You could say that Owen Jones has a knack for spotting trouble – the socio-political kind, at least. In 2011, less than half a decade since graduating from Oxford with a postgraduate degree in U.S. History, he published his first novel, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, which unexpectedly threw him into the spotlight as well as sparking numerous discussions on the subject of class in Britain along the way. Soon after, the England riots of that summer proved what Jones had said all along, that the working class were viewed as collectively bearing the responsibility for all the faults of Britain. Ever since, he’s been writing, talking and broadcasting about the issues which affect Britain today and this autumn, will be in Exeter to deliver a talk on how together, we go about building a new and improved Britain.
A journalist and columnist for The Guardian, a former parliamentary researcher and political commentator and activist, Jones’ career has seen him make an impressive range of media appearances and though the platforms he uses may be diverse in form and audience, the roots of his work stem from a common introspective viewpoint.
“I see myself primarily as somebody who tries to involve people in politics, so writing is part of that. Whether it’s social media or the videos I do, or going on TV, writing, my books or doing these talks, the purpose is always exactly that, to try and encourage people to be politically involved and active.”
“I try and use that as a means to try and get people involved with politics and how to get people who are angry about things to not just yell at the television. It’s perfectly understandable, but how do you get them to take that anger and productively combine it with hope to transform the world, or to change the society we live in? It’s very much about trying to get people, involved, active, and to talk about injustice, which is always my main focus.”
“If you don’t know how many hours you’re going to be working next week, then you’re not free”
For some, ‘Building a New Britain’ could be a lofty ambition of a title for a public talk. Clearly, it’s not the type of thing which can be thought up overnight; it needs to be understood in the context of its origins, as Jones explains.
“About a generation ago, there was the birth of a new social order, which arguably, put profit before people’s needs and aspirations. We got a massive redistribution of wealth and power from the majority to the people at the top. We saw everything from the disappearance of jobs to the decimation of decent, affordable housing for huge numbers of people, and the rolling back of collective power that working people had.”
“The promise of that new social order, whatever you want to call it – Thatcherism, neoliberalism, free-market dogma – was personal freedom, that it would make people freer. Free from the dead rate of the state, the unions, the collectivism, but that freedom wasn’t personal freedom at all, it was insecurity. Insecurity traps people. It makes them less free. If you don’t know how many hours you’re going to be working next week, then you’re not free. If you don’t have a secure, affordable house, then you’re not free. If you’re staring at the ceiling worrying about your next gas bill, you’re not free, or if you’re saddled with tens of thousands of pounds of debt because you dared to dream of a university education from which you’ll benefit from, you’re not free.”
The title of the talk begins to take shape. So how would Jones define that term, and what does a ‘new Britain’ mean to him? “For me, the type of Britain that we need to build is obviously one that is equal and just, but also one where people are free. Younger people now are going to have a worse lot in life than their parents; they’ve been particularly decimated by the cuts. Be that – again – punished with debt for going to university, or the scrapping of the educational maintenance allowance that slammed the door in the face of aspirational young working-class people, or the decimation of youth services across the country, and the lack of secure jobs, not least with the growth of zero-hour contracts.”
“Young people have consequently dragged people into political action”
“The fall in living standards is particularly acute among younger people – if you’re in your early twenties, you’re significantly poorer than my generation was in their early twenties, just over a decade ago. In terms of building a new Britain, the way I frame it is as taking back control, but the also the idea that I’m interested in is how you democratise the economy, so that people in their workplaces have control over their work, and you don’t have the old style of nationalisation, which was decided by bureaucrats, but instead where workers and service-users have control over them.”
“We need to talk more about the number of hours we have to toil. We know that if you work huge amounts of hours, it’s bad for your mental health and you’re far more likely to suffer from mental distress, you have less time with your families and you’re more anxious. In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes thought by now, we’d be working a fourteen-hour week, which hasn’t happened!”
Paradoxically, then, young people are not only seemingly among those hit hardest by the faults of previous governments, but also arguably carry a huge role in the vision Jones has for a new Britain.
