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A farcical backlash from the commentariat

A number of liberal-left figures have lined up to attack RMT shop steward Eddie Dempsey for his comments about Brexit. ROBBIE RAGANI cautions against such bad-faith posturing

THE political sphere, especially that section of it which populates social media, is and always has been full of bad tempers, bad faith and bad blood.

These low-level intrigues are rarely of concern to the wider electorate, even the relatively engaged section of it.

However, a recent argument between RMT shop steward Eddie Dempsey and a section of the left commentariat carries within it the signs of a much deeper malaise.

Beyond defending the interests of their members and their class, the workplace representatives and elected officials of the trade union movement serve a vital function in the British political landscape.

They form the organic link between organised labour — ordinary working people — and the politicians and functionaries of the Labour Party, as it exists in local government and Parliament.

Conversely, left-facing journalists serve an equally important function; communicating the ideas and aspirations of working people to both the reading public and to the elite gatekeepers of the media, political and business establishment.

The ongoing campaign of histrionics directed by journalists and MPs towards Dempsey goes has not only been disgraceful, but dangerous and irresponsible.

Whereas those who have lined up against him are able to exercise considerable media clout, Dempsey himself is a working-class trade unionist with a limited ability to counter this onslaught. 

So what, exactly, is the substance of the argument?

On the surface, a basic political objection has been raised about comments made by Dempsey.

In short, he holds that the Labour Party takes for granted an electoral coalition of morally minded liberal professionals and an ethnic minority bloc that, politically, has nowhere else to go.

Within this political calculus, organised labour — particularly in the old industrial heartlands — is bypassed.

Not only is this a relatively uncontroversial point of view, it’s the basis of the critique of Corbynism from within the mainstream of the Labour Party itself. 

Electoral realities being what they are, I have no doubt that many Labour politicians would attest to this structural weakness in the party.

The second, more serious, allegation levelled at Dempsey regards his statement to the effect that disaffected working-class people who turn to right-wing demagogues like Tommy Robinson are justified in their hatred of a liberal left that, they perceive, hates them.

A farcical backlash from the commentariat has unfolded, with a series of high-profile media interventions by MPs and journalists (for example Paul MasonClive Lewis and Owen Jones).

The essential claim is that comments like this reveal Dempsey to be a “Tommy Robinson apologist,” a racist and potentially even a fascist himself.

This bad-faith posturing has already incensed the membership of the RMT to the degree that they voted to exclude one of the perpetrators, Lewis, from the union’s parliamentary group. 

Regrettable as this incident is, the catastrophic consequences run far deeper than Lewis’s personal feelings.

The RMT is one of Britain’s best organised and most effective industrial unions, which narrowly voted against affiliation to the Labour Party last year.

Those who claim to support the establishment of a radical, transformative Corbyn-led Labour government should consider the potential consequences of actions that weaken and disorientate the movement upon which its power will rest. 

Despite the nonsensical implication by Jones that sharing a platform with Dempsey might even expose him to the risk of physical danger, no-one seriously believes that Dempsey is any kind of fascist.

Although I sympathise deeply with Jones in light of his recent attack by far-right thugs, I cannot support his use of an enormous media platform to cast hideous aspersions at a lifelong organiser of street-level anti-fascism and constant defender of the rights of the most vulnerable migrant workers on shop floors across the country.

The simple fact is that the underlying motive behind all this mystifying nonsense is Brexit.

Left-wing Remainers instinctively understand that by pushing the Labour Party away from a sensible position on Europe towards becoming a fanatical party of Remain, they are isolating it from the mainstream of working-class opinion which favours both social justice and a managed exit from the world’s foremost bastion of unaccountable neoliberalism.

The attacks on Dempsey, who valiantly upholds the democratically (and decisively) decided policy of the RMT union, which is in favour of Brexit, are therefore in extraordinary bad faith.

When viewed as a cynical manoeuvre from the Remain-supporting faction of the party, they take on a deeply sinister tone. 

The job of a trade unionist is sometimes to speak an uncomfortable truth to power.

Whether in the RMT or throughout any section of Britain’s proud trade union movement, it’s the shop stewards who represent the most authentic voice of organised labour.

Those who aspire to represent that voice in government would be wise to heed it. 

I’m loathe to personalise an issue of structural importance to our movement but, as a young, BAME member of the RMT, there is no-one I would trust more to defend me personally — either in the workplace or the streets — than my shop steward, Eddie Dempsey.

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