‘Chavs’ and the working-class

with 13 comments

One of the most frequent criticisms of my book is that it supposedly conflates ‘chav’ and ‘working-class’. They are two completely different things, the critics say. ‘Chav’ is a word widely used – and that includes by working-class people as well as middle-class people. Indeed it’s argued that working-class people hate ‘chavs’ – so in what meaningful sense can ‘chav’ be used to demonise working-class people?

Although the book is called Chavs: The Demonization of the Working-Class, it could easily have been called The Demonization of Working-Class Identity (not as catchy, admittedly). Polling organisation BritainThinks has just conducted a detailed survey into attitudes to class: a staggering 71% self-identified as middle-class, compared to just 24% who felt they had any working-class identity. But the most interesting – and disturbing – finding in my view was this:

There was a strong feeling in the focus groups that the noble tradition of a respectable and diligent working class was over. For the first time, I saw the “working class” tag used as a slur, equated with other class-based insults such as “chav”. I asked focus group members to make collages using newspaper and magazine clippings to show what the working class was. Many chose deeply unattractive images: flashy excess, cosmetic surgery gone wrong, tacky designer clothes, booze, drugs and overeating. By contrast, being middle class is about being, well, a bit classy.

The ‘working-class’ label was no longer something people felt that they could be proud of. Far from it: it had become effectively synonymous with ‘chav’. For that reason, many who most of us would describe as clearly working-class rejected the label because they felt it was a pejorative. The demonisation of working-class identity has had an impact on the attitudes of both and working-class and middle-class people. With a political consensus that we should aspire to become middle-class, and with few positive representations of working-class people, this is as unsurprising and it is depressing.

The book could also have been called ‘The Demonization and Airbrushing of the Working-Class’, but that’s even less catchy. As Simon Heffer put it, “something called the respectable working class has almost died out. What sociologists used to call the working class does not now usually work at all, but is sustained by the welfare state.” It has, instead, given way to a “feral underclass”. Now I know for a fact that Heffer would never dream of using the word “chav” – but what he is doing here is using the “chav” caricature. In other words, we’re all middle-class now – apart from the people that could be called “chavs”.

Both New Labour and the Tories have, similarly, tapped into this chav caricature. Both argued that we were all, effectively, middle-class – with one big exception. For the right, this was the “underclass” – often conjured up in the form of ‘Broken Britain’ by David Cameron and his allies. Where there were social problems outside the middle-class majority, they were to be understood as being due to people’s individual problems.

For New Labour, the term was “social exclusion”. As Matthew Taylor, Blair’s former strategy advisor, put it to me:

There has been a general view which is – and it is in the move from ‘class’ to ‘exclusion’ as conceptions – that exclusion is something which kind of suggests that ‘I am excluding myself’, that there is a process, that my own behaviour is replicated in my social status. Class is something which is given to me. Exclusion is something which happens to me and in which I am somehow an agent. And so I think, yeah, absolutely, there was a sense not that you should blame the poor for being poor, although there was a bit of that as well, but that poverty was a process in which people were active in one way or another… not simply the result of great impersonal social forces.

So, again, outside New Labour’s mainstream middle-class majority, there were the ‘socially excluded’ whose own behaviour had a big part in creating their situation.

In the first chapter, I looked at how journalists and politicians used the strange case of Shannon Matthews as an example of how this played out. Shannon Matthews was a young girl who disappeared in Dewsbury, a working-class community in West Yorkshire, in early 2008. Journalists’ interest in the case was markedly less than the hysteria that accompanied Madeleine McCann’s disappearance in 2007: but, as India Knight put it about Maddie, she had vanished from a holiday resort “which specialises in providing family-friendly holidays to the middle classes.” The joy of these resorts were that they “were populated by recognisable types” where you could sigh in relief and think, “Everyone is like us”. They were not places you would expect to meet “the kind of people who wallop their weeping kids in Sainsbury’s.”

