Eddie Dempsey: In the past week, 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 Peoples’ 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.”
Owen wasn’t outraged at the time, as he was happy to share a platform with me at the end of July, some months after the offending statement was made. However, he has now decided that I am to be written off. In his Twitter bunker, he is hectically pushing his 800,000 followers to the conclusion that I hold a reactionary, dangerous, and racist position on what constitutes the working class — but without himself explicitly saying so.
Understandably, Owen’s behaviour has caused completely unnecessary rifts across the labour movement. Therefore, I have been heavily encouraged to write a response clarifying my position.
Firstly, 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. Most working class people can offer stories or anecdotes of people turning to the far-right for answers. In deindustrialised parts of the country, many people of my generation never experienced the secure employment, meaningful political representation, or the real union power their parents experienced. Without the institutions of the Labour and trades union movement to engage with, and without the stability provided by decent jobs, far too many express their discontent with society at large.
Even in my incredibly diverse community in south London, I personally know people from Irish or black backgrounds joining DFLA, EDL or Free Tommy demonstrations. Owen seems intent on branding these people “textbook fascists” and has been repeatedly doing so on the internet.
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. My point is not controversial. Simon Winlow, Steve Hall and James Treadwell’s book, ‘The Rise of the Right: English Nationalism and the Transformation of Working-Class Politics’ (2017), shows how deep the problem of abandonment of working-class communities by the liberal left and political elites is and that working-class resentment has been abused by the far right who try to take advantage of this.
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 prophesied — 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.
Does this mean that I agree with the alternative they have chosen? No, of course not. I do not think they are right to sympathise with Tommy Robinson. The people who attacked Owen are vile. I have been assaulted by their comrades. My family’s home has been attacked. Photographs of me and my family have been circulated on EDL and DFLA websites where we have all been labelled as “fair game” by these people.
Why? Because they know people like me are their enemy. And they are right to think this too.
This isn’t news for anyone who knows me — not least to Owen Jones, who I contacted in January this year to warn him that he had been selected as a major target for violent assault by far-right militants. I contacted him to offer him the protection of militant antifascists on his way to and from demonstrations if he should wish, as well as general advice on keeping safe from these people. I warned him that a pub he regularly frequents after demonstrations is a pub regularly used by fascists, and that he should watch out. He thanked me at the time.
On one of my few appearances on Sky, I condemned his attackers, and repeated his assertion that there is a danger posed by the far-right that is not receiving sufficient political consideration. I contacted him again on the 17th of August — long after I made the comments he now cannot manage to contextualise — to offer him my personal sympathies and again offer support, which he thanked me for.
Despite this, he has chosen to take the least charitable interpretation of my words. Influenced by people such as Clive Lewis, who has a vested interest in discrediting socialist supporters of leaving the EU, he is trying to make me fair game for delegitimization and public stigmatisation because I support Brexit.
He has gone further since tweeting he would be unsafe sharing a platform with me, this strikes me as odd since he had previously organised a platform for the likes of Liberal Democrat Tim Farron when he was their leader, an unrepentant homophobic bigot and a willing participant in the government’s austerity programme that Owen has done so much to criticise.
He seemed cosy in his warm, friendly interview with Alastair Campbell, the architect of misleading this county into the Iraq war which murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent people.
He also feels in good company participating in a destructive campaign to delegitimise me from Clive Lewis, who thinks soldiers who kill civilians should be given the benefit of the doubt — even as the Bloody Sunday and Ballymurphy families are still seeking justice to this day.
These individuals get a pass from Owen. Yet in the worst possible bad faith, my words have been taken out of the context in which they were spoken, out of the context of my entire life and years of work I have done in antifascism and in organising working-class people to deliberately attribute the worst possible connotation while ignoring any other shred of evidence that contradicts the sinister portrayal of me as a racist or even a fascist sympathiser for political advantage.
Owen interpreted my words to mean the exact opposite of what I stand for. He knows (and admits he knows) that I confront the far right, that I organise workers from all sorts of backgrounds that the far-right hate, including migrant workers, of which I am one.
He also knows that I would oppose the far-right, no matter what their background, and will defend people like him — no matter how much I may disagree with them on issues such as Europe.
Some of the ways in which I was able to warn Owen about the threat to his person is due to the fact that I have spent time with individuals, and have succeeded in turning people away from, organisations such as the EDL, the DFLA and the Free Tommy campaigns.
While I believe that the primary work of antifascists is to organise to prevent successful mobilisations of the far right on the streets, antifascism does not begin nor end there. There is always a need to offer credible alternatives undermine far-right arguments, and turn people away from becoming supporters of these movements, in order to corrupt their ranks and help us defeat them.
Many people who were deterred from fascism in the past and present became spies for anti-fascists, providing information that was vital to the success of local anti-fascist activity. Others went on to become active trade unionists, shop stewards and committed socialists.
I happen to believe that this sort of politics is far more meaningful than writing “anti-fascist” on your Twitter bio and engaging in a frankly useless culture of calling-out and disingenuous moral posturing. In the British anti-fascist movement, there has often been a trend where these movements provide an outlet for middle-class liberals to vent and validate their own prejudices against the perceived idiocy of working class people. This demonization inevitably extends to those who do not share their pro-EU ideals, who are now bigoted racists all of a sudden. Since Owen wrote the book on this, he will recognise it.
For all this is worth, I think we need to think about what solidarity means in this context. It seems that for a section of unaccountable public figures ‘solidarity’ is a tool of public coercion where everyone is pressed to condemn the new daily heretics. In the real world, solidarity is a weapon that binds workers together, who often have extreme differences of opinion, as workers in our own interests. For many, solidarity is not the ability to be one of the “good people” lining up against anyone that those with a huge internet following gets to say is the “bad people” — it is the guarantor of your children’s school uniform and the monthly rent.
The socialist movement cannot rely on the assertion of moral superiority over others to divide people for dishonest reasons online. It has to be a definite political endeavour to bring the working class and the masses of people together to assert democratic control over the political and economic aspects of their lives.
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.
– Eddie Dempsey
Backlinks to this story ‘Eddie Dempsey calls for unity against Boris Johnson after ‘no-platform’ bid by Owen Jones and Ash Sarkar‘