Political commentator Owen Jones talks to Palatinate

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Political commentator and author Owen Jones talks to Palatine on why proportional representation, Syriza and possibly even the Labour Party are coherent alternatives to The Establishment.

Owen Jones has become the poster boy of the left in British politics. Formerly a researcher for the trade union movement and the Labour Party, he is now distinguished as one of the most respected and recognisable leftist voices.

Currently a commentator and writer for The Guardian, Jones can be seen regularly feuding with many of the prominent figures of the political right on formats such as Newsnight and Question Time.

After his lecture as part of the Durham Castle Lecture Series, titled after his second book The Establishment: and how they get away with it, Jones talked in depth to Palatinate.

“The Establishment explores how at the heart of our democracy is a network of people who are embedded with unaccountable and unchallenged power”, Jones claims.

“The point about the establishment is that it is not about how unrepresentative it is- which it is- it’s the fact that its unaccountable power.”

In writing The Establishment Jones garnered vast media attention which he determines as a success of the book: “The book- it’s just an excuse to talk about issues and open up a debate about issues I care about. In terms of who has got wealth and power and how we go about changing our society and how we organise to change it.

“The problem is we have the media which is run by these elite who use the media as a megaphone for the interests of people from their backgrounds. For me it’s a case of even getting a debate going is hard, because they’re the gatekeepers of debate.

“Even if people don’t agree with it, which a lot of people don’t, it’s just about forcing a discussion, so if that happens it’s a victory.”

The Great Hall of Durham Castle appears as the antipodal to the location of where one would expect an anti-establishment lecture to locate. The formalities of the Hall and the portraits of many white males feels greatly embedded within The Establishment. Indeed, Jones- an Oxford history graduate- described the Great Hall as “the poshest place I’ve ever spoken in”.

Therefore, it was no surprise that Jones appeared much more relaxed away from the coats of arms and vast windows. He spent amble time after his talk interacting with the audience shaking hands, posing for photos and discussing politics.

That is not to discredit the monologue of Jones. He is a speaker who appears just as comfortable next to David Dimbleby as he does at a rally. It will be unsurprising to those familiar with his work to note that he displayed an endearing ability to precisely articulate his captivating arguments.

Jones is not a career journalist, he crusaded into the media industry from a different background, rooted in an upbringing formed in Sheffield and Stockport, compared to his fellow ilk that are predominantly made up of those who can afford to live off an unpaid internship in cities like London.

“We’ve got to abolish all unpaid internships”

Through the use of the term media-ocracy, a term brought to the mainstream by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, The Establishment explores the great extent to which the media is embedded within the establishment.

“The problem with the media is not just the moguls that run it, it is unrepresentative, partially because of the scandal of unpaid internships, so to even get into the media you’re expected to work for free.

“How does an aspiring journalist from a non-privileged background work for free? Of course you can’t. And that is a bar that discriminates on the basis not of talent but of wealth. We’ve got to abolish all unpaid internships, otherwise we have a media that is dominated by a very small, privileged elite. “

It is clear that writing provides a platform for Jones to reach vast audiences in his pursuit for change. However, as a young- the fresh-facedness of the 30-year-old is often at the core of many offensives by many branches of the right- and popular figure who can engage beyond the characteristically middle class Guardian demographic many postulate the integrity of Jones in entering a career as a Member of Parliament.

This is a question often posed to Russell Brand, a fellow ‘poster boy’ and prominent voice of the left. The response of Jones was synonymous to the answer of Brand and although Jones celebrates the importance of voting, unlike Brand who discouraged voting, he is highly complementary of him.

“I think by saying [don’t vote] that he got a debate going, he got a whole discussion about democracy going that needed to be had.

“I think his critics when they argue that he’s getting young people not to vote- young people aren’t voting already largely- and it’s often because of the very same people attacking Russell Brand as these politicians and commentators who soak cynicism.

“But he actually gets young people- who are otherwise totally disengaged. I go to lots of schools and colleges in inner city areas and often people are talking about issues because of Russell Brand.”

Jones asserts: “I want more working class people and more women in politics who are rooted in their communities and that’s why I have not stood, I’ve tried to support other people instead. We need a more representative Parliament that is treated as a service, not a profession, where people are rooted in their communities. And I will keep fighting for more call centre workers, supermarket workers, cleaners- who aren’t given a voice to be there instead. I think my role is far more important in supporting people like that than being there myself”.

A strong advocate of the importance of engaging in democracy, Jones posits that our electorate are not overcome by political apathy but instead “it’s resignation which is a different thing all together. The problem is there’s lots of lot of anger and fear but not very much hope and without hope people give up. They become resigned, they join the biggest party in the world- which isn’t the Tories, Labour or the Lib Dems-which is the ‘Yelling at the TV party’.”

The solution in Jones’ eyes is shifting this politics of “anger [that] is redirected at their neighbours- immigrants, unemployed people [and] public sector workers” to the politics of hope.

“We have to have hope and that means coherent alternatives to the way this society is run.”

“There is a coherent alternative that isn’t linked to Stalinism.”

“There is a coherent alternative that isn’t linked to Stalinism and I think Podemos and Syriza are showing that- they’re democratic alternatives”

On Syriza, who won 149 out of 300 seat in January’s Greek election, Jones rejoiced: “it is a big revolt by Greek people against an austerity offensive that has basically reconstructed a new model European society- over half of young people are unemployed, huge explosion of poverty and the demolition of basic worker rights and public services.