Journalists were often honest about why there was less interest in Shannon’s disappearance. “It is ‘up North’, it is a bleak mix of pebbledash council blocks and neglected wasteland, and it is populated by some people capable of confirming the worst stereotype and prejudice of the white underclass,” wrote one Times journalist. Melanie Reid argued “we are as removed from that kind of poverty as we are from events in Afghanistan. For life among the white working class of Dewsbury looks like a foreign country.”

When it was discovered Karen Matthews had kidnapped her own daughter to extort thousands of pounds from the tabloid press, open season was declared on the community: they were called a Shameless council estate, for example. Carole Malone wrote that she used to live “near” a council estate: “It was full of people like Karen Matthews.” Melanie McDonagh argued in the Independent that: “What was once a working class is now, in some places, an underclass. It is a decline that this unfortunate woman seems to embody.” All of this was linked to the idea we’re all middle-class, apart from a ‘chav’ rump of the old working-class.

Iain Duncan-Smith was among politicians who used the case for political purposes. He argued that, with the revelations of the Matthews saga, “it is as though a door on to another world has opened slightly and the rest of Britain can peer in,” as though people are running around council estates kidnapping their own daughters. His thinktank, the Centre for Social Justice, then linked it to proposals that ten million or so social housing tenants would be “rewarded for decent behaviour” (a phase normally used with prisoners, children or pets) with a stake in their property. In other words, he linked Karen Matthews to people who lived in social housing, nearly all of whom would have been as repulsed by the case as anyone else.

But although the book seeks to take on the false theory that “we’re all middle-class, apart from the ‘chavs'”, that’s not to say ‘chav’ isn’t used in a class-ist fashion. I open the book by discussing an anecdote: I was having dinner with people from an exclusively middle-class, professional background, and one quipped: ‘It’s a shame Woolworths is closing. Where will all the chavs buy this Christmas presents?’ What he was saying could easily be rewritten as: ‘Where will the lower orders by their Christmas presents?”

There are several acronyms that have been made up for ‘chav’ (so-called backronyms) that are dripping with class hate: like Council House Associated Vermin and Council Housed And Violent.

Several ‘chav-bashing’ books have been published which come up with definitions of those they are attacking. According to The Chav Guide To Life, as well as being “loud and lower class,” “Most chavs come from not well-off, working-class families on council estates”. The bestselling Little Book of Chavs goes through a list of ‘chav’ jobs: supermarket checkout workers, cleaners, hairdressers, fast-food workers, etc.

As an example of how the wealthy and powerful associate ‘chavs’ with working-class people, it’s worth recalling how Prince William dressed up for a ‘chav-themed’ fancy dress party at the end of his first year at Sandhurst. When the other cadets demanded he “put on a chavvy accent and stop speaking like a Royal”, he couldn’t do it: “William’s not actually the poshest-sounding cadet, despite his family heritage, but he struggled to pull off a working-class accent,” one cadet told The Sun.

The fairly nauseating website ‘ChavTowns’ (which has added me to its banner – a badge of honour) goes through a number of working-class communities, writing them off in their entirety as, well ‘ChavTowns’. My own hometown of of Stockport gets a repeated beating: take one article attacking the town – “To be fair, Stockport has some very wealthy areas. Unfortunately, it has more than its fair share of scummy ones too.” Another article attacking the local population similarly moans: “I have to admit I feel ashamed to have to write Stockport on my address, despite being from one of its much, much nicer suburbs (yes they do exist).” Another article on Stockport attacks people living in council houses, written by someone describing themselves as living in “my charming village of Cheadle Hulme”.

Or, for a Southern example, check out an example of eloquent chav-bashing directed at Basildon, which is described as a “seething mass of chavite humanity”.

For many, Vicky Pollard – the invention of two wealthy, privately educated comedians – is a symbol of the ‘chav’ caricature. A few years ago YouGov ran a poll of people who worked in TV: the majority thought that probably the most famous ‘chav’ icon out there, Vicky Pollard, was an “accurate representation” of the white working-class.

