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.
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.