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Being on the right side of history

Owen Jones discusses his views on Oxbridge elitism
Ellen Milligan, Friday, July 3rd, 2015

Paloma Faith’s political warm-up act, Fox News’ “braying jackal” and The Sun’s “camera-chasing Guardian goblin”. Owen Jones provokes many descriptions but for many he is Britain’s leading left-wing commentator.


The Guardian columnist and author of the highly-acclaimed books Chavs and The Establishment is more than happy to re-live his university days at Oxford in his old college bar in University College. Having started his writing as deputy news editor of the student newspaper Cherwell, he graduated with a BA in History in 2005.


We chat over a glass of red wine. He shares with me the woes of living within his overdraft until the age of 27 with the help of daily trips to Ahmed’s kebab van and widens the discussion to whether Britain will be able to cope with five years of this government.


His passion for change and equality, which is so prevalent in his writing, is clear when he tells me of his thoughts on the fight for a living wage, Oxbridge elitism and social mobility.


He is quietly charming and easy-going, making me feel as though I’m having a friendly discussion with a fellow student rather than a formal interview with a journalist who has a world-wide reputation and over 310,000 Twitter followers.


After debating with me the rivalry between Ahmed’s (his favourite) and Hassan’s (my favourite) kebab vans and sharing with me how he broke up with someone in 3rd year on the sofa next to us, he tells how his time at Oxford was “quite an emotionally intense part of my life, with relationships, breakups, getting drunk, doing silly things, essay all-nighters. You meet friends who in some cases you know for the rest of your life – I always feel quite emotional coming back to Oxford – it’s surreal.”


Jones has recently written about transgender-rights and transgender-people in which he interviewed three transwomen to talk about their experiences. He was critical of himself for not having provided a platform for this under-represented voice earlier.


“I just thought if I am going to be useful I need to write about stuff like this – to give a platform to voices that otherwise aren’t heard properly – that’s really important to me.”


He shares with me his thoughts on Oxford’s campaign towards a living wage for its staff. “The idea that anyone in work who keeps this university afloat, who the university, students and academic staff depend on to keep it functioning, live on wages that are too low and that have to be subsidised by the tax payer at a great expense is unacceptable. It’s a basic principle: everyone in work must have a wage they can live on.


“You want to be on the right side of history. Do you want to be on the side of history where you oppose working people having a wage they can live on? he asks.”


Real vindication

With Oxford University having become an accredited Living Wage employer in April, Jones responds, “All I will say is that the fact the university voted for it is a real vindication of people fighting back; it shows if you protest and campaign you can win.”


I question Jones on his article for LabourList in 2011 on the abolition of Oxbridge. He replies, “Oxbridge is elitist but the point I was making was that we have an unnecessary emphasis on two universities where there are lots of other very good universities.


“My argument was more that I oppose grammar schools and selection. My problem with Oxbridge is that unless you are social Darwinists who believe that rich people were born more intelligent than poor people, you look at the make-up of students at Oxbridge and think this isn’t acceptable.


“You shouldn’t punish people because they went to private schools but I think that Oxbridge should be more representative of ability. If you went to Ashington – a former mining village with mass unemployment and poverty and you get AABB you have done better than somebody who went to Eton and got AAAA.”


So how would he solve this inequality? “I would automatically enrol the brightest working class kids so you have a system where maybe at least half of students are enrolled from those backgrounds.


“I think this is a good idea because that way you recognise that people start from different places and if you have the odds stacked against you from day one and you still manage to do incredibly well, that shows you have got huge potential and that should be rewarded.”


We discuss how social mobility has declined and Jones assertively states that he has a strong problem with this phrase because it accepts inequality. “You just parachute a tiny group of people from a certain background to the people at the top and then you think the job is done.


“I want equality; I want to narrow these gaps. It’s not about getting 5,000 working class kids into certain upper-middle class professions but still having a massively unjust society. I don’t want that – I want an equal society as best as we can achieve, so I want to break down all the barriers that stop people locking their talent in.”


He also raises issue with unpaid internships, which he is, “very passionate about because with the media and lots of other professions, often to get in you have to work for free for months if not longer. Who can afford to do that unless you can live off the bank of mum and dad? I want professions to be cracked open.”


Having previously worked as a parliamentary researcher for Labour MP John McDonnell and being a ‘big name’ at the moment, I ask Jones on his thoughts on the recent criticism of Oxbridge students dominating the government and media.


Privileged backgrounds

“The problem we have in this society is that people from privileged backgrounds dominate – that’s the key problem.


“I have never regarded myself as a working class hero. I’m not. My Dad was a white collar local authority worker and my mum taught IT at Salford University. I’m a man, I’m white, I went to Oxford, I am gay, but I have all these privileges stacked in my favour – I am always very open and clear about that.”


He continues: “Take Parliament – politics has become professionalised. I want more people who have been supermarket workers, care workers, dinner ladies, people who understand what it is like be on the social housing waiting list, people who have not even gone to university.”


Jones discusses the role men should play in helping women fight for equal rights, exploring the complexities of this issue.


“In a media dominated by men, men automatically have their voices taken more seriously than women. Men say something in support of women’s rights that women say and is ignored and the irony is that I am privileged being a man and people are more likely going to listen to a man’s voice so it’s quite contradictory and it’s quite awkward.


“People like me have to be clear about our privileges and about representation of other people and support others voices as best we can without dominating them in a way that often white middle-class men do in society.”


Finally I ask if he thinks Britain will be able to survive another five years of this austerity-driven government.


“The NHS will be shredded, the social welfare state will be even more shredded, rich people will have their tax stashed up even more; we will have a society even more skewed in favour of the rich while ordinary people struggle.


“Obviously we will survive, I don’t think society will collapse, but the lives of millions of people will be a lot worse and the lives of a tiny elite will be much better. Do we want to live in that society? I don’t.”


  • Ellen Milligan went to a comprehensive and is now studying history at Oxford. She is news editor of Cherwell

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