By Ronda Daniel
At first glance, the leaked Whatsapp messages from a group of young Tories joking about “gassing chavs” and experimenting “to see why they are so good at producing”, look like satire. They read like some sort of exaggerative caricature of how upper class Tories would perceive working class people. Sadly it wasn’t.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. These shameless and blase messages are a standard depiction of how working class people are perceived in Britain.
I first heard the word ‘chav’ when I was about 11. A girl at school asked “what are you?”, and when I questioned what she meant by this, she said: “Well, are you an emo, a chav? What would you say you are?”
I didn’t know what a 'chav’ was but she told me it meant “council housed and violent”. This was at a time when Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard and Catherine Tate’s Lauren Cooper were on our screens - characters that, in 2006, a survey found that 70% of TV industry professionals believed were an accurate reflection of white working class young people.
When I was older, my mum told me to read Owen Jones’ Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class. It revealed to me how the word 'chav’ was detrimental to how people would perceive me and how it would show in qualities like my accent.
Understandably, the messages sent by the members of Activate, a group set up by young Tories to rival Labour’s Momentum, were met with outrage. But the beliefs expressed by them are nothing new.
These perceptions are part of a larger ideology ingrained in society since at least the 1800s, where it was believed that “paupers in England were shameless”. The dehumanising language used in the WhatsApp group is really not so different from that used in the Victorian period. A little later, famed economist and director of the Eugenics Society John Maynard Keynes held the view that contraception was vital because the working class was too “drunken and ignorant”. Today, these historical ideas are exemplified by Activate’s message thread, where the working class are seen as anti-social, shameless and endlessly producing children.
Left wingers often hold just as much contempt for the poor as right wingers. In June last year, when the Brexit result was announced, several Remainers on social media posted messages which suggested a connection between racism and the working class. One image I saw being circulated said: “Totally failed at life? Then why not blame a foreigner? It’s so much easier than taking responsibility for your own poor choices.”
Here, “to fail” was to be poor. Poverty was about choice and not circumstance. This also assumed that only working class people voted Leave and that their vote was entirely motivated by xenophobia. People who apparently pride themselves on tolerance and left wing values started to show their hatred towards the working class, as someone to ’blame’ for Brexit.
It’s easy to recognise the age-old stereotype of a young Tory hating the working class. It’s much harder to see how far back these views go and how widely they are held, even among those we consider allies.
Ronda Daniel is a researcher, youth worker and writer from Dagenham in East London. She recently graduated from the London School of Economics in sociology. Her main interests are class, race and disability. You can follow her on Twitter here.