As part of the University of Kent’s ‘In Conversation‘ series, journalist, presenter and Chancellor of the institution, Gavin Esler, interviewed Owen Jones at the Gulbenkian Theatre on Monday 23rd October. The event had sold out, perhaps indicative of the renewed appetite for politics in the City following Rosie’s record-breaking victory, a triumph that Owen alluded to in his opening speech referencing the ‘People’s Republic of Canterbury’, received to healthy applause.
Owen Jones was born in Sheffield in 1984 and grew up in Stockport. He is a columnist at The Guardian and author of Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment – And How They Get Away With It. Jones describes himself as a democratic socialist, indeed, socialism used to be a term the Labour Party was more than happy to champion. In its historic 1945 manifesto, Labour announced that it was “a Socialist Party, and proud of it“, with the ultimate objective of establishing a “Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain“. However, socialism came to be seen as a swear word. Thatcher made it abundantly clear that she was at war with what she regarded as socialism.
Jones factually explained that if socialists really were running the show in Britain, they would be building a society run by, and in the interests of, working people. Our banks would be taken under genuine democratic control, forcing them to operate in the interests of society as a whole. Our booming wealthy elite would be forced to pay a fair share of tax and our utilities would be taken into social ownership. A socialist government would bring down welfare spending, not by kicking people at the bottom, but by building social housing, introducing a living wage, and creating jobs and they would reverse the scandalous lack of rights that workers have in the workplace.
Jones described the Tory party as one driven by personality not policy and recounted the incredible political landscape both pre and post General Election, citing the phenomenal polling lead Theresa May held earlier this year. She had almost the entire support of the British press and her allies presented the Labour opposition as an amusing joke. The Tories genuinely believed they could get a 180-seat majority yet as we all know now, the Tory campaign was a shambolic mess, notable for its U-turns, a manifesto that often disintegrated and robotic mantras open to ridicule.
Let’s not pretend that Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity and success was due to May’s calamitous performances, Jones reminded us. June’s General election saw the highest turnout in 25 years, as nearly 70% of Britons voted and Labour won the majority of seats where turnout was up by more than 5% suggesting a late surge of support. Jones referenced YouGov stats which found that more people voted Labour because of the party’s Leader with just 6% of Labour voters backing the party because of their local MP. In response to questions regarding the media, Jones pointed to the effective use of grassroots movements and Labour’s social media campaign, particularly Momentum videos, seen by 1in 4 on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
For Jones, the turning point in the General Election was Labour’s manifesto, a manifesto for the door-step. Millions were inspired by a radical (and leaked) manifesto that promised to transform Britain, to attack injustice and challenge the vested interests holding the country back. Voters were attracted to Corbyn’s steadfast leftwing vision, a vision that promises investment in the NHS, in childcare, in schools, in social care, in renationalizing utilities and economic security and hope for ordinary families, a hope that has been absent for a long time.
Corbyn, like Attlee, has read the mood of the people and had understood the appetite, especially among the young, for a genuinely collaborative, participatory kind of politics – politics that invest in the common good and value citizenship. Jones explained that millions of ordinary people had simply had quite enough of the consequences of unregulated privatisation, of outsourcing, of zero hours and the 21st-century scourge of in-work poverty. Voters up and down the country wanted investment in schools, hospitals, houses, police and public services. Voters didn’t want young people to be saddled with debt for aspiring to an education.
Question time also allowed the opportunity for Jones to give his opinion on hot topics including the EU Referendum, Freedom of Movement and Brexit. “It’s what I call the Hackney and Hull problem for Labour, both Labour heartlands, 80% of Hackney voted to Remain, 70% of Hull voted to Leave.” Jones continued, “People in Hull are often older from semi-skilled, skilled working class backgrounds, think ‘I’ve got my country back’.”
Jones declared that we need to find a way to bridge the gap between those who voted ‘leave’ and ‘remain’. Jones passionately championed the value of our European friends, family, colleagues, loved ones and lovers and strongly criticized the divisive nature of Trump’s presidency. Looking to the future, Jones is an ardent champion for the compulsory education of politics and democracy in all Schools and the lowering of the voting age to 16.
We are living in troubled and unique times with Owen stating that ‘this is an age of unpredictability’. Change is in the air, capitalism no longer works and a grassroots campaign has been inspired by a vision, a socialist vision which those in the audience on Monday night, many of them Labour supporters, will never give up on.