June 10, 2011 10:03 pm

Don’t look down

Children living in poverty

Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, by Owen Jones, Verso, RRP£14.99, 304 pages

The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, by Guy Standing, Bloomsbury, RRP£19.99, 192 pages

Collateral Damage: Social Inequalities in a Global Age, by Zygmunt Bauman, Polity, RRP£14.99, 224 pages

Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility, HM Government, April 2011

The Foundation Years: Preventing Poor Children Becoming Poor Adults, HM Government, December 2010

Social mobility works two ways. Among its other joys, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945) is a story of both the up and the down. Lord Sebastian Flyte, born to title, wealth and privilege, wastes his years at Oxford, descends into alcoholism and dies destitute in Morocco. Charles Ryder, from an arid middle-class home in Paddington, becomes an acclaimed society painter. It was then a common class shift: the aristos lose out, the middle classes – Ryder subtly, the arriviste Canadian Rex Mottram aggressively – win at their expense. The movement, well under way before the war, accelerated afterwards.

And not just for the middle classes. Britain’s postwar social democratic settlement, which Labour inaugurated and the Conservatives accepted for some 30 years, provided a comprehensive base below which no one needed to fall. The levelling of war had convinced all but the most reactionary that, as sociologist Zygmunt Bauman writes in Collateral Damage, “social rights are indispensable to make political rights ‘real’, and keep them in operation”. Organised labour grew more powerful; working-class and lower middle-class people lived better, more secure lives; and their sons and daughters were offered real education, using it to lever themselves up – sometimes far up – the social ladder.

That surge, along with the vast expansion of white-collar, service and professional jobs, has meant that where the manual working classes had, in the postwar years, still been some three-quarters of the workforce, they are now commonly estimated at less than a third. (If service employees such as shop assistants and call centre staff are put into the same broad category, the total rises to a little under half.) By the 1970s, social mobility had largely ceased; it probably resumed, at a low level, in the past decade but the relative economic grimness of our present and immediate future will likely choke it off once more.

 

Today the biggest social concern – even if it does not speak its name – is a class anxiety, and it arises from that stagnation and from the structural factors that have pressed down disproportionately on the working class in Britain and other rich countries. All three of the books under review see in the “new” poor – the underclass, the “chavs” – a terrible failure of the state, a threat to social peace. The writers are angered by this – an anger that leads them into excess but that in all cases is firmly based on an observation of the waste of human potential in the lives of the marginalised. One senses frustration that such inequity does not have, as in earlier decades it was deemed to, an answer – socialism.

Yet, as Bauman again remarks, while socialism and its short-cut, communism, have largely disappeared, the evils they set themselves up to extirpate have not: these include “a blatantly unjust distribution of wealth, widespread poverty, hunger, humiliation and denial of human dignity”. For economist Guy Standing in particular, the risk is clear. In The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, he warns of an “incipient political monster” that votes (where it votes) for far-right parties everywhere.

Those among the western working classes who constitute a more or less permanent underclass owe their fate, before anything else, to structural factors. It is worth putting this first, for – as former political researcher Owen Jones rightly stresses in Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class – many influential commentators, speaking for more people than care to say this publicly, believe that poverty is to a large extent the poor’s fault. I do not think, as Jones appears to, that they can never be in the least responsible for their condition.

But working classes are formed by those processes that produce what a society demands. When these change, the workers experience profound difficulties that may last a long time – certainly more than one generation. In Britain, the miners of Yorkshire, Durham, Wales, Scotland and Nottinghamshire saw the rapid loss of a relatively well-paid industry in a few years after the end of the 1984-85 strike. Towns and villages declined, men took less well-paying jobs, community solidarity all but disappeared, families broke up. It is not necessary – indeed, it would be stupid – to see a vanished proletarian paradise: miners themselves usually wished to see their sons do other work than theirs, exhausting and unhealthy as it was. But life after the pit has often been grim.

Grim, because the jobs are still grim: less physically taxing but more alienating. One of the strengths of Jones’s uneven book is his willingness to let people describe their work themselves. Carl Leishman has worked in a County Durham call centre for eight years and earns £14,400 a year. He tells of an environment in which there is minimal autonomy and where 4 per cent of the time is allocated to attend to personal needs. Workers cannot hang up, no matter how abusive the caller. “You’ll see quite often people in tears at the way people have spoken to them,” Leishman relates. They are “set in rows, which I hate ... It can sometimes feel very like a chicken factory, as though you don’t have too much control over what you’re doing.”

 

And that is for those in work. Unemployment, especially among the young, is by past standards high. It is now so ingrained in the industrialised economies that a large group has grown up, many millions in Europe, whose members work at best only sometimes, often part-time and usually precariously. In the UK, they have attracted the name “chavs” – pejorative, with associations of brashness and youth, but at times both used and fiercely guarded from others’ use by the group in question.

