Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class

Here are a few notes I took at a talk I went to by Owen Jones, the author of the recently published Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. Apologies, they are a little brief and unstructured but there are a few nice statistics in there. If you want to buy the book, it’s only a tenner on Amazon. Buy from HERE.

The book explains how the working class are routinely downtrodden and the subject of a negative stereotyping that is not directed towards other sections of society – this has manifested itself in the everyday use of the term ‘chav’.

An example of this discrimination was clearly visible through the media coverage of the two separate incidents: the cases of Madeleine McCann (from a wealthy, middle-class family) and Sharon Matthews (from a council estate in Dewsbury). Jones point was that the press was fully committed to the cause of McCann, whilst from the very beginning was hostile to the Matthews family. Following the unfortunate events surrounding this Sharon Matthews disapperance, the family was strung up in the papers as a symbol for everything wrong with working class Britain. Quite clearly, she does not represent this whole community – the working class are not a homogeneous mass and should not be labelled as such.

Another case in point was the portrayal of working class Britain in the BBC TV show Little Britain, particularly through Vicky Pollard. Jones’ point is that it is not just acceptable, but applauded when two privately educated, middle-class actors poke fun at characters dressed as teenage mothers and the disabled on incapacity benefits. I disagree a little on this point (I believe the show poked fun at a fairly representative cross-section of the British population), however it did seem quite worrying that a YouGov poll at the Edinburgh Festival found that 70% of media workers believed Vicky Pollard gave an accurate representation of a white working class individual. For a much more detailed analysis on Madeleine McCann and Little Britain please read the two chapters on these subjects in the book.

According to Jones, the hostility towards working class Britains, unsurprisingly can be traced back to the legacy of Margaret Thatcher – a woman who believed poverty was not an issue in Western nations and that any failure to achieve financial success could be explained by personality character defects. Jones explained how the nature of the working class has changed massively in the past 30 years. We have witnessed a massive shift from the manufacturing sector to the services industry. Manufacturing provided 7m jobs in 1999, it now provides just 2m. Economic reforms have caused a massive increase in the number of temporary (1.5m) and part-time (1.3m) jobs. The trade unions have seen massive reductions in power – only 14% of private sector employees are part of a union. Combined, these changes have reduced job security and caused a reduction in livelihoods passed on from generation to generation.

Another significant factor in the changed nature of the working class is the state of the housing stock. Huge chunks of council housing were sold off during the ’80s as part of Thatcher’s drive for everyone to own their own home. It is no surprise that a common acronym for the term chav is Council Housed Aggressive Vermin. Many of the previously ‘respectable working class’ have moved on, leaving behind sink estates stricken by crime and unemployment. The UK currently has 5m people on waiting lists for council housing and there has been no significant expansion of council housing. This has been a key area of utilisation for groups such as the EDL who have exploited working class demands for new homes by blaming immigration. A recent study found that only 4 in 100 of council housing tenants were born outside of the UK. The political right are very clever in political manipulation (e.g. the economic recession caused by the finance industry transformed into a public sector debt crisis) – they understand that waiting for a house for 2 years will stir up deep emotions – it is clear that access to public services are vital for working class families. It is not ethnic minorities who are to blame for our current housing crisis – it is successive governments who have failed to increase the housing stock.

It is also interesting to note that many of the character traits associated with ‘chavs’ are not confined to this group, yet it is only chavs that are stigmatised with behaving in such a way. We commonly think associate chavs with binge drinking on street corners. This is unfair – polls have shown that the heaviest drinking in teenagers comes from those in high-to-middle income households; it is this section of the population that has the easiest access to alcohol (probably through their parents fine wine collections). Another common stereotype is that chavs are the ones responsible for the rise of anti-social behaviour in recent years across the UK. we continually fail to see the other side to the picture. It is poorer, working class individuals who are most likely to be the victims of crime.

In the discussion at the end of the talk, the issue of race and the London riots was raised – how do ethnic minorities fit into the chav stereotype and should we distinguish between white working class and black/Asian working class? An interesting and rather alarming statistic that came up was this: if you are a black male, you are 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police officers than your white counterparts. Jones offered a few interesting insights into the riots – I agree with him that the riots were a result of an ugly combination of severe wealth inequality and super-consumerism. He made the point that in London the wealthiest 10% and the poorest 10% sit on top of each other (e.g. in contrast to the banlieues hidden on the outskirts of the city). Another eye-opening statistic was that highlights the seriousness of inequality in the UK was that there are areas of Glasgow where life expectancy is only 53 years – this is lower than the West Bank.

Anyway, it was great to get down to see the talk. If you are ever in the West End and looking for something to fill some time, head down to Bookmarks Socialist Bookshop. They have some great books and there is a second-hand section with some very interesting reads.

More information HERE.