We need unity against the far right — reply to Eddie Dempsey

The British far right is ever more thuggish and violent, emboldened and fuelled by mainstream politicians and media outlets. Its members have killed a Labour MP, attempted to kill another, and plotted to kill Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan. The Labour leader has himself been attacked and harassed. The far right are harassing and attacking minorities and perceived political opponents on the streets, and organising demonstrations in support of the Conservative Prime Minister in which they they openly chant for leftists and Remainers to be hanged. Multiple far right terror plots have been foiled, while the far right have been identified as the fastest growing threat of terrorist violence. On a global scale, in the last few years, they have slaughtered socialists, Muslims, Jews, and black people. Debating how to confront this threat is one of the most pressing issues facing the British and international left, not least given we can expect an escalation in their activities during an election.

Recently, a controversy has opened up over comments made by Eddie Dempsey, a trade unionist and media commentator, in which he declared: “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.”

This led to the commentator Ash Sarkar — one of the left’s brightest stars, who has played a key role in politically inspiring younger people in particular — to disinvite herself from a protest organised by the People’s Assembly in which Dempsey was speaking. Although I’d been invited, too, I was actually speaking at the screening of a friend’s documentary: but having seen the abuse Sarkar was subjected to (which, to be clear, I’m not blaming Dempsey for), as an act of solidarity, and after I’d been made aware of the comments (they were made, without my knowledge, months earlier), I replied to her tweet to say that I wasn’t attending either. We were both accused of No Platforming Dempsey, including by the hard right Spiked Online website — a cult whose members are prominent members of the Brexit Party. This was not true — the organisers offered to disinvite Dempsey in exchange for our attendance and we declined. No-one is forced to share platforms against their will. In the weeks since, Dempsey and his supporters have repeatedly criticised us both, leading me to write a blog clarifying my position; this in turn caused an online storm, and led Dempsey to write his own blog post. It was thoughtful and detailed and admirably blunt: some of it I agreed with, some I found problematic, so it deserves a response.

Dempsey suggests the whole saga is driven by an attempt to discredit left-wing supporters of Brexit like himself. This is untrue. The left-eurosceptic political current has existed as a tradition within the labour movement as long as there has been a European political project, and it is one I respect. I am myself a left-eurosceptic, albeit one who came to a different conclusion in the referendum and in our current political impasse — ‘Remain and Reform’ or ‘Remain and Rebel’ — along with the vast majority of the British left, partly because I was convinced by the case made by European leftists, not least in Spain. Dempsey is entitled to his position: his position makes him no more a Farageist than mine makes me a liberal.

Some of Dempsey’s supporters have suggested the disagreement was really an attack on him because he is working class: ironically, these are the same people who often bemoan what they pejoratively as “identity politics”. This is clearly ludicrous: the objection was to Dempsey’s comments, and it exists in good faith.

Dempsey has suggested that my behaviour has been “entitled”. Firstly, it is important to stress my own privilege. As I stressed after being recently attacked: I’m a white man with a media platform. When I am harassed or attacked, it often receives media attention: not so for members of minorities who have been harassed, attacked or indeed killed. That said, as Dempsey notes, I am — tediously, on a personal level— a major target for the far right: over the course of the last 9 months I’ve been repeatedly harassed by far right thugs in the street, attacked, subjected to near daily threats of violence and death — not just online, but recently including graffiti calling for me to be hanged, for example. This isn’t to play the victim, it is simply to say: if I don’t meet the threshold to discuss strategy when it comes to confronting the far right threat, then who does? And whilst it is easy to caricature me as part of some unaccountable media elite, it is not actually fair or accurate: I’m hugely involved in political organising and campaigning, as he knows, and indeed my involvement in the anti-fascist protest in London last December in part led to a dramatic escalation in far right harassment.

Dempsey has been asked for months to clarify his remarks, specifically who he means by “the liberal left”. In his recent blog, he clarifies for the first time that he means “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.” This is surprising, because this is not who the “liberal left” are at all. Blairism is a neo-liberal ideology, sure, but cannot in any sense be described as “liberal left”. Furthermore, Dempsey explicitly associated the activist Michael Chessum with “the liberal left”, for example: but Chessum is a socialist Remainer. He’s also suggested Sarkar belongs to the “liberal left”, and several of Dempsey’s supporters certainly do regard both me and Ash Sarkar as “liberal left”. If we’d attended the protest, we’d have risked our personal safety: almost every protest I now attend, I’m targeted by Tommy Robinson supporters, including a People’s Assembly demo earlier this year, when they surrounded me, yelling ‘Jonesy is a homo’ and repeatedly attempted to punch me in the face. Is it at least possible to understand why we felt uncomfortable sharing a platform with someone who, we felt, believed these far-right thugs were right to hate us along with other progressives?

(From my own lived experience, Tommy Robinson supporters target me because I’m a gay socialist anti-fascist associated with the Labour left. Their threats focus on accusations I support terrorism, I’m a Communist, I’m a traitor, complicit in the Islamisation of Britain, and that I promote a treacherous Labour party. They certainly do not regard me as a ‘liberal’.)

As Dempsey notes, Tommy Robinson activists hate ‘left-liberals’ because of their perceived anti-racist, anti-Islamophobia, pro-migrant politics, not because of their support for market economics. Those who turn up to Tommy Robinson protests are a tiny unrepresentative subsection of the population — a few thousand people — and represent his most hardcore supporters. Dempsey says that he knows people “from Irish or black backgrounds joining DFLA, EDLA or Free Tommy demonstrations”, but he is clearly talking about anomalies and exceptions. He believes it is wrong to call these far-right activists ‘fascists’: if this hardcore doesn’t qualify, then who? Would he really object to the standard slogan on the anti-fascist counter-mobilisations to far-right protests: “Nazi scum, off our street”? It is also notable that the polling shows far greater sympathy for Tommy Robinson among Conservative voters than Labour voters.

Dempsey writes about how New Labour caused mass disillusionment amongst working-class communities, and how right-wing populism has fed on this, noting — correctly — that I’ve written about this at length, too. Indeed, I dedicated an entire chapter in Chavs on this issue — although I would note that UKIP and now the Brexit Party have become the principal beneficiaries. He also notes that far-right activists can be rehabilitated, even becoming anti-fascist socialist militants, and he is absolutely right. But that is not the same as as arguing that Tommy Robinson activists are right to hate the “liberal left”; that is a very different thing to arguing, say, “neo-liberalism has caused mass disillusionment in working-class communities which far right extremists have exploited.”

Perhaps Dempsey thinks this is all about semantics, but language matters, particularly when we’re discussing how to fight a dangerous far right menace. If Tommy Robinson’s thugs are able to say “even this socialist says that we are right to hate these people!”, that is itself dangerous. Dempsey writes of his commendable anti-fascist organising — for which he deserves praise — and of his own attacks at the hands of the far right — for which he requires solidarity. But we desperately need unity against the far right: any suggestion that some progressives are deserving of their hatred clearly does not build that. This is not about media personalities throwing their unaccountable weight around: it’s about those among the targets of the far right objecting, in good faith, to what they regard as dangerous comments. We should move on from this saga — but that does require emphasising that we are all on the same side in the fight against fascism, whether we support Remain or Leave.

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Owen Jones

Author of 'The Establishment' and 'Chavs', Socialist, Guardian columnist. Losing my Northern accent. My views etc... https://www.youtube.com/c/OwenJonesTalks