Owen Jones admits that he never intended to be a writer. Yet since he graduated from Oxford in 2005, he has produced two books, “Chavs” and “The Establishment”, that to some has made him the spokesperson of Generation Y. And for Russell Brand – that other vociferous anti-establishment figure – this generation’s George Orwell.
Jones chose to speak at Writeidea’s literary festival in Whitechapel last weekend, which received the largest turnout in the festival’s six-year history, largely due to the fact that it remained free. “The vast majority of things I do are free, open meetings. It’s really important to me. It gets the community coming along where otherwise £5 could be a big ask,” he says.
Jones is no stranger to addressing large crowds. Crowds that are now, he says, “disproportionally made up of people who are angry with the status quo.” Throughout the past week, he has spoken at the London School of Economics, the Bristol Festival of Ideas Politics Festival, and the Leeds North West Constituency Labour Party. It is perhaps this last detail – his relationship with politics at a grassroots level – that defines him as a thinker and speaker.
Born in Sheffield and raised in Stockport, Greater Manchester, Jones is from an unashamedly left-wing political background. Both his parents and his grandfather were involved in communist movements, from the Trotskyist faction of the Labour Party to the Communist Party itself.
He is a self-confessed “fourth-generation socialist” and it has undeniably influenced his career: first as a trade union and then a parliamentary researcher. When he speaks, it is evident. Jones talks in plain language and, if he ever does become a little repetitive, it is because “hammering away at a strong message is how we get change”, something he later discloses the Labour party is not doing effectively enough.
A frequent question levelled at Jones is why, when his book is titled “The Establishment: And how they get away with it”, does he still support the Labour party, an emblem of the very establishment he despises?
“Labour do now form part of the establishment. But the party was founded on the basis that the Conservatives and the Liberals were organised to represent the interests of the rich, and the trade unions organised to give working people a voice. I’ve been very active in taking on what New Labour did, whether it be the war in Iraq, the introduction of tuition fees, privatisation and attacking workers’ rights. But as long as there’s the trade union link that gives the potential for working people to have a voice, you can always put pressure on them from below.”
“It’s not loyalty, it’s pragmatism…I have said that this political system seems to be imploding a bit, and if there’s a new electoral system like proportional representation to replace the first past the post system, then all bets are off and you can see where a new party would be set up to represent the interests of the working people. The lessons for Labour are if you don’t offer a coherent alternative then you will be replaced by others – you can already see it happening in Greece and Spain.”
This is what appears to be happening at a local level in Tower Hamlets, where the borough has a directly elected mayor not from a mainstream party, but from an independent party. The Department for Communities and Local Government’s decision to send in commissioners to oversee the functioning of Tower Hamlets Council after it was accused in a report of a “culture of cronyism” is “worrying and bit disturbing”, Jones says.
“All the issues in the report have to be addressed and examined but you can’t have a situation where an elected official with a democratic mandate, however much people don’t like that person, [is] usurped like that. What happens in a democracy is that people vote them out. Obviously that’s not what’s happened here, instead it’s a case of what looks like a politically motivated coup. I think it’s pretty reprehensible.”
Jones leaves with the message that he is limited in what he can do as an individual. He can “stir people up” before the general election, but change only comes about when people “unite together to make it happen”. “It’s the history of this country…you get change by forcing people in power to give in.” If he can get ten per cent of his audience to go out and do something, he is satisfied. “Join a party, join a campaigning group, join a trade union.” Whether speaking or writing, his underlying message is simply to “do something”.