made a big impact in 2011 with his first book, Chavs, which established him as an influential new voice on the traditional left.
Simon Joseph Jones looked him up at the British Library on 21 March 2013.
Photography: Andrew Firth
You talk a good deal about your family background. Is it something you’re particularly proud of?
My great-grandad was a railway worker who was inspired by the Russian Revolution. He was in the general strike of 1926 – he [came out in support of] the miners and had his wages docked as a result. My grandad joined the Communists as an apprentice dockworker and then became a lifelong member of the Labour Party. (My great-uncle was on the football team of the Independent Labour Party when it split from Labour in disgust in the early Thirties.) My grandma was a left-wing Labour councillor – her proudest-ever moment was stopping a family being evicted by their landlords over Christmas.
My parents met in the late Sixties in the Militant Tendency, the Trotskyist group that infiltrated Labour in the Eighties – my dad was a South Yorkshire organiser during the [1984–85] miners’ strike and my brothers were babysat by striking miners. My parents took in refugees from Pinochet’s Chile in the 1970s (as others in South Yorkshire did at the time).
So, my family are socialists going back generations – obviously, different types of socialists – and that is where my beliefs come from. I grew up surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of socialist books – Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg…
In a sense, actually, my beliefs are a bit of a backlash against my parents, because by the time I was growing up they were so battered and demoralised by Thatcherism. I mean, they were on the losing side and it was utterly soul-destroying for them, because everything – their relationship, their whole lives – had been dedicated to socialism. There was a total sense of defeat – it seemed that the class struggle was over. So, that’s what I wanted to kind of fight against, to try to rebuild the left in some way.
What do you see as the point of the left?
I’ve always been clear about who I am. I’ve never claimed to be a working-class hero, because I’m not – especially compared with some of the people I grew up with
The role of the left historically, since it emerged as a force in the French Revolution, is to challenge wealth and power and, in the broadest possible sense, to redistribute them. It was the 1974 Labour Party manifesto that put best what the left should stand for: ‘an irreversible shift in wealth and power to working people and their families’. The right is defending the interests of the wealth and power entrenched in society – and in the last 30 years, of course, has attempted pretty effectively to redistribute them to those at the top.
Do you think it adds weight or value to your views that your parents and grandparents were ‘in the movement’?
No, I don’t – actually, in a way I think it is more valid when people come to socialism through their own experiences. My beliefs didn’t come from experience – not that I was brainwashed, but I grew up in that atmosphere. I’ve met countless people with no family history who’ve been radicalised, and I think that actually has more weight. But it’s not a game of leftie Top Trumps!
Some people on the left seem to see you as just the kind of person the movement needs more of.
Oh, well, I’m not sure people from my background are necessarily what’s needed…
I’ve always been clear about who I am. I’ve never claimed to be a working-class hero, because I’m not – especially compared with some of the people I grew up with, who came from some of the poorest backgrounds imaginable. A lot of them particularly suffered the aftermath of the Eighties – if their parents were in work, it was very low-paid, insecure work. They were people from the sorts of backgrounds I want the Labour Party to fight for.
I mean, my primary school in Stockport was in the bottom 5 per cent by results. I was the only boy to go to Sixth Form and that wasn’t because I was brighter at all. (It was the biggest Sixth Form in the country – there were 9,000 of us – and three of us went to Oxford!)
The right are always looking for people on the left who are hypocritical, or pretend to be something they are not, so I’ve always been clear that I come from a relatively privileged background. I mean, my mum had a respectably paid job as an IT lecturer at Salford University and my dad worked for the local authority, until he lost his job in his early fifties.
How do you define ‘working-class’?
For me, it’s everyone who is forced to work for someone else for a living and has no real control over what their work is – and also those who, because of the system we live in, can’t get adequate work. It’s people doing blue-collar work or routine white-collar work – so it’s the majority of society.
It’s not to do with how poor you are. Miners on the whole are pretty well paid. Car workers are traditionally very well paid. Train drivers are well paid – on the Tube, they’re very well paid. They’re still working-class, though. They don’t have real autonomy.
Christianity has been used to justify conservatism, liberalism, socialism, Franco used it to justify the Nationalist side in the Spanish Civil War – and liberation theology mixes Catholicism with Marxism
Your father’s side of the family come from North Wales, and your grandfather was a chapel-goer, is that right?
