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A Critique of Chavs - The demonisation of the working class- Steve Bassett

Steve Bassett is a Sociology teacher at the Eastbourne campus of Sussex Downs College and a Brighton & Hove Albion season ticket holder.

Owen Jones discusses his ideas

In his recent book, Chavs, Owen Jones argues that being able to make brutal, almost sub-racist remarks about working class people is the one acceptable form of discrimination left. His main argument is that as the gap between the rich and the poor has increased there has been a growth in negative stereotyping of the working class by politicians and the media.


Repeatedly the working class are seen as feckless, as stupid, as having too many children, as not wanting to work and this is the excuse made for why there is poverty in Britain.  It is suggested by the media and politicians that it is their own fault.  They are not the victims of circumstances and, in contrast,  all of us who have got comfortable lives have achieved these through our own merits.  A similar argument is made by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their recent work on inequality – The Spirit Level (2009).  One of their findings is that in societies where there are high levels of income inequality people seem to have more punitive attitudes to the poor.  


Jones is particularly critical of the British media’s role in demonizing the working class, and for the government who do not seem to be interested in representing them.  Jones points out that because social mobility has declined, a far smaller proportion of members of parliament and of the media come from working class backgrounds. Careers in politics and the media often involve unpaid internships and low-paid work for an extended period, requiring family support which is impossible for poorer families, especially those far from London. Consequently, there is much less understanding of those permanently in low-paid work, those with less education, those who have no job or who live in a council house.


In modern Britain, the working class has become an object of fear and ridicule. From Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard to the demonization of Jade Goody, media and politicians alike dismiss as feckless, criminalized, ignorant, lazy and vulgar - a vast, underprivileged section of society whose members have become stereotyped by one, hate-filled word: chavs.  As Britain’s finest stand-up comedian Stewart Lee observes:


“I find programmes like Mock the Week a bit cruel now.  I don’t like it when they make fun of handicapped people, or old people or do jokes about poor people or ugly people – when they ‘mock the weak basically.  ‘Mock the strong!’, that’s what I say. Have a bit of ambition. It’s what raises us above dogs.”


It is worth reading Chavs by Owen Jones for the opening chapter alone.  There is a brilliant dissection of the differences in the media coverage of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann and the coverage of the disappearance of Sharon Matthews and how Karen Matthews was made symbolic of the working class.

Reading the book made me reflect on how the demonization of the working class makes it easier for politicians to legitimate neo-liberal policies that have led to a widening in the gap between the rich and the poor and attacks on the welfare state.  


In my view, our attitudes to some of the least advantaged members of society are becoming increasingly cruel and punitive.  Fortunately there are occasionally television programmes that humanise the poor, although they are often buried late in the TV schedules.  If you want to watch a programme that challenges the stereotypical view of the experience of living in relative poverty in the UK I would suggest watching the recent BBC documentary ‘Poor Kids’ on you-tube.  




Owen Jones speaking at his book launch


Poor kids documentary part 1