Owen Jones’ talk began with laughter in his absence, at the announcement that he was stuck in traffic on the roundabout by Tesco. Minutes later he arrived alongside Clive Lewis – Labour’s ministerial candidate for Norwich South – who introduced him glowingly to the large audience in attendance. His talk was as impressive as it was inspiring; he spoke for close to half an hour with no notes, no microphone, and no breaks – moving from one point to another seamlessly. The questions that followed diverted discourse towards fruitless partisan debate.
Jones mentioned many of the injustices that exist in society today, before suggesting that they are implemented and maintained by classic divide and rule tactics. The media, acting on behalf of the corporations they serve, turn our anger and frustrations towards one another – keeping resentment contained among the working class. Instead of hating the people at the top with all the money and power, we hate the people down the road who get benefits we don’t, or the immigrants who are ‘coming over here and stealing our jobs’.
He pointed out that the incessant coverage of UKIP in the press has diverted public discourse away from more important issues in the direction of immigration. Whether or not we agree with UKIP’s stance, we are debating it, trapping our discussions in conservative territory – at a safe distance from the realms of economic inequality: the juxtaposition of elite socialism with working class capitalism.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the multinational corporations that run riot, with no single government to answer to. It’s also easy to feel pessimistic and powerless in opposition to their oppression. What Jones fears more is the thought of one day looking back at the days when they sold off the NHS bit-by-bit, social and economic inequality continued to thrive, nothing was done to reverse global warming, and knowing he stood by idly and watched it all happen.
That message – a call to arms – was the point of his talk. He reminded us to look back at all the political victories won against the odds in this country, and to take inspiration from them. He warned us not to get caught up in battles with one another, and for all of us to stand united for the causes we share stakes in. Then the questions began.
The first came from an active member of the UEA Greens, who asked Owen why he identified with Labour despite their blatant betrayal of his political views under the leadership of Blair and Brown. He replied that Clive Lewis, like he himself, was one of the few who believed in the party’s ethos pre-New Labour; that we needed more like him being heard in parliament to return the party to its former glory. It was at this stage that Lesley Grahame – Thorpe Hamlet councillor and Green Party candidate for Norwich South – made her attendance known. While it is admirable that Lewis would be prepared to stand up to his party leaders to effect change, she protested that she would do so with the backing, not in spite, of her party. It is between this point and Owen’s defence of his allegiance that debate oscillated for much of the remainder of the talk.
For many young British liberals, Owen is one of a handful of dependable journalists who provide a voice of justice and reason. He makes no secret of his allegiance to the Labour party, but everybody on the left wants to claim him as their own. Consequently, the cul-de-sac we found ourselves in was largely caused by the framing of the event; Clive Lewis’ role as the talk’s MC, coupled with Owen’s self-proclamation as a proud member of the Party, gave what was branded as an Owen Jones talk the air of Labour election campaigning.
Liberal Democrat Simon Wright MP currently represents Norwich South, the constituency that houses UEA and the majority of its student population, in Parliament. After a controversial first-term Wright is unlikely to retain the seat, which has been represented by members of left-leaning parties since 1987 and looks set to be closely-contested next May. Labour’s plans to target student voters are a secret no more, and their eyes will be firmly set on reclaiming a seat they lost by just 310 votes last term. The Green party must surely view the constituency as their best chance at claiming a second seat in parliament – that is if Caroline Lucas retains Brighton Pavilion.
As far as Norwich South is concerned, next May’s election looks set to be a close contest for the majority share of liberal votes. It seems that much of the student electorate, who make up 20% of the constituency population, will be deciding between the Labour and Green parties, so the left-wing in-fighting that took place was perhaps unsurprising. Jones’ original call for unified direct action stands, regardless of what followed, but it would have been better received if delivered under no banner. As it was the subtext of his message seemed to be a warning against fragmenting the liberal vote, a slight to the many Greens in the room.
In the closing minutes, a member of the Brighton Young Greens did her best to return the talk to its crux. She gave a tearful account of the disharmony in her constituency – both between her party and Labour, and within the party itself – pleading with the audience to heed Jones’ words. Moments later she walked out, as the following question took us back to partisan quarrelling. By then we were all with Jones on the roundabout; nobody was laughing any more.