No, my great-uncle. He was a Methodist lay preacher. His religion and his political beliefs were intertwined.
As a lot of people’s were in those days.
Well, exactly – as Harold Wilson said at the time: ‘The Labour Party owes more to Methodism than to Marxism.’ My dad grew up in a Welsh Methodist community – he was in the choir and so on. He was brought up in Liverpool, but he only started learning English when he was seven. He was brought up by his mum, who was staunchly, staunchly religious. She would always say, ‘Have you done your prayers?’ before you went to bed. (My other grandmother, who died a few months ago, was a sort of deist…)
You were raised in an atheist household yourself. What do you make of Wilson’s dictum?
I think the thing about religions is, they’ve been interpreted politically in such a diverse range of ways. (This is why I’ve got a problem with aggressive New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and this idea that religion is the source of all evil.)
Christianity has been used to justify conservatism, liberalism, socialism and everything from – you know, Franco used it to justify the Nationalist side in the Spanish Civil War and then, you know, you’ve got liberation theology mixing Catholicism with Marxism.
There are bits in the Bible I would look at – ‘The meek shall inherit the earth,’1Matthew 5:5 ‘It’s easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle’ – because I think that’s mistranslated – ‘than for a rich man to enter the gates of heaven.’2Matthew 19:24 – the Aramaic words for ‘camel’ and ‘rope’ are identical, and the Greek words are very similar. Christian Socialists like Tony Benn3Interviewed for High Profile in September 1996 have always drawn on those sorts of ideas to justify their beliefs.
When you told your family that you’re gay, did that cause any conflict or tension?
Well, I only came out to my parents three or four years ago, and it was quite a wimpish way of doing it as well, because I just said: ‘There’s someone I want you to meet. He’s called George.’
It was funny, actually, because Militant were known among left-wing groups for being very ‘workerist’ – everything was always about class and they were a bit dodgy on things like gender politics, race and sexuality, to be honest – they were seen as distractions or diversions from the class struggle. I think a leading member of Militant said: ‘Homosexuality is a petit-bourgeois deviation which will disappear with capitalism.’
And when I said it, my mum kind of went: ‘That’s OK, that’s OK, that’s OK’ – and my dad said nothing, and he’s never mentioned it since. He’s relatively socially conservative, but certainly not homophobic.
One of my best friends growing up is an evangelical Christian – in fact, he was a creationist until just a few years ago – and he was interesting about it. I remember coming out to him – we were room-mates at the time at Oxford; but it wasn’t really an issue, no.
I’ve been asked to stand for Parliament and I said no because I didn’t have any connection with the seats I was asked to stand in. But I never wanted to be a journalist, to be fair
So, was identity politics something new that you added to your family’s socialist mix?
My mum – I don’t call her ‘Mum’, actually: she wasn’t comfortable with that, so I call her by her first name – was actually a very strong feminist. Every Sunday, the housework was done on a rota system to make sure the women didn’t end up doing all the work. I’m not a great cook and I remember her suggesting, when I was about 13, that I was intentionally sabotaging what I was doing because I subconsciously thought that a woman should be doing all the cooking!
Obviously, my parents brought me up to take a stand against racism, and I remember taking on playground racism when I was about seven.
As for homophobia, they just never talked about it.
Do you have any political heroes? I know you’re not supposed to have them on the left…
Yeah, there are people I draw inspiration from. The one I keep plugging at the moment is Frederick Douglass, the 19th-century African-American statesman (and freed slave) who said: ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.’ You don’t get change through the goodwill and generosity of those above but the struggle and sacrifice of people below.
Nye Bevan’s always had a big impact on me: ‘There is only one hope for mankind – and that is democratic socialism.’ Someone from a working-class background whose politics were informed by the communities he lived in and who had very strong principles – he ended up getting thrown out of the Labour Party repeatedly.
Tony Benn, in his own way, I think always means what he says and says what he means. He used to be a career politician, a technocrat, but he shifted his ground because of what he experienced when he was in power.
All the people you’ve mentioned are politicians. Do you have any aspirations in that direction yourself?
