Interview: Owen Jones
“Welfare cuts are going to inflict misery on hundreds of thousands; it’s going to destroy lives…”, the popular left-wing commentator and author of ‘Chavs’ tells Varsity
"I look a bit younger than most of the room", joked Owen Jones to a packed room of students at King’s College on Tuesday night. At just 28, Jones has already earned himself a prominent position as a media figure, writer and icon for young left-wingers. Since publishing his book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class in 2011, featured in the Economist and the Guardian and labeled one of the top ten non-fiction books of that year by the New York Times, Jones has established himself as an influential commentator, appearing regularly on Question Time, Newsnight and in newspapers.
As we settle down for a pint in the King’s College bar, I ask him whether his plan was always to follow this route: from journalist, to writer, to left-wing pin-up. Did he ever think his first book would already be making an appearance on reading lists for several papers at Cambridge just a few years after it was published? “I didn’t really see myself doing any of this stuff. I think it’s sometimes funny when people think you’ve kind of had this ‘game plan’, when actually most people I know just stumble into things, inadvertently”, he says. He pulls a face when a fellow drinker says he has become a “role model” for young lefties, “you’re scraping the barrel there” he laughs.
Jones studied history at University College, Oxford, where he says that in his “third year I panicked and thought there wasn’t really anything extra-curricular on my CV, so I wrote stuff for the student newspapers” before beginning work for trade unions and left-wing magazines. “And because the training you get here [at Oxbridge] often makes you write in quite an abstract way, or in quite an academic way, actually I had to unlearn some of that, to write in a more populist way”. His literary agent warned him against making his writing too “clinical”.
Even if there was no ‘grand plan’, his political outlook must surely have played a role in guiding him towards the subject matter of Chavs, I say, a book which addresses working class stereotypes in Britain. Jones, who describes himself as a “fourth-generation socialist” had spoken about the influence of his relatives’ involvement with left-wing groups. Is this where his inspiration comes from? “Yeah, undeniably. But they all come from very different strands of socialism”. He details how one grandfather had been involved with the Communist party, and how his parents met through their membership of the Militant Tendency, a Trotskyist group in the Labour party from the 1960s to the 1980s. His father’s “full time job was trying to fight for the revolution, but he quit after the miner’s strike... the revolution didn’t really pay any bills”, he joked. His family are “all socialists” Jones says, “but it’s funny, I didn’t actually grow up being brainwashed”.
Asked if socialism was the driving force behind Chavs, Jones begins “obviously as a socialist...”, before telling me “I don’t know if I even use the word socialist in the book, I mean that’s the point I guess. You can talk about socialism without using the word”. The book would not have been so popular had it been published a few years ago, Jones claims, but “class is back on the agenda. What I was trying to do... was to get a debate going about class, because it had been airbrushed out of existence, with this idea that we’re all middle class now, apart from the feckless remnants of the working class... so I wanted to challenge that”. “That was the point of the book”, Jones says earnestly, “that was the only point of the book. You know I never wanted to be a writer, so that was just a means to an end.”
Probing him on where his political allegiances truly lie, Jones explains: “well I’m definitely influenced by Marx, but I’m a democratic socialist, I want a society based on people’s social needs, not in the interests of private property. I want to extend democracy to every part of life”. At which point, a person on the other side of the bar shouts “hear, hear!”. Asked if he would want Britain to move towards the ideal of the Scandinavian social model, he responds: “I’d want to go further than that”. A “society that’s run by working people in the interests of working people”, is what he wants, “but that’s not going to happen via a revolution”.
