Brexit, the white working class and liberal left

Submitted by AWL on 2 October, 2019 - 11:19

Six months ago now a debate was sparked by comments made by Eddie Dempsey, an activist for “full Brexit” and in the rail union RMT, at a “Full Brexit” rally on 26 March.

Dempsey said that “people that turn up for those Tommy Robinson demos or any other march like that – the one thing that unites those people, whatever other bigotry is going on, is their hatred of the liberal left and they are right to hate them” (emphasis added).

He further commented that “too many in the Labour Party have made a calculation that there’s a certain section at the top end of the working class, in alliance with people, they calculate, from ethnic minorities and liberals, that’s enough to get them into power”.

Dempsey’s remarks were criticised in Solidarity, and also by journalists Owen Jones and Ash Sarkar, Labour MP Clive Lewis, and others.

Now Dempsey has written a long reply to Owen Jones, abridged below (full text here).

Becky Crocker, another RMT activist, responds here to Eddie Dempsey.

Reply to Owen Jones by Eddie Dempsey:

Owen Jones surprised me by making me the subject of a blog post in which he attempted to sketch a caricature of me as a peddler of nativist fantasies about a supposed “white working class”.

This comes off the back of a series of slurs against me orchestrated by Clive Lewis, who compared me to the fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley (the irony may have been lost on Clive, given Mosley’s well-known support of European unity against “dark Africa”), and Novara commentator Ash Sarkar, who withdrew from speaking at a People’s Assembly rally — citing my presence as the sole reason.

Owen’s caricature of me is unfamiliar and unfair. I am an Irish immigrant and a trade unionist. I grew up on the Woodpecker Estate in New Cross, one of the most diverse — and most deprived — estates in Britain. My first political act was to join a demonstration against the Iraq War.

The people I look up to are people like Bob Crow, Jack Dash and Mickey Fenn — Tilbury docker and founder of Anti Fascist Action, who was one of the few dockers to speak out against the 1968 wildcat strike, called in defence of Enoch Powell’s comments on restricting Commonwealth immigration.

I learnt my politics through people I met on picket lines, in union branch meetings, in the homes of veteran comrades in London such as Monty Goldman and Max Levitas who gave me my Marx and my Markievicz. Several years ago, I was elected the London secretary of the Connolly Association, the oldest migrant workers’ organisation in Britain. Inscribed on our banner are the words: “The rights of the Irish in Britain are in no way contrary to our interests as workers.”

The reason given is a speech I gave at a public meeting where I made the socialist case for leaving the European Union.

Specifically, Owen is outraged with my statement in a video clip that “whatever you think of people that turn up for those Tommy Robinson demos or any other march like that — the one thing that unites those people, whatever other bigotry is going on, is their hatred of the liberal left and they are right to hate them”...

Did I say that Tommy Robinson supporters were right to hate the “liberal left?” Yes. Clearly, my comments need further explanation. I said these words as a warning against Labour abandoning large sections of the working class in favour of middle-class Remain voters.

Another comment I made in the meeting was that “too many in the Labour Party have made a calculation that there’s a certain section at the top end of the working class, in alliance with people, they calculate, from ethnic minorities and liberals, that’s enough to get them into power.”

This is a strategy being argued by various Labour MPs, and I raised this because I had recently debated a strongly pro-Remain MP — someone I greatly respect, despite our real differences — who raised this strategy. I believed that this is harmful to the long-term interests of Corbynism, because it is my opinion that a reliance on middle class Remain voters is no basis for popular support for socialist policies. This was deliberately seized upon by some to insinuate that I see ethnic minorities as being in opposition to the working class — a wholly ridiculous proposal.

I believe the “liberal left” — what I understand to mean the political and media representatives of Blairism, who have socially left-leaning but economically right-leaning views, not “left-Remainers”, many of whom I recognise as solid comrades — have been complicit with aggressive, neoliberal policies, have allowed Labour to abandon its core base and have left millions of people disgruntled and isolated from wider society.

The far-right have sought to take advantage of this — sometimes successfully — by offering horrific alternatives...

When Jones says that Tommy Robinson supporters hate the liberal left because of their perceived anti-racist and anti-Islamophobia politics, this is true, and I agree with Owen. I have never said otherwise.

Instead, I said they are right to hate the liberal left for the liberal left’s abandonment of the working class and their interests...