“It’s unprecedented it will be the first time in a modern European democracy that a radical socialist power will have come to power.”

“The problem is that the international powers don’t want them to succeed because they believe that would then provide a positive example to the likes of Podemos and embolden those movements. “

The increased marketization and privatisation of the University system has pushed the University system further into The Establishment, Jones perceives: “It turns students into consumers and education is not a privilege, it is a social good that all of society benefits from. “

Jones describes G4s who are contracted by the University for security as a “tax dodging company”.

“G4S have a really shocking record in lots of ways in terms of brutality.

“It’s of order that any university employs G4S”

in that way and we’ve got to stop the contracting out to private companies whose interests are not in looking after those of students and others on campus but making money”.

A key campaigner for the nationwide implementation of the living wage, which Durham University still does not pay for six hundred workers, Jones asserted that “it’s an absolute scandal that this institution doesn’t pay the living wage”.

He raises the question “how much are the top figures of this university paid? Quite a lot of money, whilst their people are expected to earn their poverty and their wages subsidised by the state and that is unacceptable.”

Jones is a keen supporter of direct action and can regularly be seen on the picket line for various causes.

However, he recognises that “the right to protest is under attack in this country: “Our ancestors won the right to protest and it is not for us to allow it to be undermined. We’ve got to fight for the right to protest.”

Jones appears optimistic that students will be proactive in defending this right: “I think the student movement is beginning to kick back into action, there’s really hopeful signs of students beginning to get their energy back.”

Although a voice of such political left-right binary, it is the Liberal Democrat party which receives Jones’ most ferocious attack: “They inspired those young people and those young people will never trust a politician again and we should never, ever let them off the hook for what they did to our democracy, and how they undermined that faith.”

While in conversation with Jones policies such as “rent controls, an industrial strategy to create renewable energy jobs, public ownership banks and democratic social ownerships of industries” arise numerous times.

His beliefs align very similar to that of a Green Party manifesto. In fact when it comes to private schools Jones’ views go greater.

Jones demands that they need to be “get rid off” on the basis that “I am opposed to segregating children based on the bank balances of their parents, it’s bad for children and it’s bad for society as a whole. One day we will find it abhorrent that we allowed the division of children by the wealth of their parents.”

However Jones remains a Labour supporter, albeit partially trepid.

He is a great admirer of the Green’s and in particular, their lone MP Caroline Lucas: “I think Caroline Lucas is an inspiring, courageous member of Parliament, what a scandal so may MP’s weren’t arrested for milking their expenses while Caroline Lucas was arrested for standing up against fracking”.

Yet Jones recognises the danger the Green’s pose in splitting the left vote in May’s Election.

“In Conservative-Labour marginals, if you vote for the Greens you just get a Tory MP. If we end up with a hung parliament where the Conservatives are the main party there will be no electoral reform, the total dismantling of the NHS and the welfare state.

“If the Tories win again, that’s not just bad for the Labour Party or people stuck with the bedroom tax, or for people who depend on the NHS, it will be bad for the Green party and the of the rest left. It will be seen as a vindication of Tory-austerity.”

Jones who has only recent emerged as a supporter for proportional representation cites the failings of the current “daft” first-past-the-post as the constraint on greater electoral impact by the Green’s.

“The problem is our election system sucks and if the Green Party get 10% in the next election, they will end up almost certainly with one Member of Parliament.

“We’re in the age of coalitions now, first-past-the-post means permanent hung parliaments as far as I can tell, so if we have hung parliaments all time, we might as well have representative hung parliaments.

“That’s why whatever happens, if there’s a hung parliament where Labour is the biggest single party, they can be compelled by the other smaller parties as a condition of their support to offer a referendum on proportional representation.”

However, Jones remains anxious of the role of UKIP in eroding the core Labour vote: “UKIP are disproportionally winning over working class people with often deflected anger- people can’t affordable homes because there’s not enough council houses, their wages are falling, they can’t get a secure job.

“I think Labour should offer a more courageous, inspiring alternative to austerity- if they just came up in support of renationalising railways that is such a symbolic message that we’re going to be different than what came before.

“It hasn’t been the environment that’s won over the majority of Green Party supporters, people just think they’re better on social justice and on austerity.”

Another aspect of this shifting of the Labour Party would involve the greater revival of the trade union movement, whom are “the pillars of any decent society which we have to fight for”.

He is unsurprisingly critical of New Labour: “the problem is obviously New Labour represented a shift away from that historic mission, the role of the Labour Party to represent working people.

“As long as that trade union link remains I believe there is something to be fought for there with the potential to represent working people.” However, Jones affirms “they have no automatic right to represent working people”.

Therefore he foreshadows the potential mirroring of the collapse of social-democratic parties in Greece and Spain: “If the Labour Party come to power and attack their own people they will destroy themselves and they will be replaced by more radical forces”

Jones is an incredibly divisive figure, he fights against what The Establishment stands for and therefore is unsurprisingly the martyr of many of the aggressions of its people and organisations. However, Jones continues to rally against this, at only 30-years-old he has emerged as one of the most prominent voices that many of the left can rally with, share and retweet. The extensive coverage The Establishment gained in the media- a media that is so embedded within The Establishment- must be regarded as one of Jones’ great successes.

Regardless of your political views, Jones is opening debate and discussion, for many who would otherwise feel voiceless or disengaged, with the goal of coherent alternatives through change.

 

Photograph: Miguel Garcia 

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