Labour’s Chav Problem: It doesn’t have any

Anyone wrestling with how to reinvigorate the Labour Party should try this simple thought experiment: Imagine the Labour Party were started today, by chavs, for chavs. What policies would it have? How would these policies be funded? And – importantly – how much would it care about the issues currently tearing the Labour Party apart?

In his book Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class Owen Jones, the baby-faced darling of the modern left, argues forcefully that by mocking,  sneering at or dismissing ‘chavs’ we are contributing to a modern form of class snobbery that effectively blames the working class – or what the working class has now become, in the post-industrial era – for what has politically been done to it via de-industrialisation and Thatcherism.

In this he does at least draw the obvious conclusion, namely that chav is another way of saying ‘working class’. But the book’s argument misses some other important points, perhaps because they hit rather closer to home.

In particular: if chavs are what we now call the working class, why is the Labour Party not stuffed with chavs? Why are chavs not setting the cultural, ideological and political priorities of the Labour Party? Why, instead, does its membership tilt overwhelmingly towards the metropolitan, the graduate, the clean eaters, the politically correct – in a word, the bien-pensant middle classes?

Indeed, if I were to picture what the Labour Party might look like if it were founded and staffed by chavs with a chav political agenda, it would look less like the contemporary Labour Party than the Red Northern end of UKIP, as voiced by Paul Nuttall. An articulate, no-nonsense scouser, Nuttall writes a column in the Daily Star (that most chav of newspapers) covering themes variously patriotic, hostile to political correctness and ranged against Islam, the EU and other chav bugbears. Bugbears which, paradoxically, are central to the nexus of progressive-left values articulated by The Guardian, frequently by the very same Owen Jones whose book enjoins us not to demonise chavs.

What is going on here? On the one hand, we must not demonise chavs, nor sneer at their culture or behaviours, for they are the working class and to be left-wing is to be for the working class, right? But on the other hand, we like the EU, we think diversity and multiculturalism are good things, we are embarrassed about the British Empire and uncomfortable with the notion of cultural Englishness. In liking these things, we do rather look down on people who are uncomfortable about cultural diversity, voted to leave the EU and hang flags on their houses when the football is on.

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This circle is squared variously by ignoring it, or else by earnest efforts to ‘educate’ the backward proles into seeing the world otherwise than the way they see it. Little or no attempt is made to consider the viewpoints themselves on their merits, to explore where they come from or – heaven forbid – to voice them.

In this, the current leadership struggles within the Labour Party are revealed for the sterile death-throes they are. One side is attempting to speak for the working class by advocating Thatcherism-lite with a side order of Europhilia, paternalistic redistribution and a hefty spoonful of cultural Marxism; the other proposes to represent the working class by arguing about the legitimacy of the Israeli state, turning a blind eye to Islamism and blaming everything either on a media conspiracy or else on Tory austerity. I would bet confidently that the vast majority of the working class – the chavs – who are purportedly being represented here give precisely zero fucks about either of these packages.

Now and again someone in Labour makes a limp attempt to speak to the chavs. But no-one in Labour speaks from chavland, for the chavs. Out of a cultural squeamishness (dare we call it class snobbery?) within modern Labour the best that can be managed on this front is the occasional dog-whistle.  And unless this changes, unless the party finds a way to recruit more chavs into public-facing positions(and why would I join Labour, if I were a chav? I would not expect to be welcome there) it is doomed as a party.

What, then, if the chavs reclaimed the word chav and started a Chav Party? What would a chav manifesto look like? Would it really be as racist as the Guardian fears? I suspect not: the working classes are more ethnically mixed than any other group in this country and fundamentally pragmatic on the whole. Immigration concerns throughout the referendum debate have overwhelmingly been about numbers, not xenophobia. But I would guess that a chav political manifesto would be more patriotic than the Labour Party, more redistributive than the Conservatives and almost certainly more protectionist economically and wary of unfettered globalisation than either. Whatever you might think of its value as a set of policies, this is a mix we do not currently have in the country. I do not expect to see it within Labour any time soon.

