In its attempt to address the demonisation of one section of the working class, this book succeeds in demonising another. What emerges is a text as outmoded as its title. The "chav" phenomenon belongs very much to 2004, and a moment when liberal broadsheets and right-wing tabloids alike dismissed anyone living in a deprived neighbourhood and in possession of a Burberry cap with a label that, as Owen Jones rightly points out, is an old Romany word for child. For Jones, this demonisation reached a peak with the press coverage of the abduction of Shannon Matthews: her mother's guilt was assumed long before it was confirmed, on account of her image as a dishevelled lager-lover living on benefits. And it wasn't only the culprit, but an entire community and class, that was on trial.
An early instance of this was the treatment of the suspects in the Stephen Lawrence murder. Liberal columnists and academics led the charge, citing a lack of O-levels and the bottle- blonde, chain-smoking mothers of the accused as evidence of guilt. And that was before they put the whole of south-east London and the white working class in the dock.
“White trash" was the term tossed about during the Lawrence case. "Chav" became common currency during the past decade, just as "Essex Man" had in the 1980s. Whereas the latter was a means of caricaturing those working-class people who had dared to earn money to buy designer clothes and decent cars, the former became shorthand for those who had acquired similar by any means necessary.
In this book, the discourse of the "chav" is used as a springboard for examining not only how the working class has been derided, but how it became more or less extinct. But Jones's naivety and lack of nerve on questions of race ultimately undermine his argument.
For him, the working class is defined entirely by trade unions and council housing, and anyone who moves beyond these is guilty of breaking class solidarity and pursuing a "rugged individualism".
Jones writes of how "social mobility is offered as a means of creaming off the minority of working-class individuals and parachuting them into the middle class". But this is to confuse a money system with a class system.
Urbanites who leave the working-class areas of their birth, through work rather than a university education, often remain working class in their interests and allegiances, with cash and consumerism widening their horizons. Many take the solidarity and decorum that was synonymous with their upbringing to new suburban territories. In the landscapes of their formative years they see an older, landlocked generation living in fragmented neighbourhoods that are no longer familiar.
Those who stayed behind are alienated by the fallout from the immigration policies and multiculturalism imposed by New Labour. Jones argues that class "had for so long been a forbidden word within the political establishment, [and] the only inequalities discussed by politicians and the media were racial ones". This happened because the left came to loathe the insularity and localism it once championed in the working class, and shifted its focus to identity politics and minority interests.
Jones bemoans the redefinition of the idea of working-class "aspiration", which, after Thatcher, "was no longer about people working together to improve their communities; it was being redefined as getting more for yourself as an individual, regardless of the social costs". This is the leftist equivalent of telling the working classes they should not get above their station. And it smacks of the late 19th century, of upper-class Fabians and the nascent science of sociology.
In the 1890s, in an attempt to define a "practicable" rather than a utopian socialism, Samuel Barnett predicted that in the following century the issue for the poor would not be want but leisure. It was feared that once the proles got their hands on cash, they would spend it on gambling and drink. At the beginning of the 21st century, it appears that problems ensue when - in the words of the Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham, Jon Cruddas, on whom Jones calls to corroborate his thesis - the working class "earn and own".
The biggest compliment an author can get when writing about the working class - and I speak from experience - is having his book read by the people it's about. Chavs will be read by the people it's for. It will find a following with the lady bountifuls on the Labour front bench, in the columns of the Guardian and among those perennial students and class warriors who've never quite moved on from Chumbawamba.