The Burning Flame of Hope

Owen Jones on democracy's desperate need for hope.

The outcome of next year’s General Election is anybody’s guess. After decades of two-party politics, could coalition governments be here to stay? As the last election showed us, the “democratic majority” is becoming an increasingly nebulous entity. This time round, David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg are all embroiled in their own distinct battles. Meanwhile, UKIP and the Green Party provide growing threats, and a comedian is taking up the mantle of the revolutionary. But is anyone paying attention?   

Voter turnout at the last election was just 65%. It’s part of a long-term downward trend. Will that figure reach a new low in 2015, despite the anticipation surrounding the election run-up? According to columnist and author Owen Jones, it is resignation, not apathy, that’s plaguing the British public. “The problem is that there’s not much hope at the moment,” he says. “There’s a sense of general despair or defeatism, the idea that you might not like the way the world is, but it’s sort of inevitable. It’s as though injustice is like the weather: you can complain about it raining but there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s the problem for those of us who want genuine radical change, who want a different sort of society. People feel politics isn’t relevant to their daily lives.”

For Jones, a regular on the TV panel circuit and recognisable to many as the fresh face of modern socialism, the detachment of the public stems from the privilege at the heart of government itself. It only takes a glance at the people and policies of the main parties, he says, to see that democracy has become a system that is governed by and works for a wealthy elite, one that puts banks before the electorate. “Those that are rich know that democracy will always represent a potential challenge to their interests, he says. “That’s why it has to be safeguarded.” He characterises the current social order as “fundamentally bankrupt”, where the rich get richer and the working classes suffer the worst fall in living standards since the 1870s.

“Despite things being rigged in their favour, the interests of those with wealth and power can be challenged,” argues Jones. “I want to build support for that. I want to win people over. The question is how you give people enough hope.”

Jones harks back to the groups who fought to assert their rights, and ultimately helped shape the society we live in today. The sacrifices of democratic crusaders like the Chartists and Suffragettes, he says, should exist as a reminder that people who feel disenfranchised by government can effect change. Turning up to the ballot box is a start, but it’s not nearly enough: “We need grass-roots campaigners who can mobilise and who can fight for people’s rights by always trying to put a check on those in power,” says Jones. “You can only do that by democracy, because democracy gives everybody a say in the process of governing the country instead of just leaving it to an elite. Obviously some will always find ways of subverting democracy if they have wealth and power, but by improving the system and extending it, by involving people at a grass-roots level, you can challenge those interests.”

His belief in re-engaging people at a grass-roots level has led Jones to tour schools colleges up and down the country in order to offer a version of hope he says is “realisable”. “Most people don’t think in terms of left or right; they think in terms of issues to be addressed in a way that is convincing and relevant to their experiences, communicated in a language they understand. Those of us who want social change have to try and organise and offer that.”

In 2013, Jones helped launch The People’s Assembly along with established political figures including the late Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn and Caroline Lucas. The group campaigns against public sector cuts and austerity measures. It has also been holding regular events up and down the country to raise awareness and win over support for a fairer economy. “Whatever I do, my starting point is to try and get people to debate issues and confront the society in which we live. Part of that work is through The People’s Assembly – we build up pressure from below, and that’s how we get change. For me it’s always about building broad movements and coalitions. It’s not just people at the top feeling generous one day. Change comes about from organising from below, and making the powerful fear the consequences of not effecting change. In the run up to the election I’ll be upping the ante and trying to encourage people to fight back.”

As well as encouraging disaffected voters to join groups such as The People’s Assembly and UK Uncut (a group organising protests against corporate sector tax avoidance), Jones recommends keeping the faith in trades unions, despite their inability to maintain wages relative to living standards during the coalition government’s rein. “Trades unions are still the biggest democratic movement in the country, says Jones. “The problem is that they’ve been so weakened by harsh anti-trade union laws, and we don’t have communities based in our workplaces in the way we once did. People’s work lives are so insecure; they jump from job to job. That makes the work of the trades unions even harder. They’ve got to adapt, and that means not just organising the workplace but organising communities as well. The law needs to be changed so trade unions can protect the rights of working people.”

And what are Jones’s thoughts on Russell Brand and his call for revolution? “Anything that makes people discuss issues and democracy is good. There’s been a lot of sneering about Brand in the press, but I think he’s done a service. He’s getting young people posting on their Facebook walls, posting his interviews, and debating as a result.” But whilst Brand lambasts the entire democratic system as a failure, Jones maintains a firm belief that democracy can work. “You can have the politics of hope or despair. You can have a politics based on kicking people at the bottom, expelling people, killing people, or you can have a politics based on improving living standards for all, creating a just and equal society, where wealth and power are more evenly distributed thus improving our democracy.”

“Bring it on!” says Jones. “If we can have a policy based on the death penalty, or kicking out immigrants, or stripping the poorest of state support, then I think we can have a politics of hope. We can have things like a living wage, meeting people’s housing needs, security in jobs and employment, improving workers’ rights, and public ownership of utilities we all depend on, of the banks we bailed out. That’s a democracy.”

Image credit: David Tomic

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