Features I Interview with Owen Jones
By Ruby Lott-Lavigna
Owen Jones definitely did not have time for this interview. Having just published The Establishment, a book that looks to challenge unquestioned power, whilst also being the BBC’s token ‘lefty’ to go to for all media coverage ever, Owen had been rushing around the country, publicising his novel, doing talks, covering the news, as well as apparently staying up all night to comment on the Scottish referendum (he tells me, as we meet on the day Scotland are voting). None the less, in-between his busy schedule, Owen fits me in after insisting that it wasn’t a problem, and that if I needed anything else I should just email him. I think he might be the nicest human ever.
The fact that we don’t have much time before he has to go and catch a train allows him to get to the point with his answers. To start things off I ask him if he enjoyed writing the book. ‘No. I hate writing. I think writing’s awful. I hate it. I like meeting people, I like chatting to people. Writing a book is horrible, boring, full of solitude, tedious – no, there’s nothing fun about writing, but finishing it off’s good! Talking to people’s good and I like chatting to people and chatting over ideas, but I didn’t want to be a writer so it’s kind of weird that I’ve ended up doing that… whoops.’
I wonder if Owen Jones had ever thought of being a politician. Talking to him, you get the sense that he probably should be. After this point in the conversation, and bar the moment where he almost spills apple juice over my laptop (the scene resembles a microcosm of taking down capitalism, one Apple product at a time) his tone becomes almost rehearsed. Every time I ask him a question, he seems to know the answer, and can reel off a well contained paragraph with a few well thought-out examples, a lot of ‘for me…’s and a Tony Benn quote here and there. I like him, but he seriously is a man of sound bites.
Having been born in Sheffield, and grown up in Manchester, Jones is a controversial figure when it comes to lefty politics, even if his answers are almost too squeaky clean. Even though he seems, for a popular and famous public figure, to be unnecessarily nice in person, people really dislike him. He’s famous for getting slated on twitter and is happy to engage (/fight) with people via the medium. He is also pretty vehement in his dislike of New Labour – which means if you’re not to the left of the Labour Party, then Owen is going to strike you as a caricature of the left. His book, the Establishment, and how they get away with it, as you could probably guess, is not a rave review of those in power. Instead, it looks at the media, politicians, bankers and the ‘shadowy and labyrinthine system that dominates our lives’, insisting that we don’t just lie down and take it, but get up and fight back.
‘Writers have a role in pointing to injustice, and for me, the point of a book like [The Establishment], is to get a debate going, and to get people to look at how unjust and irrational our system is, and to change it and to challenge it. When I go around doing all the talks, that’s my message: whether you read the book or not is kind of by the by, because in this case I wanted to redirect people’s anger away from immigrants, unemployed people, benefit claimers, public sector workers and redirect people’s anger at the powerful. Even if people disagree with me, it doesn’t really matter – because as long as I’ve got people talking about the powerful rather than their neighbours, then I’ve kind of won that one. I’m an activist – and for me everything I do is within that context of being with other people, and being another activist like them, and my writing comes out of that.’
I wanted to redirect people’s anger away from immigrants, unemployed people, benefit claimers, public sector workers and redirect people’s anger at the powerful.
Often, those in the public mainstream on the left are part of the left wing intelligentsia; well-off Southerners who have a lot of white middle class guilt. Owen isn’t, and definitely wants to be on the side of the campaigners, activists, strikers, unions, and not just someone who wrote a few books and churns out an article every week for a lefty broadsheet. After studying at Oxford, which he described as ‘a culture shock to say the least’ and ‘very disorientating’ he went on to work for a trade union lobbyist and a parliamentary researcher for the Labour Party. He now writes for The Guardian, having previously been at The Independent, and is frequently on the telly fighting the socialist fight.
Talking to Owen gives you a real feel for activism. He knows what the problems are, he knows how to provoke outrage, and he can tie it all together then give one big conclusion that leaves you feeling like armchair activism might just not be enough for today. We talk about the classic topics: private education, lack of representation in Parliament, media and boardrooms, the living wage, the tories etc. Whilst his rhetoric may be a bit well-worn, he often tries to offer solutions, which certainly answers the ‘that’s all well and good, but what do we actually do about it?’ tribe.
‘Seven percent of the population go to private school but at Oxford [the percentage of private school students] is about half of the people there, and even the state school contingent are disproportionately grammar schools. So the number of people from non-selective comps is very limited.. My view is that Oxford and Cambridge should automatically enroll the brightest working class kids. If you grew up in a mining village and you get one A and three Bs you’ve done infinitely better than someone who went to Eton and got four A*s at A level. I’d automatically enroll people like that.’ Lifting his smoking rifle from Oxbridge, warm with the flame of injustice, he directs it now towards the the wealthy. ‘I want to do things that are very radical, like I want to take on private education, unpaid internships, expensive post-graduate qualifications, things that people can’t afford to do unless they’re rich or prosperous. To deal with those sorts of issues, to make sure the media, politics, aren’t closed shop for people from privileged backgrounds. It’s a case of making society equal and far more equal than it is today, and abolishing poverty and hardship and suffering. It’s inexcusable, it’s the sixth richest country on the face of the earth and we have one million people depending on food banks to feed themselves. That’s absurd, and we’ll look back at that one day as completely monstrous that we allowed it ever to happen.” And thus with one final swing of the blade (I’ve forgotten which metaphor I was using), Owen defeats the Establishment.
But what can we, lowly victims of the capitalist regime, do? ‘In a plea to young people, you really can change things, and if you look throughout our history, people took on what seemed like insurmountable odds, [like] the Tolpuddle Martyrs, who got transported to Australia for trying to organise trade unions. The early trade unionists who fought for the dignity and rights of the working people, the suffragettes who fought for the rights of women -demonised, reviled, locked up in prisons, force fed, smeared as anarchists and terrorists. Those who fought against racism, and sexism and homophobia, spat at in the streets, spat at by police officers, all vindicated by history. If we look at those who built the welfare state, workers’ rights, the NHS, all confronting power and winning. We stand on the shoulders of giants. That is our history.’
Bloody hell. Owen continues, ‘I look at UK Uncut [a UK based protest group], with predominantly young people involved, who occupy shops and businesses avoiding tax. They force tax avoidance onto the agenda. I go to sixth forms and schools a lot and I’m always struck by how bright and sharp young people are, how aware they are of the world around them, and how angry they are… join a trade union. On campus, work with people fighting for a living wage for cleaning and other university workers, try and break down the barriers between students and university workers. Get involved in campaigns, whether it be on the environment, defending the NHS, all the rest of it. With all these sorts of issue, it’s a case of uniting together, having a sense that an injury to one is an injury to all, that your power is greater when you unite with other people, that strength together. That’s what we’ll do. It’s my plea to young people, if not now then when? Don’t let this unjust society that is robbing all of you of your futures, don’t let it last. Do something you’re proud of. You’ll be proud of yourself, to think that I was part of building a different sort of society, not one run in the interest of those at the top, but one run in the interest of people of keep society ticking.’
There’s a pause. I look up at him not entirely where to go from here. He looks back at me.
‘Everything’ll be alright in the end anyway.’