The photo showed a young, good-looking couple posing proudly on the landing of their newbuild house. The image was going viral on Twitter. In its background, dominating the entire scene, was an enormous portrait of Peaky Blinders’ Tommy Shelby.
Cue huge mirth online, ridicule and assumptions about the politics and vulgar consumption habits of the couple. They were instantly held up as a real-life version of “Deano”: the widespread meme about a call centre supervisor who lives in a Barratt new build, has whitened teeth, and likes playing Fifa, “banter”, Love Island and package holidays to Marbella. Deano’s wife (you need a dual income to get a new build) is also a call centre supervisor. In the meme, Deano’s house is decorated with Sofology sofas – imagine!
When the Deano meme emerged on 4Chan, and then spread further on Twitter, the reaction of the British left was predictable. At first, people laughed at Deano, “Haha I grew up with those sorts of people-plebs, Brexit voters.” Then, inevitably, came, “Uhhh, how dare you make fun of the working class!!” Then came a final wave of moralising: “Actually these people are actually middle class because they own their own home.”
The chatter demonstrated that few on the left really understand class. Fewer still understand the lower middle class, what Marx called the “petty bourgeoisie” – the self-employed and white-collar workers sandwiched in a liminal zone between the working class and the established middle class.
[See also: How the left forgot the petty bourgeoisie]
The possibility that Deano might be petty bourgeois rather than working class or middle class was not entertained, but it is precisely the sprawling lower middle class – and not the working class or established middle class – that dominates the new-build commuter belt, the places Duncan Weldon dubbed “Barratt Britain”: the new, dystopian British version of American white picket fence suburbia.
Despite the size and political influence of this class – so often alluded to as swing voters, middle England, Essex man, and Mondeo man – it is rarely identified accurately. Everyone knows those types of people and knows their aesthetics. But understanding who they are remains elusive. Because they are often culturally and socially close to the working class – they have similar consumption habits, they have regional accents, they live in the same non-metropolitan areas – they are confused for the working class, and often held up as examples of working-class “Red Wall” conservatism. Ironically, the entire raison d’etre of the petty bourgeoisie is precisely its desperation not to be the working class, which has historically manifested itself in piety, social conservatism and a tendency to vote to the right.
Debates about Deano and Barratt Britain demonstrate that the gulf between progressives and “everyone else” is not purely political, as in Thomas Piketty’s analysis. There are also cultural and social divides. There is a yawning epistemic gap opening up in Britain today between different ways of living and life experiences – where we live, how we live, what jobs we do, who we know, our consumption habits and our tastes. All these class divides are increasingly mediated through geography, and housing in particular.
In every community across the UK, class divides are expressed, understood and lived through housing aesthetics. Council estates or detached houses; nice area or rough area; new build versus tasteful Victorian terrace; astroturf garden with faux olive trees or bohemian rewilded garden to help the bees. This operates down to divides within individual streets: walk down the road and you can see the everyday process of distinction at work. Whether houses have numbers or names; whether your front garden is tidy or unkempt; anti-burglar smart doorbells; whether you put your bins out correctly or not. As Pierre Bourdieu once pointed out, taste is central to reproducing and entrenching class boundaries subjectively in everyday life. Taste is central to how people understand what they are and what they aren’t.
The process of class distinction via housing has also been reinforced by the dominance of home improvement and interiors television shows as light entertainment formats. Class divides also influence, and are influenced by, our social media habits: advertisers and algorithms are experts at understanding and reinforcing the different interior aesthetics of different classes. Advertisers know whether you shop at Dunelm, Next Home, H&M, John Lewis or Ikea; whether you follow Mrs Hinch (the doyenne of Barratt Britain), Molly-Mae or Matilda Goad on Instagram.
In Distinction, Bourdieu published an exhaustive list of the tastes and lifestyle choices of the various classes in France. We had our own version in 2021: when the Royal Family Twitter account tweeted a photograph of Princess Anne’s living room, people were shocked to find it far less regal than expected and “full of clutter”. The Telegraph asked its readers “how posh their living room was”. The article was complete with the newspaper’s own list of which interiors the different classes favoured. According to the piece, “there are five main interior tribes”: the “upper class” (actual royals in this case), who favoured a selection of paintings, chintz armchair on a patterned rug, statuettes of animals; the “bohemian middle class”, an array of literature, William Morris print, artwork; the “nouveau working class”, inspirational quotes, silver mirror, grey furniture, glass coffee tables and pile rugs; the “flash middle class”, apparently embodied by Amanda Holden, favouring soft furnishings, dark paint hues, velvet sofas; and bizarrely the “suburban class”, “who favour plastic covered sofas”.
The Telegraph verdict (of course) was that Princess Anne’s living room, “in all its rough and tumble glory”, was one “only the truly posh could pull off”. Here was a fundamental point, one often missed by the many people who have never encountered the truly privileged upper classes. The houses of the upper classes are chaotic. This is because, as Bourdieu explained, the life of the upper classes is defined by ease. They don’t have to impress anyone. They are not threatened by downward social mobility. Their house isn’t as big a deal to them as it is to the lower middle classes: they’re likely to have more than one home. They have cleaners. They have no familial memory of working in filthy conditions, nor have they faced the stigma of being seen as poor and dirty. As a result, they’ve had no need to develop the fastidiousness long associated with the houseproud, respectable working class or the lower middle classes, whose houses are often obsessively clean.
