owen jones and the politics of hope
The weight of benefit claimants' flat screen TVs could plunge the UK into a sinkhole unless an army of blue-sky minded app-mongers and tech-smiths rise to the job of saving it. That's at least what the Conservatives will argue over the next six weeks in the build-up to the election. For author and journalist Owen Jones, such scare mongering is just another manifestation of a system that favors the privately educated elites while deriding the less fortunate. Here he talks to Nathalie Olah about the need for a new era of politics, waged on hope as opposed to fear. It's time, he says, for us to join together and oppose the inequality that never was, and never will be, carved in stone.
Hi Owen. I guess the big question to ask at this moment is how will you vote in May?
I will vote Labour. We've got to get rid of this lot. I think the best outcome we can hope for will be a minority Labour government which is compelled to offer a referendum on proportional representation. The Tories haven't won an election since 1992. People compare Miliband to Kinnock but Labour under Kinnock won 34% of the vote and if they did the same today they could form a government. The Tories have been flat-lining in the polls for about three years now and could get locked out of power by the SNP. They're increasingly a party of the South East and their popularity is in decline.
How do we deal with the fact that the UK is becoming increasingly centralized?
I moved to London ten years ago and I love this city. People come from everywhere and live together, eat together and sleep together. That's why UKIP don't do very well here. If I were to live anywhere else it would be Manchester. I miss Manchester. I apply the same principle to Stockport as I do to my twin-sister: 'I can slag them off but no one else can'. I grew up there and I probably didn't realize when I left how much affection I had for it.
But don't you feel like the mass migration south is at odds with socialist ideas about building and contributing to strong communities?
I think there's a lot in that, definitely. What we saw across the country was very rapid deindustrialisation, and I'm not going to idealise those industries because they were often dirty and backbreaking and hostile to women, but there was at least a non-academic route to a prosperous life and dignity. As many people today work as once worked in mines. Supermarkets are the biggest employers. Now there would be nothing wrong with working in retail if it offered security and dignified pay, but it doesn't. What we need is a strategy to shift the economy's dependency away from financial industries in London. We need a strategy similar to that in Germany, where they are building an industry around renewable energy that would provide skilled jobs in places that were hardest hit by deindustrialisation, and creates research and development jobs for people with university degrees too.
The only caveat I would make is that I don't agree with the idea that London is booming while all the poverty is confined to the North. One in four people grow up in an over-crowded home in London. Tower Hamlets is the poorest constituency in the country. Youth unemployment is higher in London than it is in the country.
Do you think the university system that we have at the moment is working?
I think going to university is a good thing, and when people say that fewer people should go to university they aren't talking about middle class people, because they will always go. They mean fewer working class people. And I want as many people as possible to be able to study if they want to. But of course a degree is no guarantee of a graduate job and nearly half of all graduates are doing non-graduate work. Young people are often scapegoated for youth unemployment - they're not skilled enough, they're not educated enough - but when you've got loads of people going to university and ending up without a job, it blows that argument apart.
We have an hourglass economy, with lots of very high-paid jobs at the top, lots of very poorly paid jobs at the bottom and not much in the middle; and access to those jobs at the top is limited to factors of existing wealth, as opposed to education and skills. The media being one of the worst offenders. It employs an army of interns who work for months at a time without any guarantee of employment at the end of it. Who can afford to do that? Only those who can live of the bank of mum and dad.
You encourage people to circumnavigate the unpaid internship system by being tenacious, taking to social media and blogging for example. But a lot of working class kids simply don't have the confidence. It seems like the kind of thing only people who have been trained in debating and public speaking and school newspapers would have the confidence to do…
I think there's a lot in that. A lot of people who go to private schools are taught a certain self-confidence. My dad was a white collar local authority worker and my mum taught IT but when I went to Oxford I had imposter syndrome: surrounded by very confident people, expecting that someone was going to tap me on the shoulder and say, 'sorry, there's been a mistake, you shouldn't be here'. If I think about the people I grew up with, then there were a lot who didn't have any confidence. We have to try and give people that confidence collectively. There's an interesting initiative called Media Diversified who are trying to get a wider range of voices active in the media, which is not just very middle class, but of course, also very white.
Do you feel as though a big hole was left by Tony Benn and Bob Crowe?
Well the thing to remember about Tony Benn is at the height of his powers in the 1980s he was demonized. 'The most dangerous man in Britain' as the Mirror described him. Journalists were going through his bins. He was vilified by the media and the political elite. Then towards the end of his life he was patronized instead. Turned into a kind old gentleman - harmless, eccentric, 'our Tony'. He always said, "I might be old, I might be kindly, I might even be a gentleman, but I'm certainly not harmless." He was always a threat to the status quo. But what happened to Tony Benn reflected what happened to the Left in this country: the original ideas for how the world should be restructured got such a battering that it kind of collapsed as a major force and with that, campaigners and people like Tony Benn were de-fanged, de-clawed, or however you want to call it. The same happened to Bob Crowe. He was a hate figure and then when he died he became 'Our Bob'. It's a way of immediately dismissing the political ideas that both men stood for.