Owen knows this all too — having written an excellent book on the topic. In Chavs, he warned of the “danger” of “a savvy new populist right emerging, one that is comfortable with class and offers reactionary solutions to working class problems… rather than focusing on the deep-seated economic issues that really underpin the grievances of working class people”.

When denouncing me, Owen instead claims that this is a danger that doesn’t exist, except in my “perverse argument” which, he says, “rests on the assumption that Tommy Robinson’s supporters represent a meaningful, if wrongheaded, constituency of working-class Britain.”

Either there is a danger of the populist right winning over sections abandoned by the left as I argue now, and Owen prophesised — or I am over egging it, but both can’t be true.

Indeed, Ash Sarkar appears guilty of holding the same opinions as me. When asked on Novara Media if she thought those on the Free Tommy demonstration could be won over to left-wing politics, she replied that “I am not averse to becoming friends with, becoming comrades with, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with someone who maybe once part of that march.” I hope Owen thinks carefully before rushing to condemn her as being in sympathy with fascists.

We must be certain: the hard-liners of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s mob must be physically opposed wherever they go. People in the DFLA include figures such as Frank Portinari, a UDA paramilitary man. Huge wings of its regional bodies stand proudly in the tradition of British Fascism. But, to me, to characterise anyone who turns out for one of these protests as a fascist is both incorrect and tactically foolish…

I agree, as Owen has repeatedly said to me online, that we should all “move on” from this. Despite my differences with them, I have no problem with Owen, nor Ash Sarkar and I have no doubt that they will be vocal and influential allies of myself and my union the next time we go out on strike.

I would like more than anything to sit down and have a cuppa with Owen, Ash, or anyone who thinks for a second that I am somehow a “red-brown”, or anything like that. Indeed, I offered to have a chat with Clive Lewis to clarify my views to him, before he then decided to brief against me and lobby against me across the wider labour movement as a dangerous fascist.

We must not allow ourselves to get into situations like this, where democratically unaccountable figures with influential social media positions get to act like high priests of the movement to determine who is and who isn’t acceptable, and are happy to use lies and smears against people who were their friends yesterday and their enemies today.

Those of us who make the socialist case against EU membership do so in the interests of the working class and socialism. It is my sincerely held political position that there is not a single socialist advance that could be made by a Labour Party that would not be prevented by membership of the EU.

Remainers have to recognise the legitimacy of our place within our movement and be prepared to engage us in political debate rather than resorting to character assassination.

There will be a labour and trades union movement after Brexit — and Owen and his friends could do worse than to remember that when they move against people for these destructive purposes.

Becky Crocker replies to Eddie Dempsey:

We must be unambiguous against oppression

In his reply to Owen Jones, Eddie Dempsey defends himself against what he says is Jones’s caricature of him peddling “nativist fantasies” about a supposed “white working class”.

Dempsey draws on his background as an Irish immigrant. He acknowledges that the working class is a diverse group of people; he talks about his upbringing on the Woodpecker Estate, “one of the most diverse — and most deprived — estates in Britain”.

He explains that as London secretary of the Connolly Association, he believes in the slogan, “The rights of the Irish in Britain are in no way contrary to our interests as workers.”

He almost echoes Workers’ Liberty’s understanding of the integral relationship between class politics and liberation politics. Workers’ Liberty sees no contradiction between the struggles of black people, women, gay people and other oppressed groups and the struggle for the liberation of the working class as a whole.

Workers’ Liberty’s approach has often been in a minority in the left and in the labour movement. From Dempsey’s reply to Jones, you could almost believe that Dempsey is our ally on this question.

But you would be mistaken. He demonstrates that he can talk about working class diversity when he calculates it will play well to a particular audience. He is inconsistent. His response contradicts his earlier controversial statements more than it clarifies them.

Moreover, his response to Jones, which embraces working class diversity, is not consistent with the way he relates to equalities struggles within the union in which he is active, the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT).

Firstly, to take one element in which Dempsey’s response to Jones is not consistent with his original statement. One of his original controversial statements at the March 2019 Full Brexit rally was:

“The one thing that unites [the people who turn out for Tommy Robinson]…. is their hatred of the liberal left. And they are right to hate them”.

This foregrounds hatred of the liberal left as the unifying factor amongst Tommy Robinson supporters. It does not mention nationalism or far right politics, a striking omission to say the least. Yet in his response to Owen Jones, he states:

“When Jones says that Tommy Robinson supporters hate the liberal left because of their perceived anti-racist and anti-Islamophobia politics, this is true, and I agree with Owen. I have never said otherwise”.