Of course the actual term depends on who says it. For example,  ‘queer’ means something differently depending on whether a gay or a straight man says it; as does ‘paki’ depending on whether a British Asian or white says it; as does the ‘nigger’ word depending on whether an African-American or white person says it. So for example, Chris Rock once did a sketch comparing ‘niggers’ to ‘black people': not something a white comedian could ever (rightly) get away with. It’s when those who are privileged attack people who haven’t enjoyed their advantages in life that ‘chav-bashing’ becomes class hatred.

The book also looks at how divisions within the working-class were widened by Thatcherism, not least because of council housing. While it was once supported mixed communities, the combination of the ‘right-to-buy’ policy that sold off much of the best stock, and the failure to build new stock, meant that it became prioritised for those most in need. In effect, governments treated it like a social dumping ground – more so now, given the Tories’ policy of scrapping lifetime tenancy.

It’s also true that anti-social behaviour and crime are more likely to affect working-class people rather than middle-class people. It is sometimes presumed that hostility to supposed “benefit cheats” is the preserve of middle-class Daily Mail readers. But if you are scraping by in a low-paid job and feel that someone down the street is enjoying a higher standard of living without working, that will rile you more than anyone else. The BritainThinks study reveals deep anger aimed at those deemed to be “sponging” off the state. Right-wing politicians and journalists know all this and exploit it ruthlessly.

That is not to say that people do not understand why long-term unemployment has increased. As one put it: “We’ve now got this benefit generation which started when Thatcher closed all of the industries.” And counter-riffs can be presented: that benefit fraud represents less than 1 per cent of total welfare spending, is eclipsed by tax evasion, and that there are simply not enough jobs to go around. But it will be a challenge to refocus hostility on multi-millionaires who are distant and somewhat abstract, away from those visible locally.

BritainThinks also exposed the differences in how “chav” was used. Unlike “middle-class” self-identifiers who conflated “working class” with “chav”, working-class self-identifiers (which, remember, was just 24%) used “chav” differently: above all, to distance themselves from undesirable elements in the community. It was those most in danger of being demonised as “chavs” who were particularly emphatic in their hostility. For example, a long-term incapacity benefit claimant was most vociferous about “chavs” in one focus group, as were two unemployed teenage mothers in another. Rather than classist contempt, this speaks of an insecurity of being lumped in with a despised grouping.

Of course the problem with the word “chav” is it’s not a sub-culture in the sense that people think they are part of it: you get the odd person half-seriously saying something like “I’m a bit of a chav”, but other than that it’s used as an insult against ‘someone else’.

But it’s the book’s argument that the actual working-class has been airbrushed out of existence by the “chav” caricature. And that is why, in however modest or limited a way, I wanted to re-open the debate about class.

Written by Owen Jones

July 8, 2011 at 2:55 pm

13 Responses

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  1. You have made an important distinction in the use and definition of the term ‘chav’ as used by the middle class and the working class. There is a working class still proud of its contribution to society and its self definition. The use of the term ‘chav’ is not just out of insecurity but of the pride. A ‘chav’ as used by self defined working people is a sponger, a scrounger, a petty thief, a hustler, a flash know nothing, a dirt bag (South London), a loud mouth ignoramus even a scab. They are the lumpen who attempt to drag down and ‘give a bad name’ to genuine working class people. Why should the working class not despise them as much as they should despise the ruling class ?


    July 8, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    • Are you sure you actually read Owen’s post before commenting?


      July 9, 2011 at 2:01 pm

      • Its the third para from the end that I was commenting on.

        Laban Tall makes a similar point that working people are not hostile to chavs because they may be identified as the same but because they (we) suffer from their behaviour more than the rest of society although I would substitute ‘parasitical class’ or the lumenproletariat for ‘other poor people’.

        “It’s because they live alongside them and suffer the most from their behaviour that the hostility is so great, not because they’re worried you might mistake them for one. (And if you’re working class these days, the decline in working wages and increased house prices mean that you’re increasingly likely to HAVE have to live among other poor people.”


