“A surge of right-wing populism, mass political alienation, cynicism and apathy could have devastating consequences for British democracy. It is not just the future of the working class at stake.” – Owen Jones
Before picking up this book, I knew it was going to be a struggle to read. Coming from a very working-class town, I am more than familiar with the chav stereotype. I read Chavs with two of my friends, Rachel and Lauren, and we all seem to feel the same political rage when we read each line of the book.
Middlesbrough was crowned the worst place to live in an infamous episode of Location Location Location in 2007. In 2016 we were the worst place to live if you are a girl. Discouraging figures; yet where is the influx of support and finance to improve the town?
Both studies failed to highlight the growth the town is going through. It failed to mention the North does not seem to exist past Leeds. The 2016 study failed to acknowledge the achievements of women from Teesside. The girls who get into university, become scientists, run a business, learn a trade, finish school…the list is endless. Of course there are many alarming issues that need to be addressed but the media points the finger at the wrong people. How can you change your community when you barely exist in the eyes of the government?
Jones highlights the sheer inequality working class Britain face from middle and upper-class politicians. The class system apparently no longer exists yet we should all aspire to be middle class. We should laugh at the idea of council estates and assume everyone who lives on them is Vicky Pollard.
The media’s portrayal of working-class communities is one of the most alarming and disturbing. Jones explores Shameless, Little Britain‘s Vicky Pollard, and Catherine Tate’s comedy sketches. I noticed in these programmes the aim is to laugh at you and not with you. As a working-class person laughs at the ridiculous caricatures, they remain oblivious to the mocking value these characters actually represent.
Taking the case study of Middlesbrough, Top Gear visited the town to test if cars in an art gallery would attract more attention than the actually art. Instead of focusing on the art gallery’s assets, the show filmed a long ‘humourous’ piece where Richard Hammond is shouting people for directions by saying “excuse me, you in the tracksuit bottoms” multiple times. The show became less about cars and more about poking fun at the working-class or “chav” culture. As everyone in the film wore tracksuit bottoms, that seemed like plenty of evidence to suggest everyone in the town wears track suits as uniform.
The working-class are essentially “poverty porn”. The endless amount of programmes about people on benefits suggests no working class person has or wants a job. Shows like these help fuel hatred and further alienate a class of people.
“Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many – they are few!” – Percy Bysshe Shelley
Conditions of the working-class are often compared to nineteenth century work houses in both the book and in current media. The fairly recent Sports Direct scandal was often described as a Dickensian work setting. Jones mentions how the working class are censored out of novels and if they appear in a nineteenth century novel they are usually caricatures. Although this statement is true to an extent, I want to acknowledge the works of Elizabeth Gaskell, George Gissing, and several of the Romantics. Many nineteenth century authors cared about the portrayal of class. George Gissing’s The Nether World is a glum account of working class living – arguably too tragic – but it attempts to highlight the harsh conditions people have to face to make ends meet. Gaskell’s Mary Barton takes place in working class Manchester. The romance plot overtakes the political plot at the end of the novel; however, Gaskell does give some of her working class characters the happy ending of a society figure in a typical romance novel. The issue is not authors creating two-dimensional working class characters, but those voices being silenced from the literary canon created by middle to upper-class critics.
Moving away from media portrayals, Owen addresses the pay gap and how the loss of jobs make living near impossible. Job insecurity causes multiple issues from affording the rent, whether or not you can have a holiday, and the food your children eat. If fast food costs less than organic food and you have barely any money, you would feed your children the fast food. In some cases this can lead to obesity and other health issues but this is not due to laziness from the parent. Money, or lack of it, is at the centre of these issues.
With wages not being enough to live off and the introduction of shop apprenticeships so individuals can be paid even less, the future looks bleak for the working class. It is difficult not to get angry when reading this text as you realise this “middle class utopia” is actually difficult to reach for many. Instead of allowing people a better quality of living – and by that I mean afford to run a family and have a bit of money to spare – they are mocked for not affording middle class lifestyles.
Even since Jones’ 2016 preface, the political climate of the UK has changed rapidly. Since Brexit, the world has seen Trump’s inauguration and the rise of far-right parties across Europe. As mentioned in Chavs, the far-right seems appealing to some of the working class because it supposedly addresses them. Take UKIP supporters in the 2015 elections. The news showed Nigel Farage having a pint in a pub but that doesn’t make him “one of us”. He is using the working class as a stepping stone to get where he wants.
This was an amazing read and I could talk about the issues it addresses for days.
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