It took several emails, three phone calls and a few texts to pin Owen Jones down. But finally he gave me the 10 minutes he had spare before delivering a talk at a book fair in Sweden.
Now Jones must find time for another priority in his schedule: he’s accepted an invitation to become a patron of Hackney Community Law Centre (HCLC). The charity provides residents on low incomes with free legal advice on issues like housing and homelessness, benefits, debt and immigration.
Owen Jones is well known for his left-wing commentary in the Guardian and New Statesman, but he thinks of himself as an activist rather than a writer. “I see writing as a means to an end. I don’t enjoy writing that much and the reason I write at all is to give a platform to people with ideas and causes that are otherwise ignored.”
“I’m trying to get a message across about what’s happening to people – whether it’s having their social security attacked, whether it’s immigrants, whether it’s disabled people having their benefits cut.
He sees his appointment to patron – an unpaid role – as an extension of his activism, just as he does his writing. “Hackney Community Law Centre and I are both trying to do similar things, it’s a multi-pronged strategy. What we’re both interested in is social justice and defending the people who are getting a raw deal in Britain at the moment.
Publicising the centre’s work in his writing will be his main function, he says, but he will be “transparent about it”. Jones admits the relationship will be mutually beneficial, describing it as “win-win”. He says: “I know I can’t persuade people just by going on about statistics. We need to tell stories, and they have many case studies that illustrate what’s happening.
“It’s a two-way street. I can write about the issues and give them a platform, and they get the work they’re doing given the attention it deserves.”
Patrons must have lived or worked in the borough, and campaigned on the areas of specialist legal advice offered by the law centre, such as housing and immigration. In just the last two months alone, Jones has dedicated two of his Guardian columns to housing and another two to immigration.
And it’s clear that Jones feels an affinity with Hackney. He previously lived here for four years and seems to understand it well.
During our brief phone call, he reels off what he perceives to be the important issues for local residents: “Overcrowding in homes, lack of social housing – those are huge Hackney problems. Hackney is one of the poorest boroughs and has some of the highest levels of child poverty in the country.”
And he’s right – these problems are acute here. In 2011 it was named the second most deprived local authority in England.
He continues, at speed, to enumerate: “Low paid work, cuts to in work benefits.”
The majority of the law centre’s clients are disproportionately unemployed or in low paid work, disabled or suffer from long term health problems.
Jones’s explanation is punctuated by interruptions from people his end telling him to get ready for his talk. He apologises, and the pace of his speech increases as he tries to fit everything in. “There are problems with the police disproportionality stopping young black men,” he says.
Black people in Hackney are more than twice as likely to be stopped than white and many of the law centre’s clients are from ethnic minorities.
Jones’s enthusiasm and accuracy are impressive.
But he is less precise about what he’ll actually do in his role. “Anything I can really. Giving talks, fundraising, tweeting out their stuff, social media – the whole shebang.”
He is then whisked away to give his talk.
We’ll see if he finds time to realise ‘the whole shebang’.