It is not clear where it comes from. The scholarly bet is that it derives from a Romany word for child, chavi, which came into the Tyneside dialect as charva; other suggestions include “council housed and violent” and “Cheltenham average”, apparently used by pupils at Cheltenham Ladies’ College to describe the town boys.

Jones lashes the middle classes for their use of the word and their insouciant ascription to this group of every kind of crude, violent, sexist and racist behaviour. He starts, mistakenly, with a middle-class dinner party at which a guest had said: “It’s sad Woolworth’s is closing. Where will all the chavs buy their Christmas presents?” This is a mistake because the middle-class dinner party is both an easy cliché and unattributable. If we’re going down the road of cultural denigration, we should start on firmer ground.

Jones does provide some of that: largely from commentators such as Simon Heffer, India Knight, Allison Pearson, Janet Daley and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, the last of whom believes that “tax-paying immigrants keep indolent British scroungers on their couches drinking beer and watching TV”. He cites Richard Hilton, chief executive of fitness chain Gymbox, who invited middle-class professionals to join and get fit so they could take on “chavs”; or Activities Abroad excursions, which promised a “chav-free activity holiday”. Campaigns against sexism and racism have made denigration of ethnic minorities, gays and women impossible in polite society; the working class, in the guise of “chavs”, remain a target. It is interesting and depressing to see all this – and though Jones bangs the nail in too hard, it’s worth banging.

The antidote is thought to be a revival of social mobility. In April, the British government produced a report on this, “Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility”, with a foreword by Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister. There was some fun to be had in pointing out that Clegg (Westminster and Cambridge) and prime minister David Cameron (Eton and Oxford), both sons of rich men, both with aristocratic connections, should so heartily endorse a strategy for the uplift of those whom their forebears might once have called “oiks”. But this is beside the point: the postwar Labour government of Clement Attlee (Haileybury and Oxford) was a great oik-raiser; and the Labour cabinet minister Tony Benn (Westminster and Oxford) was parliamentary politics’ most ambitious leveller. By contrast, David Davis, a Tory MP of working-class origins much quoted by Jones, is lukewarm on the issue. There is no reason why toffs cannot be as outraged by an unequal society as the lower orders and, in the nature of an unequal society, they are likely to be in a better position to do something about it.

Clegg believes that state intervention can mend inequality at any stage: “Lives are not determined by the age of five, 15 or 30,” he writes. Interventions include the provision of 15 hours a week of free pre-school education for all disadvantaged two-year-olds, on top of existing provision for all three- and four-year-olds; a Pupil Premium, worth an extra £2.5bn a year for the most disadvantaged pupils; and, for school leavers, the creation of more than 300,000 apprenticeships, while government will again attempt to cajole universities into taking more students from poor families.

 

In this, he differs significantly from the thrust of an earlier government-commissioned report, “The Foundation Years: Preventing Poor Children Becoming Poor Adults” (December 2010). In it, Labour MP Frank Field – not a toff – stresses that the best contemporary research points to the first five years as being by far the most formative for a child, and thus policy and support for the poorest families should target these. Field, who has made the study of poverty much of his life’s work, would seem to have more evidence on his side. It leads him to argue that parents are the most important part of a child’s upbringing. Thus “a modern definition of poverty must take into account those children whose parents remain disengaged from their responsibilities” – as many, in his experience, are.

For many on the left of politics, this focus on cultural remedies is tantamount to betrayal. But what to do instead? Bauman has little to say here. Indeed, the essays in Collateral Damage – which mostly conform to his customary astringent, perceptive and humane approach – are not all organised round this theme and he has set himself no normative challenge. He notes that a social state is no longer viable, so generalised is global competition and the downward pressure on western living standards; only “a social planet can take over the functions that social states tried, with mixed success, to perform”. But when could that day’s work begin?

Jones hasn’t much to say either: his belief is that the destruction, by the combined forces of Margaret Thatcher and New Labour, of a decent working-class life can be restored, once industry is revived and trade unions made strong once more. Standing is more considered but his proposals hardly amount to a programme: a basic income must be paid; the fruits of investment must be distributed to all; above all, the “precariat” must have a voice, one that trade unions cannot give.

An inability to cope with evidence in conflict with the line they wish to take badly mars the work of Jones and Standing, and even that of Bauman. Working-class life, in the UK and in the western world, has not been an unmitigated disaster since the large economic and social shifts of the 1970s and 1980s. Income had, until the past two years, mainly risen and conditions of life had largely improved. The massive declines in poverty in China and now India and even Africa, remain causes for satisfaction. There is too much miserabilism in these works, too much wilful ignoring of improvement.

But the dangers are real enough. Even if neo-fascist explosions fail to materialise – and it is not idle to warn of the possibility – still the waste of lives and the harm that the underclasses do to themselves and to surrounding society deserves a passionate advocate. If coherence is often lacking, the passion mustered here is not misplaced.

John Lloyd is an FT columnist

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