        July 9, 2011 at 6:56 pm

  2. As that psychiatrist said in Fawlty Towers “there’s enough material here for a whole conference” – but just a few points

    a) you’ve got the whole “social exclusion” bit base over apex. The whole point of the phrase is to imply that it’s OTHER people doing the excluding, just as “areas of deprivation” imply that others are doing the depriving. I really wouldn’t rely on the privately educated son of a media academic, a professional ruling class quangocrat, for insights into the “general view”, no matter how clever he be.

    b) “There was a strong feeling in the focus groups that the noble tradition of a respectable and diligent working class was over.”

    You find that “disturbing”. I find it an encouraging sign that people are still capable of believing the evidence of their own eyes. I won’t start throwing Norman Dennis at you, but someone ought to.

    c) “Unlike “middle-class” self-identifiers who conflated “working class” with “chav”, working-class self-identifiers used “chav” differently: above all, to distance themselves from undesirable elements in the community. It was those most in danger of being demonised as “chavs” who were particularly emphatic in their hostility.”

    It’s a shame you’ve not linked to the source data, because I find it hard to imagine that BritainThinks either ranked respondents by how likely they were to be mistaken for chavs, nor that they asked them to self-assess on this basis. But once again you’ve got it base over apex. It’s because they live alongside them and suffer the most from their behaviour that the hostility is so great, not because they’re worried you might mistake them for one. (And if you’re working class these days, the decline in working wages and increased house prices mean that you’re increasingly likely to HAVE have to live among other poor people. House price increases mean increasing social segregation – the mixed community is vanishing.)

    Laban Tall

    July 9, 2011 at 3:26 pm

  3. Interesting article Owen – you raise a lot of good points.

    Class as a product of socio-economic forces is as much a state of mind as anything else. I offer a generalised take on it as follows: The working class – as a subject class – has its own particular take on the world, which is sharply distinctive from its middle class counterpart. The chasm manifests itself culturally and intellectually.
    The working class prides itself on a pugilistic disposition. Physical prowess and an aptitude for sports is usually highly prized. Boys in school are expected to demonstrate their laddishness and brawn. This goes hand in hand with a resolute anti-intellectualism, contempt for sensitivity and the high arts.
    More positive takes on working class culture as evinced by the likes of Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams now remain distant echoes, whilst the Chav phenomena is merely the distillation of the worst excesses and decadence of working class dysfunctionalism.
    There is a now a curious lurid fascination with our underclass – a society which has purposely nurtured and encouraged this decadence also delights in flirting with underclass chic (read the compulsive writing on Theodore Dalrymple: Life at the Bottom). Our tabloid and X-factor culture both condemns and celebrates the glorious excesses of low-life on parade.
    I propose a counter-acronym of CHAPS – Council Housing and Peaceful. The Chaps are having to contend with their chav neighbours whilst facing a variety of state apparatus that takes the lowest common denominator as their starting point.

    Andrew Wallace

    July 9, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    • “The working class prides itself on a pugilistic disposition. Physical prowess and an aptitude for sports is usually highly prized. Boys in school are expected to demonstrate their laddishness and brawn. This goes hand in hand with a resolute anti-intellectualism, contempt for sensitivity and the high arts.”

      We have natural rhythm and can’t be trusted around posh women too.


      July 13, 2011 at 9:50 am

  4. Marx’s trerm “lumpen proletariat” may be worth re-examining in this context.


    July 9, 2011 at 11:00 pm

  5. I don’t know how reliable this poll is, nor how useful focus groupie data is. Fwiw, the British Social Attitudes Survey has usually found a majority self-identifying as working class. In 2007, it was 57%.

