This article was published in The Cambridge Student on 21 April 2016.
There’s something uncomfortable hanging in the air on the evening I meet Owen Jones for a drink by the river. Something unsaid, lingering like a bad smell.
To be precise, it’s the fact that I once wrote a reasonably lengthy bit of ‘Owen Jones meets Christian Grey’ fan fiction as a series of tweets on a train from Cambridge to London in my first year. We both know that these tweets are, to date, our only form of communication, but it’s probably best left undiscussed.
Similarly uncomfortable is the challenge one heckler shouted out as Jones gave a talk at the Cambridge Literary Festival earlier that day: “Run for Parliament!” I ask him if there’s any chance, and the suspiciously long spiel that follows is best condensed as: ‘I don’t have particular ambitions to do so, but I wouldn’t say no.’
“I think if I became an MP there’d be people going: ‘See, a careerist, ambitious all along, this was all some ploy to become a politician’. You know, it wasn’t.
“Anyone who knows me knows I’ve no ambition whatsoever to do what I do today, let alone anything else, so it’s a case of why would I – if I thought it was useful, I would do it, and I think what is good about a good MP is that they’re tethered to their constituents, and they have to meet people and talk to them all the time. I try and do that, but the people I meet are often not a representative sub-section of the population.”
“Maybe I just want to do something else, maybe I want to become a teacher, I don’t know. I wouldn’t rule that out.”
I can’t quite picture him hanging up his cape to become Mr Jones the secondary school history teacher just yet, but perhaps I’m just unimaginative.
On the subject of fantasy, I ask him how realistic it is to think that Jeremy Corbyn might win the next general election in 2020. “Politics is very unpredictable,” he starts, before I cut off the inevitable circumlocution in pursuit of a simple one- word answer.
“I don’t know.” Close enough, I suppose, but not quite a single word.
“The SNP, they had six seats in 2010, then they win 56 a few years later. Who would have predicted Donald Trump would end up the Republican front-runner?
“I think it’ll be very hard for Labour to win the next general election, there’s no doubt about that, just in terms of all the statistics in terms of where Labour are at, losing Scotland, in terms of the distribution of electoral geography, and all the rest of it: boundary changes, the attack on Labour’s funding.
“It’s not easy at all. I think it’s very, very difficult as things stand, of course it is.”
I ask him how he thinks Corbyn could go about surmounting these multiple challenges, and his answer represents the typical down-to-earthness that he’s known for, and that so many of our politicians fail to achieve.
“What he has to do is present a case which inspires the majority – obviously, people who aren’t left-wing activists, and who don’t think about left or right, and coming up with something relating to the everyday issues that people face about them, their families, their kids, their communities and the country, and to talk about, you know, self-employed people. There are more self-employed people than public sector workers. You’ve got to have things to say that relate to people, and that’s what they have to do.”
Following the initial success of his book Chavs, it’s been his Guardiancolumn that’s kept Jones at the forefront of political debate. As someone who admits that he “hates writing”, I wonder if he suffers from the same deadline-dreading tendency to spew nonsense that the rest of us seem to. Surely, there must be one column he remembers that, with hindsight, fills himwith a deep and turgid shame?
“I wrote once about One Direction. It was just like: ‘What the fuck am I doing?’” More explanation is needed, clearly. “So my column is every Thursday, and the ‘First Thoughts’ is a quick blog every Tuesday, and it’s like an hour and a half to write it, and once I overslept.
“I just overslept. I wasn’t really at a bargaining position, so there was a thing about One Direction so I just wrote it. It was just cringe, like ‘what are you doing with your life?’”
Seeing as he’s willing to divulge the embarrassment of morning-after articles about One Direction, I decide it’s worth delving a little deeper, and so ask about his most embarrassing memory from his time at Oxford University.
He blurts out some anecdote about stealing a friend’s clothes and throwing them out of a window, but I tell him that’s not good enough. He pauses. “Well, this is really embarrassing so I don’t know if Iwant to tell you.” Pause.
“I had a girlfriend for a long time at university, for over a year, and we… in the library… did something, and it ended up… We had this thing called The Bog Sheet, which was put in every single bathroom (it does what it says on the tin, doesn’t it) in the college, read by everyone including the Master and that was the main story for three weeks.”
“So everyone – the Master, my tutors, everyone read about it, and then I won at these annual awards: ‘sex in an embarrassing place’ award. So that was pretty embarrassing. That is genuinely really embarrassing.”
I detect a slight hint of pride in his voice and the beginnings of a wry smile amidst the evident embarrassment. In his defence, it’s entirely understandable – not many of us have won a sex award, written two books, bagged a job at a national newspaper, and appeared on TV multiple times. Especially not by the age of 12.