The Leave result: a fightback for political diversity

The Guardian has an interesting piece on the how the Stronger In campaign saw the referendum. Along with the campaign’s evident, amazingly hubristic assumption that the result was a done deal, there are a couple of bits that I think deserve more comment than they get in the article:

“The starting premise of the remain campaign was that elections in Britain are settled in a centre-ground defined by aversion to economic risk and swung by a core of liberal middle-class voters who are allergic to radical lurches towards political uncertainty. They could be identified, profiled and targeted by the technical wizardry of professional pollsters. Their anxieties, hopes and priorities could be plotted on charts that would then be translated into simple messages. EU membership might thus be established in the minds of this audience as a proxy for security and continuity – the natural preference of the sensible majority, as reinforced by every institution that carried cultural authority; the experts would be heeded. […] No one on the remain side fully anticipated an emotional groundswell of contempt for the very idea of political authority as dispensed from a liberal citadel in Westminster. The remain politicians found themselves besieged by an angry insurrection, channelling grievances that were well known. They stood for a cause that became emblematic of a system that was alien, arrogant and remote – and they had no answer.

Stronger In became the holding company for a liberal centrist political concept that had been transmitted in varying forms through the rise of New Labour and the ascent of Cameron. This had been the bastion of political orthodoxy for a generation, but its foundations had been corroded. […] The unique opportunity of a referendum was to give voters the option of punishing a generation of politics, regardless of party allegiance.

What jumps out at me is the way no-one really seems yet to be questioning the moral bankruptcy of this entire worldview. How did we end up in a situation where it was considered absolutely okay to run election campaigns calibrated purely towards tiny groups of centrist voters? Not only that, but to invoke a complicit media establishment to paint any views that diverge (right, left or elsewhere) from that consensus as mad, swivel-eyed and dangerous? Did no-one ever stop to wonder what the people who were excluded from the focus groups and policy calibration might think of it all?”

The whole schtick of the Westminster discussion has for years been ‘Oh we need to get more ordinary people involved in politics’, while busily disregarding the interests and political priorities of vast swathes of ordinary people. Then they made a mistake of offering two choices with distinctly different outcomes, with the result that ordinary people just got involved in politics. And the aftermath was a lot of centrists screaming ‘WHO THE FUCK ARE THESE NASTY IGNORANT VENGEFUL RACIST THICKOS????!!!!!1111’.

Much is being made among the bien-pensant of how simply ghastly Leave voters are. But I really, honestly think not nearly enough is being made of how simply ghastly the worldview is that has depicted more than half the country as at best electorally irrelevant, and at worst something ideologically to be kettled, neutralised or (ideally) eradicated.

It’s a major bugbear of mine that a lot gets said about diversity in gender, race etc but no-one has much to say about political/viewpoint diversity. This is an issue that Jonathan Haidt tackles in academia, but which is percolating relentlessly into many other arenas. In my view the referendum result was a fightback for political diversity, and it is a fight that is well overdue.

For ultimately, what kind of democracy can we have if the window of acceptable debate is policed? And it has been, for as long as I have been eligible to vote: not with batons or threat of imprisonment, but with social pressure, Facebook shaming, awkward silences if a view is expressed that diverges from the small, pale palette of acceptable ones. This silence has helped to reinforce the cultural divide that our liberal press has suddenly, belatedly woken up to: that between the ‘speak as I find’ culture of the backward, ignorant provinces and the carefully tone-policed one of the metropolis.

And this cultural divide, in turn, has helped to conceal a more serious economic one, indeed even to justify it, somewhat after the fashion of British colonialists using the backwardness of the tribes they conquered as justification for their exploitation and abuse. After all, how could it be the fault of we enlightened ones if the proles are too ignorant, malignant and morally retrograde to take advantage of our brave new world? Surely it must be our job to bring them into the light and, if they cannot be thus educated, to ensure they are placated with handouts and kept well away from the levers of power.