Owen Jones: Change Isn't Beyond Imagination

The noted 'activist who happens to write' discusses hope as the basis for political progress and the importance of inciting young people ahead of a sold-out Belfast talk

'I never wanted to be a writer,' reveals Owen Jones, cheerily. That’s Owen Jones, Guardian contributor, award-winning columnist and vocal spokesman for the UK’s increasingly frustrated, left-leaning youth constituency. 'It’s a bit unfortunate,' he adds, 'because that’s my job.'

As a commentator of some renown, the Sheffield-born Jones — labelled a 'left-wing polemicist' by The Huffington Post — is a frequent visitor to all manner of destinations (recent trips have taken in Stoke, Leeds, Wakefield and Hemsworth), his activism favouring venues grand and humble, from august gatherings to forums promoting more organic exchanges of opinions.

Going by its name, the Imagine! Festival of Ideas and Politics probably falls into the latter category. Now in its sophomore year, Imagine! (March 14 - 20) seeks to foster debate around the issues that occupy us, its full slate of quizzes, lectures, exhibitions and theatre combining to induce wider society’s participation in the civic process.

It will host Jones on March 17 at the Black Box in Belfast, thus providing the chance for a local audience to hear from a man whose strident positions, both accessible and largely civilised, have provided a voice for those in need of a champion: the working classes, the marginalised, young people.

The title of Jones’s talk feels significant: The Politics of Hope. The theme of hope is not one chosen at random. 'Hope,' he suggests, 'is an undermining of politics. It’s the basis of change. Politics is all about anger — and there is lots to be frustrated about — but people have a lack of faith that things can change. But they can change.'

Owen Jones 2

Jones believes that hope is no passive thing. 'It’s not a case of "Oh, you know, one day things’ll get better. Someone else’ll sort it out." If people organise and make their voices heard then they can change things. That’s the basis of progressivism to me.'

'People often have a feeling of resignation,' he notes. 'The injustices that define our society can be overcome with enough determination, resilience and courage. That’s our society, that’s how change happens. It doesn’t happen because the powerful wake up one day and think "Oh, we’re feeling generous, let’s give women the vote." People have to fight for the things they have. If you organise with people who are in a similar place to you and use your collective power, your collective voice, then you can change society in the interests of the majority.'

It is inspiring stuff, though he regards himself as no crusader. He even invokes the term 'mini Macaulay Culkin,' a description stemming from, perhaps, the eagerness with which he seems intent upon unsettling the traditional order as much as it does his youthful appearance.

Jones contends that the ultimate aim is to spark 'a debate, a discussion, not just about the problems we all face, but to encourage people to do something about them. These events aren’t about me babbling away… a pre-pubescent writer talking about politics.'

Pressed on the reasoning behind the topic he is set to explore at Imagine! Jones offers an incisive summary of the current dynamics at play.

'I think across the Western world right now there’s a battle going on between a politics based on hope and a politics based on fear. There’s a huge amount of discontentment across the West at the moment. Take the United States. On the one hand you have Bernie Sanders, a septuagenarian, Jewish, self-described socialist becoming the unlikely icon of youth and on the other hand you have a quasi-fascist clown like Donald Trump.'

To illustrate, Jones references diverging movements — from the left and from the right — in France, Germany, Greece, Sweden and the UK. They are but a sample of the disquiet 'going in very different directions.' He goes on to speak with energy about 'mobilising and inspiring young people,' convincing them, hopefully, of the fact that politics is far from being irrelevant to their lives.

Creativity, the ability to adapt and grow, sits at the heart of this approach. He points out that if connections are to be made with a generation of youngsters for whom the polity is essentially out of reach, abstract even, then surely new methods of spurring engagement must be discerned.

For his part, Jones established a YouTube channel last year — it boasts almost 49,000 subscribers — to plot a different course; he calls it a 'space for ideas'. The content, which is often light, pop-culture centric and occasionally irreverent, reflects the notion that civics must be 'a bit more fun and accessible.' Indeed, the eclectically composed Imagine! should represent the kind of platform necessary for that level of development.

Asked why this festival in particular has attracted him, Jones stresses his desire for garnering views and experiences from beyond the confines of the metropolitan elite. Citing a 'Stockport pub test' — a quick assessment of whether or not his articles will resonate with the patrons of a watering hole in the town where he grew up — he clearly outlines his own approach.

'I’m not a pundit. I’m an activist who happens to write. I don’t even enjoy writing but it’s a means of reaching people.' 

The obverse, in his estimation, is to exist in London’s vacuum. 'I think some commentators are happy to be read by very few people if those people have an average of two degrees. They think those people are influential and important — that makes the columnist important, because people in Westminster are reading their stuff. I don’t see the point of that. How do you understand the country in which you live? How can you write stuff that’s relevant?'

To that end, a journey to Belfast and this March’s gathering will sharpen his understanding of our particularly complex reality, one in which he has maintained an interest since his days studying class politics in loyalism at Oxford. For Jones, Northern Ireland constitutes fertile ground for remoulding accepted thinking, whether it comes from his prodding, or that of anybody else.

'What I’m desperate for there,' he says, 'is to have cross-community alliances which can get younger people, whatever their backgrounds, to unite on issues from housing to jobs, national security to education — issues that affect people on a daily basis. There’s far more to unite than divide.'

Culture NI spoke with Owen as part of #CreativityMonth 2016, and ahead of his talk at the Black Box, Belfast on March 17. Tickets are sold out. See the full Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics schedule at www.imaginebelfast.com/events. View more events taking place as part of Creativity Month at www.creativityni.org/events.