No. I mean, I’ve been asked to stand [for Parliament] and I said no because I didn’t have any connection with the seats I was asked to stand in. I’m not rooted in those communities.
But I never wanted to be a journalist, to be fair.
What did you want to be?
I didn’t know, really, to be honest with you. I wanted to do something to do with the left – that’s why I ended up working in [the left-wing Labour MP] John McDonnell’s office as a researcher and trade-union lobbyist. Then I thought I was going to do academia and I started a PhD which I quit, about the rise of the New Right in the United States and how it won over working-class Americans and so on. What I wanted to do was contribute, in however modest a way an individual can, to the resurrection of the left as a coherent political force. Everything I’m doing now is trying to find ways as best I can to popularise left-wing ideas to as broad an audience as possible.
I think the advantage of where I am at the moment is, I can push ideas to a mass audience, whether on TV or radio or in print, and can challenge what I regard as a suffocating political consensus. I’m travelling round the country doing hundreds of talks, trying to set up local groups… If I was in Parliament, you could say I’d be elected, I’d be accountable, I’d be able to push [my ideas] in a more direct way; but maybe I would actually have less of a platform – again, not for me but for my beliefs: everything I do is a means to that end – and I would end up being just another backbench rebel who could be dismissed as one of the usual suspects.
Then again, I’m not accountable, I’m not elected by anyone, I’m only speaking on my own behalf. People call me a ‘voice of the left’ or whatever, but the left have not elected me, have they? Power, in my view, is only [legitimate] if it’s accountable. People can say to me: ‘Who the hell has elected you to speak on their behalf? You can say what you want because there are no consequences for you – you’re not going to get booted out.’
Many MPs might say that it’s fine to be idealistic, and indeed they have the same ideals as you, but they’re trying to do the dirty political work of shifting things an inch this way or that. Is that a fair point?
Well, that is why as a rule I try to avoid the traditional narrative of betrayal there is on the left – I understand the pressures pushing people to the right, or towards power. You have a very strong and vicious right-wing press; you have your own natural ambition – the desire to make more of an impact yourself; you have the whips telling you, ‘It’s not about giving up your principles, it’s about being able to put them into practice. You can’t do that if you’re just languishing on the back benches.’ I understand all those pressures – but you’ve got to build other, countervailing pressures [to push] MPs in the opposite direction. That’s what I’m interested in.
When the Tories changed the law on workfare4In March 2013, the Government tabled an emergency Bill, in effect to strike down a decision by the Court of Appeal that claimants of Jobseeker’s Allowance had unlawfully been required to work unpaid for Poundland and other employers. and Labour abstained in the vote, I and others tried to build up a load of pressure. Senior Labour figures have said it was the first example of an online lobbying operation from the left using social media and email and they got overwhelmed by it; and even though only 43 Labour MPs voted against, [the party] paid a political price as a result and that will be a marker for them for the future.
You’re now a celebrity, whether you like it or not…
The Telegraph called me ‘the Justin Bieber of the left’. They were trying to insult me, though.
How does that status fit with your egalitarian views?
It wasn’t something I sought. I mean, I wrote a book about class for a small radical publishing house which, because of its timing, ended up doing a lot better than anybody expected. If Chavs5Chavs: The demonization of the working class (2011) had come out four years ago, it wouldn’t have made half the impact – that’s just the reality. I’m always aware that I’m in this position by accident – it’s not down to my own talents.
Sometimes, these hacks on the right go: ‘Oh, you’re clever, you’ve picked out this niche!’ I didn’t pick out a niche; I just had beliefs that happened to have an audience because of the political context – because of who makes up the current government and who is being made to suffer because of their policies.
If I were in your shoes, I think it would go to my head.
People’s lives are being ruined. The left has to get its act together and rediscover its historic mission: to fight for the interests of working people and the poorest in society
My friends take the piss out of me all the time, so it will never happen. And my mum, in particular, is a purist and she’s probably a bit cynical about the position I’ve ended up in. When I started working for John McDonnell in 2005, she was horrified! Her position was: ‘You’ll be in this Westminster bubble, surrounded by all these hacks, and that’ll have an impact on you…’ Even when I was working for radical left-wing trade unions like the RMT and the FBU, she saw that as [being too] close to power!
