That vile word

I was once in a meeting of a housing association which was discussing buying land and developing homes in Stevenage.  “I’ve been there” chirruped the Chief Executive, “it really is chavland”.  I have been in plenty of other meetings where senior housing folk have talked about their clients in disparaging terms.  I can recall one Housing Director in the north responding to a presentation on the Decent Homes programme by saying “There’s nothing wrong with our houses, it’s the people that need fixing”.  Fortunately most people who work in the profession are more enlightened and have a more balanced view and a better choice of words.

As a fan (mildly obsessive) of EastEnders I get outraged by every story line that involves any character visiting a council estate.  They are always the same.  High blocks, lifts not working, rubbish strewn everywhere, hoodies gathered menacingly outside, drug dealers hovering, noisy music blaring, people shouting, and in the middle of it some poor EE character suffering terrible deprivations, and desperate to get back to the square where decent folk live (now there’s the joke).  I used to start talks by asking people if they knew where the Jasmin Allen estate was.  Invariably they knew it was a bad bad place where police only went in big groups because it was run by gangs and the residents appeared to throw rocks at them on every visit.  Everyone thinks they’ve heard of it and the penny eventually drops that it was in The Bill, and was fictional.  I believe the filming was done on an estate in south London famous for being visited by Tony Blair on his first day as Prime Minister. 

I was got going on this topic by Polly Toynbee’s piece on ‘the vile word’ chav.  How right she is that the use of the word chav is just one part of a sustained effort to ‘foster the loathing of a feral underclass’ thereby diverting public resentment about economic and social failure from the rich to the poor.   

Polly quotes Baroness Hussein-Ece – a LibDem Equality and Human Rights Commissioner no less – who tweeted: “Help. Trapped in a queue in chav land. Woman behind me explaining latest EastEnders plot to mate while eating largest bun I’ve ever seen.”  And then of course this week we have Iain Duncan Smith, hand wringing in public and in private getting his department to place stories in the media – and picked up endlessly by the BBC – about the ‘top ten’ most ridiculous stories told by some benefit scroungers. 

For this government (LibDems should look suitably ashamed, I expect it from the Tories) and their supporters this is all part of the softening up exercise for the cuts.  Everyone’s on the fiddle, no-one wants to work, they’re breeding like rabbits, they get subsidised housing and don’t even pay the rent, so we should take their benefits away from them.  Even decent politicians run in fear from the stereotype and feel it is necessary to back some variant of ‘welfare reform’. 

The outcome is that it is so much easier to make cuts that really hurt people.  We have blogged about some of these before.  The latest news this week, from the heads of Britain’s main charities dealing with mental health, concerns the ‘devastating effects’ welfare reform (ie cuts) is having on the mental health of hundreds of thousands of people.      

The long title of Owen Jones’ book ‘Chavs’ being published this week is ‘the demonization of the working class’.  That’s what is really going on and council tenants get the worst of the stigma.  Some politicians and housing professionals need to read it and begin choosing their policies and words more carefully.

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10 Responses to That vile word

  1. Pingback: Swimming against the propaganda tide | Red Brick

  2. Pingback: John Humphrys, hubris, and welfare dependency | Red Brick

  3. Pingback: You can’t defeat stereotypes by repeating stereotypes | Red Brick

  4. Bernard Crofton says:

    Actually “the Bill” used to be filmed on South Acton Estate (LB Ealing). It was handily placed for the BBC. However, many tenants began to get fed up with it and took “peaceful direct action” such as taking their ironing outside whilst a gunfight was supposedly taking place round them. One more reason I didn’t hate my tenants.

  5. Owen Jones says:

    Absolutely brilliant article.

  6. John Perry says:

    This is a very worthwhile post, Steve, drawing attention to an article which rang very true when I read it yesterday. As well as so-called ‘chavs’ in general, council tenants are particular victims. It occured to me though that while this is the main target group it is by no means the only one. Migrants, of course, are another obvious example. And there is an excellent piece on Migration Pulse ( showing how international students are now being vilified and have become the object of suspicion. We are well aware, too, of the demonising of local government and all who work in it, with their wasteful use of credit cards (see Richard Kemp ) to name just one of their many moral weaknesses.

  7. Pingback: ‘Chavs’ round-up « jonesblog

  8. blogalot38c says:

    The real meaning of chav was I believed more about dress code similar to emo’s etc, but now it appears to have been hijacked by the tories to describe a class lower than the working class. I read recently someones description of chav and in part it described me, I have to be honest I was offended. I lived on a council estate for about 10 years, the houses were of decent quality as were the neighbours. I am a single mother and relied on benefits for approximatly 13 years until my youngest child started school and for that I am eternally grateful it allowed me to be the kind of mother I felt my children needed whilst they were young and vulnerable. I also will always be grateful to my lone parent advisor who listened to my plans and ideas and backed me all the way. Give people like me the tools to make our life better and we will, that is what benefits should be for.
    Demonization of gym slip mums etc etc achieves only one purpose and that is resentment on both sides of the fence. These judgemental so called betters may think that they hate people like us but only the down trodden, misused and belittled really know what hate is, multiply that by a few generations and what are we left with? Alienated people with only one way to fight back and that is a creation of their own culture, what others may call chavs some would call people looking after their own and a rejection of all those who would condemn them.
    It is quite incredible that intelligent people believe in stereotypes and that if the benefit system was removed suddenly that everything would suddenly get better! How exactly? These are shallow solutions to deep problems people choose to ignore

  9. How right you are. Perhaps it is time to re-repossess Housing Policy?

    Independent Co-operative Party.

  10. Good post Steve. I’ve oft reflected that Albert Square probably (sadly) doesn’t exist anywhere in London today – East or West. A charming period square, inhabited by a working class population that rarely seem to discuss their housing – be that rent, state of repair, waiting-list, over-crowding, house-prices or mortgage payments! I live in housing stock not dissimilar to that found on Albert Square, and can attest to the neighbourhood discussion being pretty liberally sprinkled with the latter two.

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