Does Dempsey think that uttering the words, “I have never said otherwise”, will mean that we fail to notice the contradiction between Jones’ depiction of Tommy supporters and Dempsey’s original statement?

Jones argues accurately that Tommy supporters hate the liberal left because, however inadequately, the liberal left challenges racism; Dempsey originally claimed that the “one” unifying view amongst Tommy supporters is not racism, or sympathy with the far right, but hatred of the liberal left because of anti-neoliberal sympathies.

Jones is honest about the right-wing politics of Tommy Robinson supporters; in contrast Dempsey’s original statement tried to downplay these elements or even claim some common ground with them. Dempsey’s response to Jones cannot change the meaning of Dempsey’s original characterisation.

There are other examples in Dempsey’s response where he attempts to re-write the meaning of his original statements. But I will leave it for readers to spot those inconsistencies.#

Moving onto Dempsey’s self-proclaimed advocacy for working-class diversity. Sadly, it does not match up to Eddie’s record as a prominent activist within the RMT.

When the furore erupted earlier this year, I examined the debate in the light of the way that equalities groups are forced to struggle for basic rights inside the RMT, despite well-documented discrimination within our industries. I wrote:

“The experience of working in the rail industry is undoubtedly harder if you’re black, gay, disabled or a woman. Therefore, there is a crying need for the unions in our industry to champion liberation politics and the struggles of equalities groups.

“We want a strong working-class movement, where no section of our class is oppressed on the grounds of their race, gender or any other characteristic.…”

“The RMT has four equalities committees: Black and Ethnic Minorities (BEM), Lesbian Gay Transgender and Bisexual + (LGBT+), women and disabled people. The RMT’s constitution only grants them the power to ‘advise’ the traditionally all-male, all-white leading body, the executive.

“I have pushed many resolutions through the equalities structures that have been carried out partially or not at all – including a very personally-felt one about challenging sexual assault and sexual harassment. When activists moved proposals to increase the power of the equalities committees at the RMT 2018 AGM, the attempt was obstructed by the current leadership of the union. We made some gains, but the leadership convinced delegates to vote down some of the most significant reforms”.

Sadly, we’re in a situation in the RMT where we still need to win the argument about the urgency of organising around equalities. We’re still having to convince people that liberation politics does not “divide” workers’ struggle; that in fact, it aims to eradicate the discrimination that gives rise to our division.

The battle win recognition for equalities struggles is a recognised issue in the RMT. In the most recent election of the RMT President, leadership-backed candidate, Steve Shaw, launched his campaign with a tirade against the idea that we should strive as a union to have black or women members in leading positions, instead insisting that people should be elected ‘on merit’.

The BEM [black and ethnic-minority] and women members responded in RMT News, exploding the myth that we are ‘election on merit’ is on a level playing field, especially against the background of unconscious discrimination in a macho industry such as ours. Michelle Rodgers challenged these ideas and was elected the first female President in the RMT’s 100+ year history.

In the most recent RMT General Secretary election, Sean Hoyle campaigned against the incumbent Mick Cash, demanding more power for the equalities committees.

Eddie Dempsey backed Steve Shaw and Mick Cash in those elections. He has not joined the many BEM, women, LGBT+ and disabled activists calling for greater rights for equalities committees.

His longstanding support for the Communist Party means he is inclined to back the bureaucracy against the rank and file. In addition, his RMT record is consistent with a theme in his social media profile on “identity politics”.

Earlier in the year I wrote:

“I have criticisms myself of ‘identity politics’. It focuses on who is speaking, rather than the ideas that are spoken. It can be a source of disunity and depoliticisation.… However, I would never wish to imply that identity politics is the actual enemy of the working class”.

Eddie has repeatedly accused identity politics of being an enemy of the working class.

As I said earlier in the year:

“As a prominent activist in the RMT, Eddie needs to be very careful in categorising identity politics as an enemy.

“Nuanced criticism of identity politics is one thing, but as an activist in an industry with huge problems of discrimination, Eddie has a responsibility to overwhelmingly, unambiguously champion the struggles of oppressed, minority groups”.

My conclusion upon reading Eddie Dempsey’s response to Owen Jones is much the same as when the controversy erupted.

We need unambiguous support for the struggles of minorities and all oppressed groups.

We need a clear acknowledgement that this politics in no way contradicts the struggle for the liberation of our whole class.

We need clear statements that are backed up with active engagement in struggles against oppression. Sadly, in these respects, Eddie Dempsey still has a long way to go.

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