Respect for all things nice

Marcus Strom reports on the new Respect coalition's progress

Momentum is gathering around the coalition, sponsored by George Galloway, the Glasgow Kelvin MP expelled from the Labour Party for his defiant anti-war stance. On Sunday November 30 at his London residence, a chosen few from the anti-war, trade union and socialist movements came together to discuss plans for a grand coalition to contest the June 2004 European elections in England and Wales. A draft declaration was agreed and will soon be widely available.

Their proposed name is ‘Respect - the Unity Coalition’. Each letter of ‘Respect’ represents an idea, or a section of the population, it is hoped to embody: R for respect, E for equality, S for socialism, P for peace (or progressive - take your pick), E for environment, C for community and T for trade unions. A pig of a name, to borrow from Marx. Not only is it shared with the Trades Union Congress anti-racist festival and an Aretha Franklin song: it sounds more like a local government quango, rather than a serious political alternative for the working class. Anyway, there will be a Unity Convention on January 25 to finalise the name and launch a manifesto.

Those in attendance on November 30 were George Galloway himself; socialist film director Ken Loach; John Rees, Socialist Workers Party central committee; Nick Wrack, national chair of the Socialist Alliance; Lindsay German, SWP central committee and convenor of the Stop the War Coalition; Lynda Smith, London regional treasurer of the Fire Brigades Union; and Salma Yaqoob, chair of Birmingham STWC (who was accompanied by an ‘associate’ from Birmingham). Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS civil servants union, and Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT transport union, could not attend, but remain engaged with the process. Although no formal decision was taken, these people now act as a self-appointed interim steering committee for the coalition.

Speaking after the meeting, Nick Wrack said that proceedings on the day were productive and positive. He thinks that the draft declaration will be broadly acceptable to the Socialist Alliance

Respect’s committee aims to build on the ‘British politics at the crossroads’ rallies taking place around the country after the ‘launch’ on October 29 in London. It is envisaged that there will be a series of smaller discussion meetings leading up to and following the January 25 convention.

It is planned to hold a conference next autumn after the European elections to decide where next to go. We are assured that the coalition is not destined to disappear after ‘Super Thursday’ in June 2004 - the date for elections to the European parliament, the Greater London Authority and local councils. Of course, this will depend on the relative success of the initiative and the ability of the various forces to stay together.

Respect’s draft declaration points to the crisis of representation in British society, which was thrown into sharp relief by the yawning democratic deficit opened up at the start of the US-UK war on Iraq. Further, it appeals to trade unionists, socialists, muslims, those against war and all those opposed to neoliberalism to join the coalition. There is no reference to superseding capitalism - either by reform or revolution - in the declaration. However, there are phrases calling for a world “based on need, not profit” and for a world where “solidarity, not self-interest, is the spirit of the age”.

Its election manifesto will, we are told, include definite demands around health, education, gender, race, asylum, for the renationalisation of transport and the repeal of the anti-trade union laws. Opposition to the European constitution and the single currency will be part of the package.

The breadth of forces the coalition will attract is uncertain. Will it just be the revolutionary left, plus a bit more, but standing on politics considerably to their own right? Or will the coalition be able to tap into the popular anger sparked by the Iraq war, and still fuelled by New Labour’s commitment to student top-up fees, foundation hospitals and other neoliberal policies announced in the queen’s speech last month?

There are interesting straws in the wind. For example, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain is bitterly divided over whether or not to sign up to the coalition.

While the CPB is a tiny organisation, it does have the Morning Star, a daily paper, which has real links with elements of the Labour left and the trade union bureaucracy. The CPB’s executive committee is split 11-11 on the issue. Reportedly Morning Star editor John Haylett and general secretary Robert Griffiths have opted for engagement with the coalition, as well as Stop the War Coalition chair Andrew Murray. Kevin Halpin, industrial organiser, heads the ‘traditionalists’ in defence of the old programme of the ‘official’ communist British road to socialism, and the forlorn aim of ‘reclaiming’ Labour.

Will the coalition stand in the GLA elections, as Galloway wants? And if it does, will it oppose incumbent mayor Ken Livingstone? Livingstone is set to rejoin Labour and has not exactly implemented a radical leftwing programme. Bob Crow is known to be furious with him for siding with the London tube employers over the sacking of an RMT activist who was allegedly playing squash while on sick leave.

Naturally such a loose and politically amorphous coalition is not where we communists would have wanted to end up. Neither after the unprecedented movement against the war nor the Socialist Alliance for that matter. Far from it. Those who claim otherwise are engaging in pure kidology. Nevertheless, it does contain the SWP and an expelled Labour MP and has the support of two union general secretaries. So it demands serious attention.

As we have said before in this paper, the Socialist Alliance missed an historic opportunity in the lead-up to and during the mass anti-war movement, which reached its zenith on February 15 with its two-million show of strength in London. However, rather than the Socialist Alliance being presented as the key answer, it was effectively closed down. Annual conference was postponed and the SA all but vanished. Hardly the time to “dip the flag”, as the Scottish Socialist Party’s Tommy Sheridan tellingly pointed out afterwards.

Instead we should have vigorously campaigned for a new workers’ party, thereby going to the heart of the crisis of Labourism. We should have launched a weekly paper of the Socialist Alliance. We should have ruthlessly exposed the democratic deficit, epitomised by the gulf  between the people and the unrepresentative and unrecallable monarchist parliament. If we had, we would undoubtedly be in a qualitatively stronger position today.

From such a vantage point, we would surely have won the likes of George Galloway, Bob Crow and George Monbiot. I am even told that Salma Yaqoob, when asked, said that she agreed with the SA programme, People before profit. So why not join and build our organisation? Because it lacks credibility. For this, blame must be laid squarely at the door of the SWP, which has always regarded the SA as an electoral ‘united front’, to be switched on only for elections - a mere conduit for recruits into its own ranks.

Where is the Socialist Alliance heading now? Does John Rees aim to ‘disappear’ it into the coalition? Will it be the SA or his SWP that attempts to cohere itself as its socialist pole of attraction? Ask the question and it is answered for you. The antics of the SWP during the anti-war upsurge do not inspire confidence in Socialist Alliance partisans. And the big question: can the Respect coalition itself become the vehicle for a new workers’ party - positively superseding the very modest achievements of the Socialist Alliance? Or will it merely act as a pressure group on the Labour Party, aiming to pull it to the left to ‘rewin’ it as a space for Labour socialists such as George Galloway?

Admittedly we are not at the destination where we aimed to take the Socialist Alliance, when we fought for the deepening of the unity gained during the 2001 general election campaign and through the birth of our common programme, People before profit. Yet embarking on a boycott because our plans have in one respect been set back would be sectarian madness and a form of political suicide.

Neither the pink-green-localist Network of Socialist Alliances (forerunner of today’s SA) nor the anti-democratic dystopia of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party corresponded to any plan we had in mind. But that did not stop us engaging with them.

Our struggle has been consistent. To engage with the movement as it is and fight, step by step, towards unity in a single, all-Britain, revolutionary workers’ party. A Communist Party, in other words.

It is fortunate therefore that the Socialist Alliance’s Democracy platform voted to engage with the Respect coalition. Together with our SA allies we shall fight for a new workers’ party and to defend and extend the programmatic gains represented by People before profit.