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  • George Hoare, Peter Ramsay, Lee Jones

Transforming Britain After Brexit: Eddie Dempsey and the Divided Left

A response to criticisms of our recent London event from some on the left, and an invitation to further debate

The Full Brexit co-organised the Transforming Britain After Brexit tour because we wanted to open up a space for discussion, within and beyond the Left, over Brexit and the nature of the European Union. In March we held events in Coventry, Manchester, Liverpool, and London, with an event in Durham to come next month and hopefully more dates in cities across the UK after that.

We believe that the EU is undemocratic in its structure and that it has a profoundly negative effect on the democratic politics of member states. We also believe that the EU is not reformable and so argue for a “Full Brexit” as a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for democratic and economic renewal.

The London event (on Monday 25 March) was a full house, with a lively and robust discussion from the floor over the current way forward for the Left. RMT activist Eddie Dempsey, a speaker on the night who also spoke at our Manchester event, has subsequently received criticism from some for his remarks. Eddie stated 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”. He also remarked 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.”

The charge that Eddie is somehow “far-right”, “racist”, or a “Tommy Robinson apologist” is absurd and unconvincing. Eddie has frequently put his body on the line to fight fascists on the streets and has, for example, supported Black Lives Matter rallies, a fact which his denouncers cynically ignore.

Eddie is right to say that many workers hate the liberal Left; academic research in many deindustrialised communities - including that profiled here on The Full Brexit - has clearly demonstrated this. Eddie is also right that they have good reason to do so: their sense of abandonment and betrayal, particularly by the Labour party, is firmly rooted in reality. Eddie is also correct to identify the Labour party’s shift away from a class-based politics; again, this is widely noted in the academic literature, not just in Britain but across Western social democracies;[1] indeed, it has been actively encouraged by many left-wing intellectuals.[2] This point may have been somewhat clumsily expressed (though in fact Eddie was paraphrasing a Labour MP). Nonetheless, to claim - as Clive Lewis MP has done – that Eddie said that “black people [are] being used as pawns to subvert the (white) working class” – is clearly disingenuous. With deliberate bad faith, it wilfully infers racist intent – the inference that the working class and ethnic minorities do not overlap – from a single sentence, totally ignoring Eddie’s wider anti-racist activism and his other statements that make absolutely clear that he does not consider the working class to be exclusively white.[3]

Beyond the personal accusations,[4] the wider response - from people like Paul Mason - to Eddie’s political claims about the situation of the liberal Left and its relation to the far right is more interesting, and more troubling, for those of us committed to a transformative political project of the Left. It reveals a deep fissure within the Left over the EU.

Brexit has made it clear that the Left is divided between its liberal and socialist wings. The former is associated with a variety of anti-Brexit positions, including “remain and reform”, while the latter defends the vote for Brexit and criticises the EU as undemocratic. In broad terms, the liberal Left frame politics as a way to help the worst-off in a society deeply damaged by austerity, whilst remaining within the framework of the capitalist economic system. The liberal Left has a deep ambivalence towards the role of the working class in politics. Fundamentally, it sees the working class as an object of charity, radical or otherwise; it gets nervous when the working class becomes a subject of politics, making demands and exercising agency in its own right. This anxiety is exposed via the telling exaggeration of a numerically tiny, far-right threat, leading to demands to cancel Brexit (which, ironically, is the only way to revive the UKIP vote, which was hollowed out after the referendum).

By contrast, the socialist Left does not fear the empowerment of the working class; it is the entire purpose of their politics. The socialist Left understands politics not as a means to dispense charity to the poor, but as a struggle to extend democracy, ultimately from the political to the economic sphere. This demand for democracy is based on a long tradition of working-class calls for the extension of popular sovereignty. This extends to all working people, regardless of their ethnic, sexual or other characteristics.

This distinction helps us to understand why the debate over the EU has taken such a moralised form, where rational debate is rendered difficult, and vituperative denunciations abound. Much of the liberal Left has “sacralised” the EU, turning it into a sacred object. It is seen as the “heart of a heartless world”, as Marx and Engels once referred to organised religion; as the only institution capable of mitigating the plight of the poor and marginalised. The liberal Left’s fear is that, absent EU regulations, a “race to the bottom” will ensue, with the Right in charge and the far-right emboldened, a disaster for the working class and especially ethnic minorities.

Entirely missing from this sacralised view of the EU is any true reckoning with the EU’s actual role in advancing neoliberal capitalism and degrading workers’ rights, which were primarily won through domestic struggles. Also absent is any mention of the EU’s diabolical - and effectively racist - role in the migrant crisis, including the establishment of concentration camps around Europe’s borders and in North Africa. And missing above all else is any sense of the working class’s own political agency. Workers are rendered passive objects of state control, mere victims of a fantasised, already defeated deregulatory policy and prospective dupes of the far-right. The notion that the working class could be mobilised to turn Brexit into a pivot of progressive social transformation is completely absent from the liberal Left’s thinking. This becomes a self-fulfilling fallacy, as the liberal Left refuses to lead such a transformation, instead denouncing Brexit, recoiling from the working class’s hunger for fundamental change, and rushing to smear their representatives as racists.

The most urgent task for the Left is to overcome this distorted view of the EU and the working class, and to focus clearly on the political and economic situation that we face. The Left gains nothing from baseless criticism of individuals. Instead, we need a productive debate over the nature of the EU and the true meaning of democratic socialism and internationalism. Despite notable exceptions, there have been too few events of this sort organised on the Left. Therefore, we invite Paul Mason, Clive Lewis, and Michael Chessum to debate with The Full Brexit on the Left, the EU, and the nature of the far right.

At present, the British Left is demoralised and divided - and its current course will only deepen that demoralisation and further those divisions. There is a real risk that the window of opportunity opened by Brexit - for democratic renewal and a genuinely transformative economic programme of public ownership and workers’ democracy - is closing. We cannot afford to let that happen.

[1] For example: “by the late 1990s, the main parties [in Britain] were pitching far more to middle-class liberals, there seemingly being few incentives to speak directly to the working class… They drifted to the centre, which Blair and Clinton called the Third Way and Germans called the ‘New Centre’, while also pitching more directly to identity politics.” Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy (London: Penguin 2018), p. 254. See also Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley, The New Politics of Class: The Political Exclusion of the British Working Class (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017)

[2] The foundational text here is Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 1985) [pdf link]. In the preface to their second edition (2001), the authors note that “Most of what has happened since then has closely followed the pattern suggested in our book” (p. vii). They add: “It is true that the evolution of the parties of the Left has been such that they have become concerned mainly with the middle classes, to the detriment of the workers” (p. xviii), though they disclaim their role in this.

[3] In an interview with Dubliners Now, filmed before the attacks on him, Eddie Dempsey stated: “The working class isn't just white. It isn't just people like you and me... The problem is that because political discourse on the left in general is so dominated by really liberal ideas of individual concepts of identity... when you do talk about class, people immediately think you're talking about ‘the white working class’ or some kind of native -- and the working class has never been like that... The part of London I'm from, where I grew up, has never, ever been like that, ever. Don't matter what part of history you look back, it's always been very, very mixed.”

[4] For a detailed response to the accusations, see the Red Resurgence blog.

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