The Telegraph’s list illustrated a cruel irony of distinction. The petty bourgeoisie’s striving for respectability through housing, their obsession with newness, glamour and tidiness (personified by the new build, crushed grey velvet and astroturf lawns), only serve to affirm them as a class subordinates, cringingly pretentious try-hards, their insecurities given away by their sofas. While Princess Anne’s room was “a masterclass in continuity and comfort”, the grey furniture and inspirational quotes of the petty bourgeoisie are mocked. Holden’s home was said to be “more Soho House” (a members club) than a house for real people. While Mrs Hinch has been an inspiration for thousands, she has predictably also become someone people can define themselves against. Her aesthetics are often mocked as tacky, and she has been relentlessly targeted by online trolls.
Barratt Britain – and the people like Deano who live in this new build universe – are becoming leitmotifs for everything wrong with the UK. Twitter accounts like Newbuild Hate gleefully chronicle the shockingly poor quality of new builds. The Guardian calls new builds “hideous boxes… soulless, mediocre housing designed around cars”. The same paper praised Michael Gove for blocking new developments on aesthetic grounds. Rather than dealing with rising homelessness or the misery of tenants, the government’s main concern regarding housing has been ensuring “beauty” and avoiding “ugliness” in building.
Much of the resentment of new builds, and the people who live in them, is ultimately aimed at the society that they symbolise versus the society Britain once was. While council estates used to come with green spaces, pubs and doctor’s surgeries, representing the collective spirit of the post-war settlement, new build estates are isolated, totems of an atomised society: not places to socialise or actually live, but simply places to sit and watch Netflix and order pizzas in between call centre shifts. They represent a society based on unsophisticated, middle-brow consumerism and individualism, devoid of culture and collectivism.
The lower middle classes have long been stigmatised: both by the working classes who resent their social climbing and conservatism, and by the established middle classes who sneer at their pretension and gaudiness. British pop culture has long revelled in parodying the petty bourgeoisie: Hyacinth Bucket, Boycey, Loadsamoney, Keith Talent. All the consumer society’s sins and the excesses of Thatcherism were projected onto one hapless class of people.
Cheaply built new houses on the outskirts of towns are the only option for many first-time buyers in Britain. Amid the housing crisis, it is nonetheless still possible for a younger couple in our “undesirable” regions – perhaps working in sales, or a nurse and a tradesman – to cobble together £15,000 in savings for a £130,000 two-bed new build, especially if neither of them are saddled with student debt.
Of course, the reason people are so excited about their new build is not because of vacuous consumerism. The truth is that they own an asset that confers some security and the hope that they are not going to be sucked down into the precarity from which many of them have come. When you believe you’ve achieved this stability it is cause for justified celebration. It is unlikely that people whose parents own large semi-detached houses in leafy suburbs (a safety net taken for granted and the guarantor of future family stability) will ever understand the pride and relief of Deano and his partner.
Housing is likely to play a significant role in coming elections. The housing crisis shows no signs of abating as Tory-donor developers maintain their chokehold on British housing policy. Plans for new council housing are frequently opposed on environmental grounds and attempts to build new, affordable housing at scale by the last Labour government were a huge failure.
Despite the scale of the crisis, no coherent political movement is emerging around housing, not least because the relationship between housing, politics and class is not straightforward. Just as Thatcher hoped, mass working-class home ownership helped to split the working class by giving some owner-occupiers interests which align with capital (by wanting house prices to stay high) and by placing them in indirect tension with renters (who need house prices to fall). Hence residents’ groups frequently oppose the building of social housing, and so on.
Although vocal, the current campaign for housing justice is small, consisting mainly of renters’ unions like Acorn, which are comprised of downwardly mobile, city-dwelling graduates. They are the remnants of Corbynism. Yet growing the movement for tenants’ rights will also have to somehow incorporate ultramarginalised elements of the population who also rent in social housing, and these are groups which have very little in common socially or culturally.
The housing movement’s growth is also stunted by the left’s tendency to view the world as being neatly split into good and bad people, to see enemies everywhere, rather than potential allies. This tendency is all too evident when it comes to housing. Frustratingly, many smart young socialists genuinely believe that society is neatly split between selfish boomer homeowners and renters. More recent, resentful versions of the Deano meme have included Deano as a puppet master, with Joe Biden and Boris Johnson on his strings, alluding to the perceived power that the lower middle class has over politics.
Yet there is no homogenous “homeowner bloc” of “winners”. Within the category of “homeowners” are many people living precarious, debt-laden lives. At the bottom of the pile are people like Deano, in their poorly built homes that often rapidly depreciate in value. Hundreds of thousands of people are being hammered by rising interest rates. Some will lose their homes, many others will be forced into enormous debt to cling on to them.
Given that owner-occupation remains the dominant housing tenure in the UK, the only way to achieve housing justice is to build bridges across housing tenure, between renters and these precarious mortgage holders. This will require an end to making assumptions about people’s politics and lives based on aesthetics and realising that homeowners are as much at the mercy of the dysfunctional housing system as renters, and that it is in everyone’s interests to take the system out of the hands of the market. Until that happens, Deano will remain the most misunderstood man in Britain.
[See also: Down with free market urbanism]