Owen Jones asks to meet me at the British Library, where he’s working on an upcoming book about the British Establishment.
As we sit outside deciding whether our Northern credentials mean we should accept the British drizzle dripping into our tea, I ask him whether his first book was prophetic. This of course is Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, a successful work challenging the exploitation of divisions between the poor, and what he describes as “the false dichotomy that everyone is middle class except for this group of ‘chavs’.” The book helped propel Jones to the status as the country’s leading young left wing commentator.
Chavs was “if anything a condemnation of New Labour’s Britain”, Jones says; yet its claims about the demonisation of the working classes seem to have been fulfilled or even exceeded since its publication. Jones agrees that “things have got so much worse”, and now these ideas are being used to fuel “a systematic campaign of demonization to justify the onslaught against the welfare state.” He draws a comparison between the attitudes exhibited by the media towards those involved in the Shannon Matthews disappearance case, an example he chose to use in Chavs, and the recent press surrounding the Philpott case; “it got to the stage of using six dead kids to justify a political point.”
It’s a debate which anyone at all familiar with Jones’ writing will know he has engaged in a lot. Too much, perhaps? He recounts that after his many media appearances at the height of the Philpott hysteria “some of Ed Miliband’s people got in touch to say ‘well done, great stuff.’ And I sort of felt that it was their job to do that, not mine.” He opposes firmly the Labour strategy of making concessions to the Conservative Party on welfare, arguing that it’s “completely self-defeating…as soon as you accept the premise of their argument, you’ve lost.”
So given that Labour appears to have a problem with economic credibility in the public perception, where does Jones think they should be taking the debate instead? He agrees: “they need to say we will reduce welfare spending”, but they should target a different part of the welfare state. Instead of targeting “feckless scroungers” he says that we need to stop housing benefit and tax credits effectively going to landlords and bosses respectively, to subsidise high rents and low wages. How? Through the building of more social housing, and the introduction of a living wage. Public spending, he argues, will pay for itself through savings in benefits.
Frustrations with Labour are evident throughout our conversation, but Jones still retains his faith in them. He is a Labour member and has worked for a backbench Labour MP, believing that “every single attempt to set up another left-wing party since Labour came into existence has been a catastrophic failure.” His hope for the left is a rediscovery of strong links with trade unions, full of visions of “giving a voice to those who have been airbrushed out of existence” and supporting “the pillars of our society.” Essentially, he wants to put the labour back in Labour. It’s an optimistic and idealistic model, and one he defends endearingly.
Trying to slip my Tory shoes on (they don’t fit very well, and I don’t suit blue), I put to him the claim that the unions were too strong before Thatcher, so we can’t return to that situation. He responds with a strong historical explanation of how unions were forced into demands for large pay increases by high inflation, and were really just trying to maintain living standards in a difficult world economic context. Still, I can’t help wonder how writing so well about the destruction of the post-war consensus, strong unions and working class solidarity hasn’t made him doubt the plausibility of his own ideas for the future of the left.
The discussion moves to his time at Oxford (History at Univ), and an early article entitled “Abolish Oxbridge”. But really it seems he had a more complicated relationship with Oxford than this suggests. He mentions the need to acknowledge the existence of many other good universities, the need for more radical schemes for fair access(including lower grade offers for those from low participation backgrounds),and how parts of the Oxford image like Sub-Fusc should be discarded to avoid deterring them. As we part Owen tells me he panicked towards the end of his degree and joined Cherwell as “a deputy News Editor or something”, in a frantic search for CV material. “I never wanted to be a writer. I still don’t really”. That said, he’s pretty good at it.
This article first appeared in Cherwell in TT13