Galloway's nationalist gaffe

Cameron Richards reports on the Cardiff meeting of the unity coalition

About 200 people from across Wales attended the meeting of Respect in Cardiff on January 20. The main speakers on the platform were George Galloway, John Rees and John Marek, the independent assembly member for Wrexham and leader of Forward Wales. By recent standards in Wales this was a big meeting. The three main speakers made generally well received opening speeches, all emphasising what they had in common with each other. Indeed to the untrained eye it would have been difficult to spot who was the revolutionary socialist on the platform and who was the former Kinnock and Smith loyalist on Labour's front bench (Marek).

Things only began to go awry when the debate was opened up to the floor. It quickly became apparent that the chair had been told not to accept contributions from certain organisations. Consequently the only contribution made by a representative of the non-Socialist Workers Party far left was from CPGB comrade Ethan Grech and this was only taken because the chair seemed to think he was still a member of the SWP.

Thus, when John Rees whispered in the chair's ear that it was time for the platform to make their summation speeches, it appeared that the stage management of the event had been brought off splendidly. Yet he did not know what was going to happen next. About to make his closing remarks, Rees was faced with a young and nervous comrade from the Socialist Party in England and Wales, who said that she wanted to speak to the audience. Her request was ignored, but she stayed by his side.

Thus, when Rees completed his speech (and promptly left to return to London), the brave comrade asked again. This time, supported by sections of the audience, her request was accepted and she proceeded to ask whether the coalition saw itself as being part of the process towards a new workers' party. Typical SP fare, but quite pertinent in the context.

Indeed such a question was especially relevant, as in his opening Galloway had seemed to rule out the prospect of Respect ever becoming a movement that might lead to a new party. He seemed to think that all the groups treated their programmes as 'holy grails' which would forever preclude them from uniting. Yet, if this is the case, what is Respect for? Is it simply a vote-winning exercise for one set of elections which might just lead to Galloway himself being elected to the European parliament?

However, there was one 'respectable' trend of opinion that George admitted would find no room in his coalition. No, not the SP or the CPGB, but Welsh nationalists. After a fairly sympathetic question from left nationalist and Plaid Cymru AM Leanne Wood, who noted that the declaration said nothing about Wales or Scotland, Galloway rounded on Plaid - not even conceding that Wales should have the right of self-determination. Now, of course, if Respect had a coherent political programme, aimed at taking on the British state and not separating from it, George would have had a good point. Yet it precisely does not and it seeks to unite a motley crew of Trotskyists, Stalinists, reformists and greens. Indeed Galloway would still like the Muslim Association of Britain to jump on board. So why shun left nationalists? Indeed what gives him alone the right to say what the coalition will stand for anyway?

This soon became clear. Amidst heckling from some sections of the audience, Galloway then rounded on the Scottish Socialist Party, because they too were nationalist. This was a major gaffe, because it now became clear why Respect will not be standing in Scotland. Not because Galloway wants the electorate there to vote SSP, as is sometimes assumed, but because he does not want to face electoral annihilation by the SSP in his own backyard. Otherwise, why not take on the SSP?

To his credit, George did manage to rescue himself by reaching out to others in the audience. In the final few minutes of his closing speech, recognising the event had been badly handled, he said he looked forward to his meeting with SP leaders in Coventry this Friday, remarked how much he enjoyed the Weekly Worker and was not afraid of the open criticism and honest debate he finds in its pages. In fact, on his recent return to Britain he felt motivated to read six issues back to back. Later he told a CPGB member that he looked forward to various tendencies having platform rights within Respect.

A footnote. What was Robert Griffiths, the beleaguered general secretary of the Communist Party of Britain, doing at the meeting? After last weekend's CPB special congress rejected support for the coalition, is he about to jump ship from the CPB and give open support for Respect? We shall see.