My twin sister still hasn’t read the book – she’s not even bought it!
Whenever you go on Question Time, it’s striking that not only are you the most left-wing person on the panel, you’re also the youngest…
I look like a 12-year-old – that comes up constantly.
Some people say, ‘It’s great, you’re not just an old dinosaur socialist stuck in the past!’, but at the same time I’m constantly patronised by my enemies. When I began, it was just one long-drawn-out sneer.
I can imagine that you’re pilloried quite a lot.
I face relentless attacks from the right – the Telegraph, the Spectator – even Fox News has done a rant about me6See YouTube. – and sometimes it’s a bit wearing. They even go over my private life – for example, the Evening Standard did a thing in its diary section about the fact that my other half is privately educated. At the same time there’s a small group of people on the left who are very suspicious of my motives and think that if I’m in the mainstream I must be a sell-out.
I hate the idea that anyone thinks I act in bad faith, or that the views I express are anything other than what I just believe. Anyone who knows me knows that ‘having a profile’ was never anything I had any interest in whatsoever. It just wasn’t.
When you think of the defeat of the left in the Eighties, and of the things you want to see happen and the forces ranged against them, are you optimistic?
I’ve got to be. I mean, if you aren’t, you might as well just give up and go home. I have to say, I have very little time for people on the left who are consumed with pessimism and cynicism – especially when you are trying to build a new initiative and it’s all kind of ‘It won’t work’ or ‘It’s not exactly what I want.’
People’s lives are being ruined. Living standards are sliding at the fastest rate since the early 1920s. For the first time since the Second World War, people’s kids will be poorer than them. The left has to get its act together and rediscover its historic mission: to fight for the interests of working people and the poorest in society.
I don’t think that free-market capitalism is sustainable, but the left has to have a coherent alternative that resonates with people. The problem I find, when I do all these talks, is that there’s a lot of anger, a lot of frustration out there, a lot of fear, but not much hope. And you don’t get social change without hope. People just become resigned, they just yell at the TV, or they misdirect all their anger at their neighbours.
So, yeah, hope is absolutely at the centre of everything that certainly I want to fight for. Having seen all the defeats that people in my family went through, I’m more determined than ever to win this one. And I think we are going to.
A slightly longer version of this interview was published in the May 2013 issue of Third Way.
|⇑2||Matthew 19:24 – the Aramaic words for ‘camel’ and ‘rope’ are identical, and the Greek words are very similar.|
|⇑3||Interviewed for High Profile in September 1996|
|⇑4||In March 2013, the Government tabled an emergency Bill, in effect to strike down a decision by the Court of Appeal that claimants of Jobseeker’s Allowance had unlawfully been required to work unpaid for Poundland and other employers.|
|⇑5||Chavs: The demonization of the working class (2011)|
Owen Jones was born in Sheffield in 1984, and grew up in Stockport. He was educated at Bramhall High School and then Ridge Danyers (now Cheadle and Marple) Sixth Form College.
He read history at University College, Oxford, graduating in 2005, and took a master’s degree in US history in 2007. In 2009/10, he embarked on a doctorate at UCL, but he did not complete it.
From 2005 to 2009, he worked in the office of the left-wing Labour MP John McDonnell as a parliamentary researcher and trade-union lobbyist, principally for the RMT (the national union of rail, maritime and transport workers), the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the POA (the union for prison, correctional and secure psychiatric workers). In 2007, he was involved in McDonnell’s unsuccessful bid for the party leadership.
His first book, Chavs (2011), was long-listed for the Guardian First Book Award and was chosen by the New York Times as one of its top 10 non-fiction books of 2011.
Since 2012, he has written a weekly column for the Independent. His journalism has also appeared in the Guardian, New Statesman, the Sunday Mirror, the Morning Star, New Humanist and Le Monde Diplomatique.
He has appeared many times on television as a political commentator, including ITV’s Daybreak and the BBC’s Question Time and This Week, as well as on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions.
Since 2012, he has been policy and media adviser to the new think-tank Class (the Centre for Labour and Social Studies).
In 2013, he was named ‘young writer of the year’ at the Political Book Awards.
Up-to-date as at 1 May 2013