Your personal life has come in for a lot of scrutiny since the publication of CHAVS. How does that feel?
If you challenge the status quo then you have to expect that critics will go for you as a person, rather than your arguments. If you're too poor they accuse you of envy, if you're too rich they accuse you of hypocrisy, if you're too young they call you naive, if you're too old they call you a dinosaur. As long as they go for me, I can take it. I pay my taxes and if I had kids I wouldn't send them to private school. If they want to bring up the brand of a sweater I'm wearing on TV (which I bought from a thrift store, by the way, not that it really matters) then that's just life. But it's when they go for people close to me. There are some quite unpleasant people out there and unfortunately some of them run the media and if you're on the left they'll accuse you of being a champagne socialist unless you're living in a hut and eating berries.
Whatever you think of Russell Brand, we have to agree that it is ridiculous for The Sun to run two consecutive headlines attacking him because his landlord is a tax evader. I don't know about you, but I don't know anything about my private landlord.
It was funny how Russell Brand was touted as a hero by the Guardian until the media hawks jumped on some comments he made about sex to suggest he was a hypocrite. It seemed like a classic case of 'build them up and knock 'em down'.
I think Russell Brand is on a journey and I think if things he's said have been interpreted as sexist then he's changed that. He has a lot of strong feminists around him and he has been honest about the way in which his attitude towards women has changed. The New Era estate campaign that he's been backing is led by very strong women, and he's also supported the Page 3 campaign. But I don't really know Russell that well, I just find his critics insufferable. For instance, I didn't agree with his point about not voting, but I could appreciate that he prompted a big debate about democracy, and the smug politicians who attack him for deterring people from voting, are the ones poisoning politics while he is trying to engage with it. I mean really: what is more responsible for the fact that young people don't vote, Russell Brand or the behavior of politicians? More so than any politician or any columnist with an average of two degrees, Russell Brand is the one getting people talking, being shared amongst young people and prompting debates.
You've expressed strong support for groups such as (Spanish left-wing party) Podemos…
I did an event with them last year. Weirdly my first book did really well in Spain, even though you'd think it was really parochial. Podeoms also translate my articles for their magazine. I think they're a fascinating phenomenon along with Syriza, because they show that the political balance across Europe is shifting. I think there are lessons for the Labour party here: what happened in Greece and Spain was the equivalent of Labour coming to power, implemented austerity and crippling their own voters. The Labour equivalent in Greece, PASOK, got over 40% of the vote in 2009. In the last election they got 4%. In Spain, Podemos have just come from nowhere and they show that there is some light still in the nightmare of austerity Europe.
Why do we still think of austerity and all its trappings as a social issue and not a human rights issue? I'm talking about the right to housing, healthy food and education…
These are all fundamental rights and if we had a constitution, which we don't, then those should be there. We often think of rights and freedoms in very limited ways. So we're allowed to speak out if we want, it doesn't mean anyone will listen, but we have 5 million people stuck on social housing waiting lists. This is one of the richest countries that has ever existed in the history of humanity and there are children living in poverty, while oligarchs snap up properties in central London and leave them empty. It is a scandal. It is a society that is fundamentally bankrupt. It doesn't work, apart from being a racket for a very small minority of rich people.
Do you think that state socialism is still the answer, and if so how do we reconcile that with the globalised, network-based systems that we are all a part of?
I'm not a state socialist. The forms of nationalization that we used to have were very top-down and bureaucratic. The workers in those sectors and the people who used those services had very little say in how they were run, so when they were privatised no one really cared because no one felt like they had any control over them anyway. Anyway it's funny because we do have nationalization of sorts in this country… Margaret Thatcher said in 1988, 'we've not rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them reimposed by Europe'. Well that's exactly what her policies led to, because it's state-owned companies from France and Germany buying up our utilities today.
But for me socialism is about bringing democracy to every part of life. It's not about putting control in the hands of a very distant and bureaucratic state but having workers and consumers represented at every level. You are right in that it can't be achieved in one country alone, especially in a globalized system. Which is why when I look at Podemos and Syriza I feel so heartened because I think there is a real shift taking place in other parts of Europe that can be mutually-reinforcing in bringing about a bottom-up form of socialism.
Are you working on a new book?
I am. It's about the Politics of Hope. Tony Benn said that the only way you get change is through 'the burning flame of anger at injustice, and the burning flame of hope at a better world'. In my first two books there was a lot of anger and maybe not enough hope. Obviously I want to get across ideas about injustices, in whatever limited and modest way I can as an individual, but now I'm trying to look for solutions and alternatives too.
Owen's second book, The Establishment, is out in paperback this week.
Text Nathalie Olah