“For me one of the biggest focuses is giving young people their autonomy back, and giving them their personal freedom. Younger people are at the absolute forefront with many of the struggles against the social order, be it with minimum wage or paid holiday leave, so we’ve seen lots of younger people increasingly involved with the Labour movement that many saw as being dominated by members of a generation who are out of touch with the current struggles. So, we’re seeing now younger workers affected by rights and insecurity that their grandparents certainly once took for granted, that if you were a worker you would get paid sick and holiday leave; these are things which are often being robbed away from young people, who often get text messages at 6am telling them if they’ll be working any hours that day.”
“Instead of a Labour movement dominated by people of a previous generation with a culture that is very alien, younger workers now are using different media, are dynamic and this new wave of workers in the likes of Deliveroo and Wetherspoons is hugely inspiring. I was part of the student movement back in 2010/11 and though focused on tuition fees and EMA at the time and was defeated, without that kind of mass student mobilisation, I don’t think the political developments since would have happened.”
These thoughts would certainly resonate with a lot of young people and their collective worries and problems – but the solution, it would seem, lay in turning that stress into a unified catalyst for change.
“Young people broke the spell when that government came to power. There’s an idea that British people don’t fight back, that we’re viewed as having a stiff upper lip – that was detonated by young people. Trade unions said that drove them into action, but young people are at the forefront in things like UK Uncut, or the climate change movement, and the same with the anti-war movement when thousands of students and sixth-formers walked out of school in protest against the Iraq War. Young people have consequently dragged people into political action, and without them and the struggles they’ve been involved with, the massive shift with Labour support wouldn’t have happened.”
“When young people go on strike, when they mobilise in their workplace and communities, they can make massive political change, and we can see that in the United States, Spain, Portugal, France – in all of these places, young people have been at the forefront of dynamic new progressive protests and movements. The lesson is that it will take time, the history of victory isn’t with continual victories, but often with setbacks, defeats and then victories. I think Britain will look back at the movements that young people were involved in as absolutely critical to what I believe is the dramatic political change that is about to happen in this country.”
“I think Britain will look back at the movements that young people were involved in as absolutely critical to what I believe is the dramatic political change that is about to happen in this country”
Having provided a bubbling sense of optimism and some food for thought, I turn Jones’ attention to how he managed to establish his own career at a time when the politics of the UK was arguably the bleakest it had been in recent memory.
“I never wanted to do what I do now, I think if my friends knew I’d end up a writer they’d find it pretty bizarre! Towards the end of university, I panicked, so I started writing for my student newspaper. Unfortunately, I couldn’t be too involved because of my exams, but after university I sent my CV to every Labour MP who’d voted against the Iraq War and the MP who got back in touch to say there was possibly something was John McDonnell, so I ended up working in his office for three years, and so I got very involved with the Labour left at a time when it was very marginalised and very weak.”
“I came to the conclusion that there was a limit as to how much could get done in a place like parliament, so I think I wanted a way to popularise the ideas I believed in and to try and make them accessible at a time when the left was very weak. The Tories were on the ascendant, New Labour seemed completely hegemonic within the Labour party; it seemed very much like a low ebb for socialist ideas.”
Against the backdrop of a new Conservative government, Jones’ book enabled him to accumulate what he was thinking at the time and unintentionally put his ideas and beliefs into the spotlight.
“I put together this proposal for a book on class, called Chavs, and I wrote that book on the basis that whilst I could have called it Class in Britain, there’s no shortage of dour left-wing academic takes on social class, and I wanted to write something that was more accessible – particularly for young people. It then got rejected by lots and lots of publishers, and then a small, radical publishing company called Verso took it on. I didn’t expect it to have anywhere near the impact that it did, but the reason it made such an impact was because of the political context; the Tories had just come to power, the economic crash had affected living conditions and so people were ready to talk about class again in a way that people wouldn’t hear them and think ‘oh, go back to the 1960s, you communist dinosaur!’, and then people were ready to get a discussion going.”
“The media discriminates all too often on your parental wealth, rather than your potential”
“But off the back of that, what happened was – again, I didn’t want to be a columnist – newspapers got in touch and asked if I would be interested in writing about my book for The Independent or The Guardian or different television and radio stations, and if I would be happy to talk about other things, to which I said yes, and then eventually The Independent offered me a contract. So, it wasn’t a burning ambition, but I had these ideas that I passionately believed in and wanted to make accessible and so it just evolved in that direction. It was less about ‘I want to be a writer’ and more that ‘I want to make these ideas accessible’ in the limited way an individual can”.