Completely unfazed as he gives his answer, with a group of people huddled around us in the bar hanging on his every word, Jones says that he was never heavily involved with party politics at Oxford: “the danger of student politics is that it ends up in a bit of a bubble”. But since establishing himself in the media he has travelled around the country making speeches like the one he gave in Cambridge on Tuesday. The standing room only event, hosted by the university Labour Club and the Marxist Discussion Group, was titled ‘what’s the alternative to austerity?’. An opponent of much of the coalition government’s welfare and economic programme, Jones referred to the looming benefit and tax credit reforms in the spring, such as the so-called ‘bedroom tax’, as “black April”. How can people fight this? “You’ve got to start where people are and where the world is ... so say welfare at the moment, obviously I want to take on welfare cuts which are going to inflict misery on hundreds of thousands of people; it’s going to destroy lives.”
“People will kill themselves over that, well they already are. I can’t state enough how horrendous the impact of what will happen will be. At the same time, I know that because of the demonisation of unemployed people, disabled people ... people who’ve been turned against each other, that that whole debate is poisonous and to oppose those cuts is not a popular thing to do in some places”. The government have been turning “the working poor against the unemployed ... private sector workers against public sector workers”, he says with urgency. “There are lots of people who are struggling to make ends meet, to pay the bills” and they look down the street and see neighbours out of work, “something that right-wing journalists and politicians have exploited ruthlessly”.
Jones is clearly more comfortable talking about these “everyday experiences, and bread and butter issues”, than discussing varieties of socialism. “If I come out and talk about socialism in quite an abstract way, people will go ‘well he’s just ranting to me about something that’s irrelevant to my life’”.
David Cameron is leading a “transformative government”, Jones tells me, “transforming this country in the way Thatcher did before him”. We have “a world in which parents have to choose between heating their homes and feeding their children” and "the real deficit deniers are holed up in number 10 and 11", refusing to acknowledge the growth of debt under their government, he argues. His alternative? Jones suggests a different kind of austerity which targets the wealthy and those businesspeople, such as private landlords, whom he claims get rich off the state. He advocates a “proper industrial strategy, as in Germany” and, quoting Keynes, argues that the government’s focus must be on unemployment rather than the deficit. “Look after the unemployment, and the budget will look after itself”, was his message, in the appropriate surroundings of King’s College’s Keynes Room.
A member of the Labour party, though far from an un-critical one, he rejects the idea that another left-wing party is what is needed to challenge the government. Every attempt at a new left-wing party for the last 113 years has failed, Jones says, calling attempts to create a new party the "definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over again" without achieving a different result. Equally, however, he wants to move away from “the dogma of New Labour and the Tories - you let the market decide”.
Alongside his speeches and journalism, Jones is currently working on another book, published by Penguin he makes sure to tell me, on the British establishment. “It’s a polemic about unaccountable power and how it works”, Jones explains. “At the moment I’m interviewing lots of politicians, on both sides, journalists, business people, I’m going out to lunch with people from the City on Friday, because you have to do that”. But the book will also look at what the establishment means for those who are outside it. “There’s one chapter on the police, so I’ll talk to young black men getting stopped and searched, and then I’ll talk to police officers, so it’s about seeing both sides”.
I ask him if Oxbridge, as part of the British establishment, features in the new book. In 2011, Jones wrote an article for the blog LabourList, provocatively titled 'Abolish Oxbridge', arguing that the two universities “remain the preserve of the wealthy and the privileged”. Have his views changed? He laughs, but says “the problem with the Oxbridge system is it isn’t really simply an educational elite, it is partly a social elite, because the people it draws from overwhelmingly are from the most privileged backgrounds”.
“Automatic enrolment for the brightest working class kids” regardless of whether their grades match the standard offer, is what Jones advocates. “Someone like that, even getting an A and two Bs, they’ve done a lot, lot better than someone at Eton who’s had everything stacked in their favour since day one, and went up with three As. I also don’t like the idea of two universities right at the top which are automatically seen as better than anywhere else”, he says, lamenting Oxbridge’s image as the ‘be all and end all’ of higher education.
When the time came for Jones to leave, someone from the talk thrust a pot of money in his hand, collected from the audience, to pay for his taxi to the train station. Smiling, he said he would walk. Jones left the bar to murmurs of approval: “nice bloke” and “what a great guy”. He had clearly done his job well.