Owen Jones was born in Sheffield and raised in Stockport. He describes himself as “a fourth-generation socialist” and worked as a trade union and parliamentary researcher before becoming an author, broadcaster and political columnist for the Guardian. His first book, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, was published in 2011 and followed in 2014 by The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It. His new book, This Land: The Story of a Movement, is an insider’s account of the rise and fall of the Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.
This Land is written from the point of view of “an observer and a participant”. Did you write it essentially as an attempt to make sense of the scale of Corbyn’s election defeat?
When I started, I didn’t really have an agenda other than I am a man of the left and I always write from that perspective. I wanted to avoid political fatalism and defeatism, the notion that any transformative agenda for Labour is inherently doomed to defeat. I don’t think that. I think it’s achievable, but that the only way you can continue with the project is by accepting the mistakes and learning from them. The point of the book is to defend the idea that leftwing politics is viable.
The book is dedicated to your two cats, who, you write, “got me through the double trauma of a pandemic and writing this book”. How hard was it?
It was bloody hard, but it would have been far worse to wallow. I started it at the end of January just as the pandemic was approaching, so it became a lockdown project that definitely kept me occupied. I interviewed 150 people and, for a lot of them, reliving it again, especially those moments of hope, was genuinely traumatic. For me, it was helpful in making sense of what happened. Hope also comes out of understanding what went wrong.
So what have you learned from writing it?
Many things. I learned that there was a constituency in Britain, of which I was a part, which had been waiting for a long time for something like Corbynism to happen. They felt something had to give. There were so many people who wanted a genuine radical alternative. Against that, there were many diehard opponents of Corbynism, many of them within the Labour party, who thought, and still think, that it was a moral outrage and an aberration and that anyone involved in it should just go and die in a ditch.
You certainly capture the visceral nature of the strife and factionalism within the Labour party – the screaming and shouting, the tantrums and the treachery.
Yes. Politics is a brutal business, but the last few years have been like a Quentin Tarantino movie. I certainly learned in great detail what we were up against. The parliamentary Labour party meetings were just brutal and gruesome. A lot of those people in the parliamentary Labour party – I’m just going to say it – are jumped-up thugs. Vicious, horrible people. They would sanctimoniously stand up and talk about the authoritarianism of Corbynism as they screeched like disturbed teenagers, spraying spittle at anyone with the temerity to support the elected leadership of the party of which they were members. I really don’t know what they are driven by.
You touch on the fatal flaws in Corbyn’s character: his aversion to conflict, his tendency to shut down in the face of criticism – not great traits in terms of party leadership.
Yes. I think that, in one way, Jeremy’s big asset was also his weakness. Initially, a lot of people warmed to his personality because they saw his compassion, his genuine humanity. Here was a person who refused to engage in personal attacks on his opponents. But the flipside of that was a total aversion to conflict. He just couldn’t do it. So, when there was internal conflict, he was indecisive, he’d shut down or he’d go awol. Ultimately, his aversion to conflict resulted in a kind of paralysis of leadership.
The antisemitism crisis, which you recount in painful detail, amounts to a portrait of protracted political dysfunction.
Yes. I think there was a lack of very basic emotional intelligence in some sections of the left in terms of engaging with the collective trauma of the Jewish people. And the same with Israel. There is an emotional connection that many Jewish people have with Israel and you just cannot ignore that. It’s a fact, just as there are also many Jewish people who do not support the occupation and abhor it. But Jeremy is not an antisemite and the Jewish people who are close to him, and whom I have interviewed at length for the book, including those who were critical of how he handled it, would never countenance that. That doesn’t mean there weren’t blind spots and failings that led to a crisis.
Who are the writers you look to for inspiration?
Marx obviously. He was inescapable growing up, given that my dad was a full-time organiser for Militant in Sheffield. And, in terms of British political writing, historians such as EP Thompson and Christopher Hill. Eric Hobsbawm is an abiding influence. I used to cycle round to his house and help him archive his work before he died.
What about more contemporary writers?
Growing up in the late 90s and early 00s, I read John Pilger, Noam Chomsky and journalists such as Gary Younge, George Monbiot and, yes, Seumas Milne. Naomi Klein was immensely important – her writing on anti-globalism was a real lifeline for me at the time. She was on the left, she had a platform and she was saying something new and vital.
Do you ever have the time to read fiction?
It’s funny you should say that because I was given a novel as a birthday present by some friends who suggested that maybe there was more to life than political books. It’s called Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran and it’s set in the New York gay scene in the pre-Aids 1970s. After what I’ve just been through writing my book, it’s pure escapism.
Owen Jones will be in conversation with Frankie Boyle at a Guardian Live online event on Wednesday 16 December
• This Land: The Story of a Movement by Owen Jones is published by Allen Lane (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15