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A Magazine for Sheffield

Owen Jones: Author and parliamentary researcher talks to Now Then

Owen Jones is one of the most influential figures on the British left. His 2011 debut book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class prompted much debate about class in 21st century Britain. A lot of the book details the effects that Thatcherism and New Labour policies have had on working class communities. Owen has also worked as a parliamentary and trades union researcher. Described as a "baying jackal" by Fox News, he was born in Sheffield but raised across the Pennines in Stockport into a family with a longstanding Socialist tradition. Now a columnist at The Independent, I caught up with him ahead of Off the Shelf Festival to discuss his work. You recently updated your book to include the 2011 riots and the reaction to them. How well do you they fit it in with the overall themes you had already outlined in the book? The point I suppose I would make about it is that there are wider reasons for why the riots happened, like the growth of huge numbers of young people, in particular working class communities who don't feel that they have a future to risk. This is partly because of some of the issues I wrote about in the book, like the disappearance of middle income skilled jobs in industries that have vanished, and those jobs have never been replaced, leaving a vacuum, and so we see very high levels of youth unemployment in these areas. There are many other things, like cuts to youth services, the scrapping of education maintenance allowance (EMA) and tuition fees. In the book you recall a private talk you attended where a prominent Conservative politician referred to the Tory Party as "a coalition of privileged interests" that win by "giving just enough to just enough people". Is this the view of most of the Conservatives MPs you speak to in private? It was a stark thing to say, but of course he was talking to quite a privileged audience [at Oxford University]. The majority of Tory MPs wouldn't speak to me that way because they know I'm a left-wing journalist! It's easy to caricature Tories as a bunch of top-hated toffs in smoke-filled rooms trying to construct ways of grinding the dirt into the faces of the poor. It's slightly more complicated than that, but I think as a whole it's true to say that most senior Conservatives are people who've only grown up surrounded by other affluent people. Their contact with "normal people" is quite limited. Class conflict is inevitable when you don't get a mix of people, and you only mix with people like yourself. At points you seem to paint the Chav caricature as being like a regression to Victorian depictions of the working class. Has it really got that bad? I think there are parallels with the Victorian era, where you had these depictions of the feral poor. In the late 18th century you had Social Darwinism creeping in and lots of people were flirting with eugenics, including people who were meant to be on the left. Many believed the idea that poor people were out-breeding the higher in society. This a recurring theme - the idea that poor people are a threat to society - that continues today. So arguably Social Darwinism and eugenics in those overt forms have given way to modern day rhetoric that the state shouldn't be subsidising people having large families, so it's a change towards financial sanctions. But in terms of the caricature of the working class, I think this is one way in which we have definitely regressed. In the post-war era there was an effort to show working class life as it actually was, and you don't really get that today. You also mention how when people raise the issue of class, 'their arguments are ignored and they are slapped down as dinosaurs clinging to outdated, irrelevant nostrums'. Do you think there is a shift taking place in this discourse? Yes totally. If my book had come out a few years beforehand it wouldn't have made half the impact. I think that it got the attention it did partly because of the economic crisis, with much of the wealth and assistance going to the top as opposed to further down, and also obviously because we have a Conservative government dominated by people from privileged backgrounds which wouldn't look out of place in a 19th century British cabinet. Recently you travelled to Venezuela as an election moderator. How did the situation on the ground compare to the public perception of Venezuela being a semi-despotic state? To be honest, it couldn't have been any more different from how it is portrayed in the West, principally by journalists who are either sitting at desks and aren't present there, or by ones that go to Caracas and the more prosperous areas and speak to the richer people, who are generally against the government there. But when you go there there's no doubt at all the recent election was completely free. In fact, the biggest threat to Venezuelan democracy was in 2002, when much of the opposition supported a Pinochet-style coup, and arguably you can say charges of dictatorship are quite hypocritical coming from the opposition because the media, the mass media in Venezuela, are almost 90% against Chavez. We're not talking just a bit critical; we're talking Fox News on speed in some cases. I gather that you are writing a new book on the British establishment. Is there anything you can tell us about that? It'll come out in 2014, so long as I can get my skates on. It's looking at the establishment, the city, institutions like the police. It's looking at power in Britain, how it's all linked together, and obviously I refer to things like the financial crash, the expenses scandal, phone hacking, and now the BBC. This notion that the establishment doesn't play by the same rules as everyone else seems quite strong in the public consciousness now, so I'm going to talk to a lot of people based in the establishment, whether they are journalists, politicians, civil servants and so on. But one of the main things I want to point out is how ordinary people are affected by those decisions at the top, so I'll be talking to the Hillsborough families, to Ian Tomlinson's family, and some of the women who had relationships with undercover police officers posing as protestors. )

Next article in issue 57

Mattias Jones: Line and Form

Jones and I first met quite a few years ago at the opening of a graffiti exhibition. Since then he has carved out a niche for himself.…

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