Article published on October 23, 2015. Reviewed by Mike Stafford
When asked to nominate one of his heroes for an interview at Cheltenham Literature Festival, it might have seemed unusual for Matthew Parris to choose Owen Jones. One might have thought the pragmatic, right-leaning Parris and the passionate left-wing polemicist Jones would have trouble sharing a stage, but nothing could be further from the truth. As Parris told a packed Sky Arts Garden Theatre, he’s an admirer of Jones’ work, his style and his willingness to take a stand for what he believes in even if outnumbered. For his part it was clear Jones reciprocated, and despite their positions on opposite sides of the political debate, the two men gave a thoughtful, cordial and engaging appearance.
So as a working class lad who was Oxford educated, isn’t Jones a Thatcherite success story, Parris ribbed? For Jones, not a chance. As one swallow doesn’t make a summer, one working class Oxbridge student doesn’t erase the profound inequality of modern Britain.
Jones is often cast as an enfant terrible, and Parris used the phrase himself here. It’s an unfair characterisation. Asked if he enjoyed being a contrarian, Jones’ was earnest; there is no fun in seeing all you believe in being trampled on by the boots of injustice. What’s more, it’s a distortion to cast Jones as some sort of outlier. On ownership of rail and utilities for example, his opinion is the majority one. If Jones is a lone voice roaring from the left, it’s because the media is unrepresentative of the nation it purports to serve. Through unpaid internships and through the will of owners seeping inexorably into editorial lines, working class voices are being frozen out altogether.
Granted he was generously unchallenged by Parris, but Jones was persuasive and coherent. His arguments are not scattergun responses to isolated issues, but informed by a clear and consistent narrative. Nor is he a classic leftist ideologue; when questioned by the audience as to what issues the left should address to broaden its appeal, he spoke of self-employed people. We need to champion the now 1 in 7 workers who are now self-employed; aspiration should be seen as positive, it is the baby that shouldn’t be thrown out with the ‘greed is good’ bathwater.
The received wisdom of our age is that pragmatism belongs to the right, but Jones can be pragmatic too – “most people don’t think in terms of left and right,” they just want to get on in life. The challenge for the left now is to convince the middle as well as the bottom how their lot might be improved by left-wing policies.
Jones’ writing can be electrifying when he’s in full flow, but there’s something more exciting about him than that. He is a new voice on the left, aware of historical context but not encumbered by its baggage. If the tide is ever to turn, one suspects we’ll have to put Jones high on the list for a ‘thank you’ note.