Predictable and cliquey: Owen Jones comes to Cambridge

Hannah Williamson 31 October 2013

Owen Jones generally gets my goat. I’ve spent years slamming my fists on his columns: annoyed, exasperated, if still a bit amused. In what can only be described as a funny turn, I traipsed off to the Sidgwick Site on Saturday for a Festival of Ideas lecture by Jones. His title: An Alternative to Austerity. His starting point: Socialism. Oh, goody. 

In some senses I left the talk pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t hissing or spitting. There was no steam spewing from my ears. Jones’ spiel had been remarkably predictable – an opening twenty minutes of banker-bashing stats then twenty minutes on his aspirations for ‘bread and butter socialism’. I had hoped for radical ramblings to fuel the conservative fire in my belly. In actual fact, the speech was fairly inoffensive. His cries for a living wage and a war on tax avoidance were neither radical nor unreasonable.

So, Jones’ ideas didn’t trouble me. What I did find grating was the way he framed these ideas. Jones drew ideological battle-lines almost immediately, and then went on to bolster them aggressively. He portrayed himself as a warrior for the dispossessed and disenchanted, bemoaning that there is one rule for those at the top, and another rule for the rest. 

His attitude has the capacity to inhibit any sort of collaborative policy space, dichotomising the Left and Right prevents them from realising shared aspirations. Both camps have goals of decentralisation, yet the way Jones elaborated the idea of ‘social ownership’ was cliquey: he wanted organisations ‘run in the interests of working people by working people’. He sought to pigeon-hole class and ideological interests, and in so doing, claimed a monopoly on localism. This blinkered perspective is dangerous, it runs the risk of alienating those who would sympathise with his policy suggestions, but instead will be put off by his narrative of class conflict.

Perhaps he was being deliberately provocative, but by so virulently splitting society and its political actors in two, Jones estranged himself from the Cambridge student body – the very audience he was addressing. The students of this university will typically go on to occupy the top echelons of British life and industry; yet the crux of Jones’ speech was an attempt to reclaim democracy from those ‘at the top’. The idea is valid, but his rhetoric is hostile. 

Political discourse in Cambridge and nationwide should be inclusive, and detach itself from outmoded class labels. In the same way that the perception of Cambridge’s Conservative Association as a bulwark of Tory toffs deters moderates from engaging with their ideas, Jones is erecting barriers to those on the left who do not hail from the working class.  Hackneyed stereotypes that exclude sympathetic and potentially influential individuals need no encouragement.