If you manage to get Owen Jones’ email address, your message will be met with a chirpy automated response: “I get a ridiculous number of emails and struggle to respond to most of them, so please don’t take it personally,” he begins, before adding that he doesn’t want to sound “like some diva.” It’s this I’m-just-a-normal-guy-thrust-into-the-limelight persona that’s made Jones such a prominent, and polarizing, figure in British politics — the cleverly crafted auto response no doubt intended for equal measures of starstruck fans and hate-filled trolls.
At just 33, Jones is one of the most influential voices in the resurgent socialist wing of the British Labour Party. But when we meet at a quaint London tea shop, he does indeed appear to be just a normal guy — jeans, T-shirt, hoodie — and, no surprise, smaller than he looks on TV. Author, Guardian columnist and political commentator, Jones has about as many Twitter followers as Prime Minister Theresa May and her governing Conservative Party combined. From 2011 to 2015, he says he was pretty much “the only left-wing voice with a mainstream platform,” defining “left-wing” as his “radical” vision of modern socialism.
He straddles social media, the mainstream media, politics, journalism, comment, propaganda and social activism.
Steven Fielding, professor, University of Nottingham
Now, though, he’s no longer shouting into the void: He used his media platform to galvanize support behind Jeremy Corbyn, a fringe leftist candidate in 2015 for leadership of the Labour Party. Corbyn not only won, but he also won again a year later after his “extremist” politics were challenged by party centrists, and then he garnered an astonishing 40 percent of the vote in the general election this past June. It’s been “50 years of politics compressed into two,” says Jones. The Labour Party is unrecognizable from the days of Tony Blair, and many in the party believe, says Queen Mary University of London politics professor Tim Bale, that “one more socialist heave will do it” to install Corbyn — who makes Bernie Sanders seem like a centrist — in 10 Downing Street.
To be sure, Jones is more than an opinionated commentator. He’s “a political entrepreneur,” says Steven Fielding, professor at the University of Nottingham and an expert on Labour Party politics; he “straddles social media, the mainstream media, politics, journalism, comment, propaganda and social activism.” Indeed, Jones was a key early activist for Momentum, a far-left wing of the Labour Party that grew out of Corbyn’s campaign for leadership. And while he is neither the mouthpiece of nor the brains behind the movement, argues Adam Klug, founding member of Momentum, he helped to craft its early operations and is currently working with the group on a series of campaigns to unseat “particularly unpleasant [Conservative] MPs,” says Klug. And even if Corbyn is the party figurehead, “he doesn’t actually say much, and he doesn’t actually write much,” says Bale, whereas Jones is “an almost hyperactive motivator — his enemies would say propagandist — for Corbyn’s breed of politics.”
“Politics was always there,” Jones says about his early life: His parents met as members of a Trotskyist group, and a 5-year-old Owen started a chant at a Glasgow march against Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax. After studying history at Oxford, Jones sent his CV to every Labour MP who had voted against the Iraq War; leftist John McDonnell (who would become Corbyn’s second-in-command) offered him a job. Jones helped to organize McDonnell’s campaign for Labour leader in 2006-07, but he failed to make the ballot. Referring to what follows as his “Noam Chomsky phase,” Jones pursued a master’s in U.S. history, keen to critique Western foreign policy, but the publication of his first book, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, and its overwhelming reception, yanked him from an academic path. Jones credits the book’s success to timing — “people were ready to talk about class again,” and the London riots a couple of months later provided a platform for TV appearances.
Jones insists he never wanted to be a writer; still, he is fiercely eloquent and pulls perfectly composed sound bites seemingly from thin air. For instance, he delivers the following in a single breath to describe the two rising forces in modern politics: “the xenophobic, anti-immigrant populist right, which blames and scapegoats immigrants and Muslims, and the new left, which seeks to challenge vested interests responsible for the multiple crises affecting Western society.”
But Jones’ socialist revolution hasn’t been as smooth as his rhetoric. When Theresa May called a snap election earlier this year, opinion polls predicted a crushing defeat for Corbyn and the Labour Party. Even Jones conceded that it would have been unprecedented for a party to recover from “such a ruinous position,” and he penned several columns questioning whether Corbyn was the right man for the job. The response? “All manner of criticism from the very people you might have termed his followers,” says Fielding. A senior Labour MP even told Jones that by being instrumental in Corbyn’s leadership campaign, he had “helped to destroy the Labour Party,” Jones recounts, adding, “I believed [it], and I felt enormous guilt … and at that point I was thinking I should just give up.” And then: the political miracle of the century. Yes, the Labour Party was defeated, but the opinion polling gap of nearly 22 points was cut to just six. “To be wrong about that is the sweetest thing that’s ever happened to me in my entire life,” says Jones.
Despite claims he doesn’t like to write, Jones is working on his third book. “I see everything I do as a means to an end,” he says, “which is to win people over to certain ideas, beliefs and causes.” Then, to quiet critics who argue that voices like Jones’ don’t reach beyond the echo chambers of pre-converted Guardian readers, might not the best means to that end be running for office? “I just genuinely don’t have political ambitions,” he insists. “Would I rule it out in the future? No … but that’s just not where I’m at.” If the new radical left is more than just the cult of personality of Mr. Corbyn, as Jones and the Momentum team contend, then maybe it’s time to prove it.
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