Crossroads crossed

Phil Kent reports on a 'British politics at the crossroads' rally

Particularly since the mass anti-war upsurge, when the Socialist Workers Party virtually liquidated the Socialist Alliance in order to concentrate their efforts on self-promotion, there has been confusion about how to further left unity.

The latest meeting in the ‘British politics at the crossroads’ series, held at the Halkevi Centre, Hackney on December 2, supplied us with some definite answers - from somewhere above. The speakers’ table was decorated only with posters from the Stop the War Coalition, perhaps implying that the SWP, unsure as to which of their many hats to wear, eventually plumped for the safest and least controversial. The speakers were socialist lawyer Louise Christian, Paul Foot (SWP), Nick Wrack (Socialist Alliance), and finally George Galloway. The meeting took the form of a rally with no contributions allowed from the audience.

I will start with Galloway, because his was the keynote speech. He admitted that his new coalition - proposed name: Respect - had not come about as a result of a democratic process, but explained that this was because of the urgency required and the necessity of leaders acting as leaders. However, he said, the democratic deficit would be addressed on January 25 at a meeting in London - probably at Friends Meeting House or somewhere larger - where a draft declaration would be put before delegates elected by the (yet to be set up) branches. We should also vote in a leadership, agree a programme and an election platform. Individual membership of Respect - if that is the name adopted - will cost £10 per year (make cheques payable to ‘Unity Political Fund’ and send to George Galloway, House of Commons, Westminster, London SW1 OAA). Affiliation by organisations is also being sought.

Who then is this coalition for? Well a clue lies in the letters that make up ‘Respect’ - each one claiming to stand for a section of society not represented by New Labour. A sparky little advertising trick that I will not drag you through. Perhaps we could have represented even more by choosing a longer name. Most of his speech looked at the anti-war movement, and he mentioned those favouring peace and those who were anti-imperialist. He also covered asylum-seekers and ethnic minorities, particularly referring to the isolation felt by the muslim community. Supporting trade union struggles and all those suffering from poor public services is also vital, he said. He made it clear that his appeal was not only to those who considered themselves socialist.

His assessment of the political situation was optimistic. He recalled how he had gone on his first march in 1968 with Tariq Ali, but the anti-war marches we witnessed this year were much, much bigger, the same point was made by Paul Foot. Galloway’s message was “Think big, think modern” - we are witnessing the appearance of “an idea whose time has come”.

The new coalition will be standing in the Euro elections and in the Greater London Assembly elections, because they are both based on proportional representation and we only need 87,000 votes to get someone in. This is a tiny proportion of those out on the demonstrations - much less than the 600,000 votes won by Ken Livingstone as mayor of London. In fact we could win several seats. If only it was that simple. And, by the way, seeing that Ken is trying to creep back into the Labour Party, said Galloway, the GLA elections could be more important than the Euro elections, for who is going to represent the interests of Londoners?

Galloway always likes to bring Communist Party MP Willie Gallagher into his speeches. In Hackney he told the story of how Gallagher would address meetings with the words, “Friends and comrades, by the end of this meeting I hope I will have no friends.” Meaning of course that everyone would be comrades in the same party. This time the story had a new ending. Galloway admitted that for many months he had been between two stools, but no longer. He is committed to Respect and he hopes we will all be his comrades.

Compared to this, the rest of the meeting was small beer, but not insignificant. No one representing the views of George Monbiot or Salma Yaqoob was present, so unsurprisingly in an audience of about a hundred, including not a few SWPers, Respect for socialism came across as the dominant message, leaving the comrades feeling secure.

Paul Foot drew attention to his own poor result as an SA candidate when he stood for mayor of Hackney. He said we should admit to ourselves that we had not broken through politically as the Socialist Alliance. The anti-war movement, however, was so much bigger - bigger than anything he had experienced in his political life. The answer had to lie in representing this movement.

Nick Wrack, speaking for the SA, allowed himself to mention the need for a party - something he has been keeping quiet about for a long time now. But he seemed perfectly happy to see the Socialist Alliance become part of a coalition that has no declared ambition to become a party: the SA is dead; long live Respect.

His own contribution gave the impression that the SA manifesto, People before profit, will be seamlessly integrated into the coalition’s programme. Yet, according to Nick, the draft declaration for January 25 includes the word ‘socialism’ in the title but not in the text.

After the meeting, Monty Goldman of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain told me he was hopeful that its forthcoming special congress would agree it should be a component part of Respect. He pointed out that the CPB had been promoting Galloway via a speaking tour around the country as part of their ‘Reclaim Labour’ campaign. Quite how this fits in with Galloway’s abandonment of Labour remains to be seen.