Owen Jones: Our Prophet of Hope?

BARRY WINTER was one of 260 people who piled into the largest lecture theatre at Leeds Beckett University last week to hear left wing author and journalist Owen Jones. He left feeling impressed, and a little bit inspired.

Owen JonesBilled as ‘An Audience with Owen Jones’ and organised by Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Leeds North West, this proved to be a very popular event. Well over 260 people piled enthusiastically into the largest lecture theatre at Leeds Beckett University.

In itself, that’s quite a remarkable achievement. Few Labour politicians, if any, are likely to be such a draw as the 30-year-old, Labour-supporting, Jones. It also followed a meeting he’d done earlier in the day specifically for local Labour Party members.

Owen Jones is a regular columnist for the Guardian (and before that the Independent). He also appears on BBC’s Question Time. What brought him to public attention was his first publication, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class – an important topic when the poor are being systematically blamed for their poverty.

Whether by Tory parliamentarians, or through Channel 4 programmes like Benefits Street, the ideological assault on the poor has made deep inroads into popular culture. It has helped pave the way for continuing benefit cuts and all the punitive schemes conjured up by the sanctimonious Iain Duncan Smith.

To be honest, I was not particularly impressed with Chavs. After making some good points, I found the book rather directionless. But it did a much-needed job, and others certainly value it: the New York Times listed it as one of the top ten, non-fiction books of 2011, and in 2013 Jones won the Young Writer of the Year for Political Book Awards. I have yet to read his latest work, The Establishment: And how they get away with it, but again it could not be more relevant.

Jones certainly has the ability to communicate with an audience, as the Leeds meeting amply demonstrated. He is master of his subject, witty, speaks with great clarity, is both passionate and compassionate, and even self-deprecating. He asked why people wanted to come and listen to him, jokingly describing himself as a “pre-pubescent ranter”.

He admitted that he never wanted to be a writer. His aim had been to get discussion going about the injustices around us and to encourage people to go out and do something about it. He argued that only that way can we encourage each other to build a better society, as earlier political movements have done.

Fighting back

Among other things, his wide-ranging talk reviewed the inequalities in society – the housing crisis, the bank bail-outs, benefits sanctions, the living wage, and child care. While the biggest party today is the “yelling at the TV party”, he said, some people are fighting back and sometimes winning. The bedroom tax has been abolished in Scotland and, if-elected, Labour is committed to removing it completely.

He also drew on his experiences of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity of which he was one of the founders. The Assembly is supported by the TUC, national and local trade unions, community groups and others. He noted how the media, including the BBC, tried to ignore their recent demonstration when 55,000 people marched through London to oppose the cuts. Russell Brand was among them.

Indeed, Brand declared: “Owen Jones may have the face of a baby and the voice of George Formby, but he’s our generation’s Orwell and we must cherish him.”

That was strong praise indeed, although I see him differently. I think that his ability to deliver clear political messages makes Jones more like Tony Benn, whom he so admires: he’s a Tony Benn for our times. He combines the best of Benn – not his leadership of the Labour left, which was at times disastrous – but his skill as a communicator and his ability to inspire hope.

Like Benn, Jones encrouages us to believe that by fighting back we can also start to change society for the better. At a time when politics seems particular difficult, when the ground beneath our feet is shifting, hope grounded in collective action, political analysis and fellowship certainly needs to be valued. Thanks Owen.


Read Owen Jones’ Independent article on the People’s Assembly here.

See also: ‘First Impressions of the People’s Assembly’.