    Richard Seymour

    July 10, 2011 at 1:25 pm

  6. I was drawn to this blog after reading in my local newspaper about Owen Jones’ book and having an interest to read it, which I have yet to do. So my comments here are solely based on what has been written above and not with direct reference to Mr Jones’ book. I have to say most of what’s written above goes over my head mainly because I do not consider myself an expert in any field just an interested party but I feel my comments (not arguments) are still valid in this ‘democratic’ world. I am at the moment a ‘very’ mature OU student and currently studying identity and ‘othering’ as part of my degree in Childhood and Youth Studies.

    If I were to accept the labelling of others it appears I would be many things. As the daughter of a Ford worker, I think I may be deemed working class, as a local government officer am I now middle class? As a council tenant with not the fortune to be otherwise does that make me ‘needy’? Would David Cameron’s daughter be any the worse for being in my home? I think not, although she might have a better respect for the ‘ordinary’ people than her father if she did. You don’t become one of ‘the others’ by just taking your jacket off and rolling your sleeves up as politicians seem to think – a pitiful way to try to win votes and popularity (and naive). These are not my labels.

    When one speaks of missing children do we position ourselves as judges over the parents or concerned citizens for the child. Does what happened to Shannon Matthews make her any the less a victim because of her mothers behaviour? Do chav or underclass chose to be in the position they are in or would they have a job, better career or education if they could. What happens if the winner of the £161 million on this weeks Eurolottery turns out to be a chav with a luck two quid, what do they become then?

    I don’t know where this puts me in terms of the comments above or Mr Jones’ book but I’m sure I’ll know better when Ive read it. All I know is that as a person who has trouble picking up labels I shall give myself a few I am happy with – honest, reliable, hardworking, law abiding, neigbourly, family person, who happens to like nice things and a ‘good’ life too. I was brought up well by my working class parents and proud of it and I know I’m not on my own with that.

    Mr Jones, I look forward to reading your book.


    July 13, 2011 at 8:11 pm

  7. [...] If politicians were serious about tackling immigration, why don’t they tackle the reasons driving it? People move because of poverty and conflict. The famine in the horn of Africa didn’t just happen this summer, it has been years in the making. And the conditions that created it also led to many Somalis seeking refuge in Europe. The Afghans coming to Britain aren’t coming to live in sheds and claim benefits; it is because international forces are fighting a war in their country. Some working class communities face huge unemployment because when British industry declined nothing replaced the skilled worked it provided. [...]

  8. Owen as promised on Twitter, I’ve dashed off a very personal review of your book (i.e. an account of what I brought from my own background to my reading of it). In case you’re interested, it’s here:

    this is my england

    July 24, 2011 at 8:29 pm

  9. I’ve always used the word ‘chav’ exclusively to refer to tracksuit-wearing males in their teens and early 20s hanging around on street corners looking for someone who looks a part of a constrasting subculture to verbally or physically abuse. Obviously there’s a ‘middle class’, snobbish appropriation of the word where it’s used to refer to a more general aesthetic and way of talking/living or even to poorer people as a whole, and the idiots who use the word in that way should be called out (though more for their attitude than the percieved misuse of one word).

    I’m sure there are observations about ‘chav’ and its usage in the book that no one can really argue with. However – what’s likely the majority of people who will hear of you or of your book, aren’t going to read it. It’ll only perpetuate the controversy over chav in particular when the same observations could no doubt be made about a plethora of other terms past, present and future. The idea of a whole book centered around the word chav and what a terrible thing it is makes my head hurt.

    The perpetuation of the idea that ‘chav’ is discriminatory lead to me being admonished for using it in school by frumpy out of touch teachers and the more well-off, middle class kids. It doesn’t help. Having this argument is like commissioning a program called Fat Bastards Versus Skinny Whores for BBC 3, in regards to the social progress achieved in doing so. Sorry D :

  10. I have just finished your wonderful book and am skimming it over again to fully appreciate the argument. I have long been sick of the word ‘chav’, used even by friends that ought to know better: your description of the liberal bigot will surely make them feel shameful when they get to read this outstanding book, which I am presently recommending to everyone. A timely and well researched book.


    September 29, 2011 at 6:26 pm

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