George Eaton discusses the importance of Marxism as a school of thought Hassan Raja

The increasing rise of alternative left-wing political journalists like George Eaton is symptomatic of the changing climate of Britain’s media. Often found quoting Marx in his pieces as deputy editor at the New Statesman, Eaton’s writing style represents a deviation from the tendencies of media dynasties.

“I’ve always had an interest in Marxism. I think as a school of thought it retains a lot of analytical power. So, it’s an interesting perspective to explore. But for a long time, these ideas didn’t feel particularly relevant to British politics.”

As the machines whirr and the gentle aroma of coffee beans fills the air in a cafe on King’s Parade, Eaton points out that what has marked this change was Corbyn winning the 2015 Labour Party leadership election and the appointment of John McDonald as shadow chancellor, who is a self-described Marxist.

“I’m not sure you’ve ever had a Marxist as shadow chancellor before. John McDonnell quite likes to greet business people and joke and say, ‘are you looking forward to having a Marxist in Number 11?’ And then of course, even more so perhaps in 2017 when you saw the Labour Party stand on its most left-wing manifesto for decades.”

“John McDonnell quite likes to greet business people and joke and say, ‘are you looking forward to having a Marxist in Number 11?’”

It is often said that anything can happen within politics in the space of a week, and a considerable amount of change has occurred since I spoke with Eaton. Eight MPs have quit the Labour Party to for The Independent Group, and I wonder how different our discussion may have been had the MPs resigned earlier.

The 2017 General Election was a transformative moment for the future of the left within the Labour Party. The political establishment recognised that the consensus had changed, and the party no longer had to fight election battlegrounds with the strategy of triangulation. So where does the Labour Party currently stand?

“The left of Labour are the strongest they’ve been in the party’s history now. You’ve never had a comparable leader to Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour left have historically been in internal exile within Labour. They’ve tried to exercise influence on the leadership from the backbenches, from the sidelines. This is them running the show and that’s something that’s almost unique in Labour history.”

However, Corbynism had been criticised for being too fixated with the politics of nostalgia, struggling to articulate the future it envisions. Despite the fact that Labour’s 2017 manifesto, For the Many, Not the Few, was popular and drummed up considerable enthusiasm across the country, it was simply an extension of post-war social democracy. But this is changing as the party are embracing a more radical agenda, which Eaton describes in the apt-phrase ‘Corbynism 2.0.’

“What I think has been impressive and encouraging about some of the thinking on the left, is that it is genuinely trying to grapple with the question of how do you forge a new economy. And how do you address some of the longstanding deep-rooted problems of British capitalism.” McDonnell has put forward the case for a four-day week and Labour are set to include a plan for universal basic income in its next manifesto.

“These are very interesting ideas and obviously you always need to scrutinize them, think about how they work in practice whether they’re politically viable, economically viable. This is exactly the kind of thinking that the left should be doing.”

Clause IV is part of the Labour Party’s constitution, which outlines the party’s aims and values. Under Blair’s premiership, it was changed, signifying an important turning point in redefining the party as New Labour. When I suggest whether redefining Clause IV would help shape Labour’s ideological future, Eaton responds, “well I think in some ways the totemic status of Clause IV can be a hindrance to that. Because it does risk falling into the politics of nostalgia rather than the politics of the future.”

The debate surrounding whether the Labour Party should revert back to the old Clause IV which committed the party to its socialist principles or whether it should be rewritten altogether has been a contentious issue within the party. “I think the party should always question their defining principles, it’s not a bad idea to look at the constitution every so often and say well actually do we need to redefine what we stand for. But I think the left shouldn’t become fixated on that.”

Brexit has been a divisive issue for the party. A leaked report by a trade union affiliated with the Labour Party revealed that Corbyn’s Labour Party could lose 45 seats in a snap election if they failed to adopt an anti-Brexit stance. Corbyn and McDonnell, two Eurosceptics, face the daunting challenge of having to reconcile a very pro-remain membership and party, with the fact that a majority of the country voted to leave the European Union, and the majority of target seats are leave.

Eaton raises an important point that “for the sake of British democracy there is something to be said for respecting the results of the first referendum. I think one of the reasons Brexit happened is a level of distrust of the establishment and having a second referendum does risk creating the impression that you have to keep asking the question until the people give them the correct answer.”

In light of this week’s developments in Westminster, I wonder whether Eaton would still be of the belief that the Labour Party should not promise a second referendum. Umunna has been vocal about the need for Labour to promise a second referendum. Is this a case of careerist politicians trying to renew New Labour long after its expiry date, or a sign that Labour should reconsider changing their line on Brexit?

“If you then give the population a chance to stick two fingers up at David Cameron as a result, don’t be surprised when they take it”

Indeed, British democracy is undoubtedly in malaise and another referendum runs the risk of sharpening the divide between Leavers and Remainers, “which would be even more vicious and poisonous than the last one.” I do wonder how we can reconcile the two bases. Eaton believes that “political leaders need to look to unite Remainers and Leavers.”

“One obvious means of doing that is through a soft Brexit which is essentially a variant of what Labour is now proposing. I think the argument you can make for that is to respect the referendum result, Britain will formally leave the EU. We will be out of the political structures. But we will maintain the economic relationships we need for public services but also to solve the Irish border question.”

The Irish border has been one of the biggest challenges to Brexit. “It’s a wonderful irony in some ways that this is what’s thwarted the Brexit project, because of course throughout history Britain has often determined other countries’ fates, ignited civil wars, by drawing lines on the maps and partitions of various kinds.


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“Now it’s been ensnared, it’s been trapped by a partition of its own making. So, the Brexit project was often jokingly referred to as empire 2.0. This idea that Britain could become this buccaneering, seafaring power again, could strike trade deals with the US, Australia, New Zealand Canada and the Anglosphere. The project of empire 2.0 is being held up by the legacy of 1.0.”

The Brexit campaign, says Eaton, was polarised, with the “xenophobic nationalist right and the liberal free market right” as the Remain campaign had “a very Cameroon, Blairite flavour.” It was run “very much like a conservative campaign in terms of lots of warnings about house prices and about economic stability, which obviously resonates with a certain section of the population.” But many areas had experienced significant economic decline and austerity and the referendum offered them an opportunity to revolt against establishment politics.

“If the Conservatives were going to have this referendum, it would have been a good idea to not hold an austerity budget in 2016. If you then give the population a chance to stick two fingers up at David Cameron as a result, don’t be surprised when they take it.”

What never gained prominent ground during the 2016 referendum campaign was the Lexit argument: that the European Union is a neoliberal institution, serving the interests of businesses against labour. “I think the struggle with the Lexit argument is its analysis and its critique of the EU has some force. But when you then come to the question of what future relationship do you negotiate, it gets into much more difficult territory.

“A lot on the Eurosceptic left complain about the restrictions that the EU imposes on state aid and on free movement of capital. But even if we left the EU under a left-wing government, you would soon need to negotiate some new relationship with your largest trading partner. That in itself could then entail significant restrictions.”

  • Updated, Feburary 22nd 2019: Two quotations were altered to more accurately represent Eaton's own words