This leads us to working in the too often privileged environment of national British media. With many writers and editors of Exeposé aspiring to work in the journalism industry, what has Jones learnt in his time as a writer, and how prominent is the issue of class in the face of the British media?
“Certain beneficiaries of privilege in the media don’t like it being talked about and go berserk when I talk about it, but people are often like that. The sense that if you scrutinise privilege, then it’s seen as a political affront. Objectively, the media is one of the most socially exclusive professions in the country. According to one government study, it’s second only to medicine in terms of parental backgrounds of leading journalists. Nobody is saying that there is no such thing as someone from a non-privileged background being able to make it, but the odds are weighted heavily against it. That’s because of the decline of local newspapers, which are in crisis and are today less of a way for non-privileged people to get into journalism, almost like an apprenticeship. People would start off at local newspapers instead of going to university.”
“Unpaid internships are filled by the friends and relatives of people working in the media, so the issue of who you know is another problem in the media. But another one is expensive postgraduate qualifications – often spending thousands of pounds on a Masters degree plus living costs is just not something people can afford.”
“The media discriminates all too often on your parental wealth, rather than your potential. That has an impact on our democracy – if you have a media that is dominated by similar backgrounds, it impacts the stories and issues which are talked about and the angles taken on them. You get people from privilege background who do excellent work on some of these issues, but it’s the same the higher up in journalism you go – there are fewer women, which of course impacts the coverage of issues which affect women.”
“It’s the same with race – there are very few prominent Muslim writers at a time when Islamophobia is so rampant, so I think it distorts coverage to a degree, as well as being fundamentally unjust. Issues like the housing crisis would be far more discussed if the people who grew up affected by them were writing, so for me we need a dramatic change in access. That will mean upsetting the existing beneficiaries at the top of the system.”
“I wasn’t in the position to do a Masters degree, that just wasn’t an option for me, so that’s a big passion of mine. How do we make this accessible? How do we get more representative voices, particularly working-class people, women, people from minority backgrounds, and disabled people – especially at a time of cuts. So that for me, is an issue of justice as well as democracy.”
“There’s the issue as well that if you criticise the media, that makes you like Donald Trump, which is such a logical fallacy”
So, does Owen Jones think the face of British media is likely to evolve over the coming years or will it take a big upheaval to make a significant change?
“I think it will take an upheaval, but I’m confident that it will happen. It’s all too often a closed shop for the privileged. The reason it evokes such a defensive reaction from leading writers and commentators is that everybody likes to think they got there from their own steam. I’m sure many of them did get there on their own talent, but nobody wants to think that maybe there were massive odds stacked in their favour and that had they been brought up differently, they wouldn’t be there. That causes a crisis in self-confidence, and that’s why this debate is so heated and difficult. But I think it will change, because at the moment there is so much disillusionment with the status quo and the social order and national institutions in this country.”
“Over the last decade, financial crisis onwards, we’ve seen crises involving these institutions, such as the phone-hacking scandal. For millions of people, their lives got more difficult, their wages fell or stagnated, public services have been affected, so there is a general sense of injustice. There’s the issue as well that if you criticise the media, that makes you like Donald Trump, which is such a logical fallacy.”
“The media’s faults aren’t just in its make-up, it’s that it often directs anger at those without a voice, such as refugees, migrants, Muslims, trans people, and that constant relentless attitude, from some of the most powerful institutions in the country, determines a higher national political debate and determines the priorities. But the consequences are that there are often lies about the minorities, who are in a difficult position in defending themselves, which legitimises bigotry and hatred with often real-life consequences.”
“When the media respond to any criticism as though they’re the victims, as they pile on criticism to minority groups who don’t have a significant voice in British voice, I find it absolutely galling. I think things have to change, people are so fed-up and sick of the way every part of all the leading British institutions are run, that this country will go through a peaceful and democratic revolution in the coming years which will sweep away the old order and leave something new in its place.”
This sense of optimism leads us back to where we started, of going about building a new and better Britain. Listening to Jones’ thoughts on the state of the nation and the wider world, you can’t help but feel somewhat inspired and hopeful about what’s to come in the future. If young people have been the catalyst for change since the turn of the millennium, it almost makes you believe that the future is in safe hands.
Owen Jones will be speaking at his ‘Building a New Britain’ talk at Exeter Corn Exchange on Thursday 1st November – tickets can be found here.