small, but significant percentage of working class people voted BNP because, like the BNP, they were racist. BNP voters had been traumatised by multiculturalism, the loss of communities, the decline of family life, the rise of the career girl – anything but the fact that some white working class people did not like people with dark skins. The attitude to working class racism is too often ‘Oh they’re very disadvantaged, they don’t know any better, poor things.’ It’s not good enough.

This is also the reason I feel uncomfortable with Jones’s lament for the lost, close-knit working class communities. I know many people who grew up in small working class towns. They escaped to the city as soon as they could and are not going back, thank you. There is a dark side too to small towns where they all support the team and many working class people will, I know, choose the rootless and cosmopolitan and multicultural city, for there are many things worse than pretension.

Finally, you cannot afford to ignore servility. I remember being a barman and arguing with minimum-wage waiting staff who would defend extravagant bonuses for worthless Cityboys. On a recent Question Time, the government’s economic strategy came under discussion and an audience member got up and told the panel: ‘As an unemployed man, I know that people cannot live beyond their means.’ He went on to praise the government’s brutal cuts programme and I thought, watching this: Dear God, our country is doomed, absolutely doomed.

The will to power is only as important as the will to submission and many slaves learn to sing in their chains. Servility too is a powerful thing. Underestimate it at your peril. I don’t want to be too harsh, there is always the possibility that all the muscle and blood of the working man will again rise. But it’s a possibility, nothing more.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, June 5th, 2011.