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The George Fox lecture theatre was packed for Owen Jones’ keynote speech at the Assembly for Change – the final one of the first day. SCAN was lucky enough to be granted an interview with Jones, and the interview and his subsequent speech at the Assembly both contained a recurring theme – that young people should fight injustice in society, and have the means to do so. Politics, Jones argues, is the way to fight that injustice.
“When I speak to young people, whether that’s at university, sixth forms or schools, people are aware and quite angry about issues but there’s a lack of hope and a lack of a sense that politics is a thing that can change your life,” Jones told SCAN. “It seems divorced from your life; for a lot of young people politics is something which kicks you when it trebles your tuition fees or scraps your EMAs. So those kind of things have turned a lot of people off politics.”
Jones believes this is so frustrating at the moment, because five years ago the party which he believes did a lot to inspire young people were instrumental in the current disillusionment. “The LibDems did in fact inspire a lot of young people in 2010,” Jones said. “And they promised to scrap tuition fees and then trebled them.
“A lot of those young people will never trust a politician again – and that was their first taste of democracy. I think that’s unforgiveable [of the Liberal Democrats] – not just because they trebled tuition fees but also the damage they did to people’s faith in democracy.”
Given how disenfranchised a lot of young people feel when it comes to politics, how does Jones feel any interest in politics can be reignited? “It’s about giving young people hope. That sense that politics is something that can change things,” Jones told SCAN. “Those young people who organised as UKUncut against tax avoidance – they put tax avoidance on the agenda. People who got involved in campaigns against the bedroom tax – because of that they got the Labour leadership to commit to repealing it, and in Scotland they have scrapped the bedroom tax altogether.
“That shows people are actually being active in campaigning and winning things, so we need to show that these things are possible and that politics isn’t just about voting every five years – it’s also about you putting pressure on politicians,” Jones argued, placing the emphasis on the political activity students can get involved in outside of election time. However, he did add: “If a lot more young people voted, politicians would be a lot more fearful in attacking them in the way they attack them at the moment.”
This loss of hope in politics and the current system is not a characteristic Jones believes is endemic purely to students and young people. “The biggest party in this country is the yelling-at-the-TV party, and there is lots of frustration and discontent out there. It’s often people feeling quite isolated and not being able to know how we can change how our society is.”
Equally, for Jones the list of problems British society is facing is an extensive one. “The wealth of the top 1000 has doubled in the past five years while those at the bottom have had the biggest fall in living standards since Benjamin Disraeli’s government in the 1880s,” Jones said. “Zero-hour contracts, housing crisis, lack of secure jobs: there are so many things to be angry about, and people feel completely isolated and fragmented.”
That is why Jones believes conferences like Assembly For Change matter so much. “It’s just important to bring people together so they can build a stronger movement where they’re not alone and they’re not isolated. That’s in the history of this country: people getting together and organising and confronting injustice and changing society. Individuals can’t change the world, but people grouping together can change the world.”
The one problem with engaging with those who come along to conferences such as the one currently taking place at Lancaster is that you are often preaching to those who are already engaged in politics. How does Jones engage with the isolated people he talks about? “That’s why I go on telly and radio. Obviously when I go on those things I’m with people who passionately disagree with me, but more importantly I am being listened to by people who don’t think in terms in left or right but think in terms of issues which need to be addressed,” Jones said. “And that’s why I do TV and radio – because it means you can reach those people.”
“These events can vary – the other day I did an event in London, and there was a brilliant contribution from the floor from someone who is likely to support UKIP, and he told me how his experience growing up was that his dad died of a heroin addition and so on, and when I do these events I do get people from different political backgrounds coming, and that’s very important as well,” Jones said. “But equally there is a lot of people who know a lot about injustice but don’t know necessarily what to do about it, as well as reaching those who aren’t reached.
“You get these people to start with by speaking to those who know about injustice, and then by reaching those people they can go out and reach other people themselves, and far more effectively.”