Respect and opportunism

Despite the failure of the SA the party question has not gone away: it is simply posed anew in the more difficult subjective conditions of Respect, writes Jack Conrad

Sunday January 25 sees the national Convention of the Left and the formal launch of Respect (a rather tortured acronym standing for 'respect', 'equality', 'socialism', 'peace', 'environmentalism', 'community' and 'trade unionism'). Naturally communists not only wish Respect well, but seek active involvement at all levels. Respect says it is determined to overcome the "crisis of representation" and tackle the "democratic deficit" which exists "at the heart of politics in Britain".

Such ends - if they are to be achieved - necessitate definite means. We shall therefore argue for democratic structures, transparency, inclusivity and replacing vague formulations with concrete political demands. For example, having lambasted Britain's "democratic deficit", we are surely obliged to unite around the only coherent alternative - the 'r' in Respect should stand for republicanism: ie, abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, and for a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales and a united Ireland.

Respect also requires a culture of civilised debate. Allowing the floor just a few pinched hours to decide upon the array of motions and amendments that have been submitted is a worrying sign. Those who hold minority viewpoints must be given their due respect - that means sufficient time to explain themselves, argue and reply. Equally worrying is the underhand determination of the Socialist Workers Party to exclude the Socialist Party in England and Wales and all critical voices to its left: Alex Callinicos specifically targeted the CPGB and the "poisonous" Weekly Worker. Fortunately an approach not necessarily shared by Galloway - he finally agreed to meet SPEW's reps on January 23.

So far all discussions, negotiations and deals have been done in secret, almost conspiratorially. No minutes have been issued. Decisions have been taken by a self-selected elite - consisting of George Galloway, the dissident MP; Ken Loach, the leftwing filmmaker; Guardian columnist George Monbiot; Salma Yaqoob of Birmingham Stop the War Coalition; SWP leader John Rees; Nick Wrack, chair of the Socialist Alliance; Linda Smith of London FBU; Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary; and Bob Crow, general secretary of RMT. Disappointingly comrades Serwotka and Crow have subsequently backed away from full involvement. Hence the trade union input is much diminished.

Where does that leave Respect? Frankly, it all depends on who you ask. Understandably George Galloway has no desire to ruin his chances of triumphantly following Ken Livingstone back to the bosom of the Labour Party. George Monbiot too views Respect as a short-term project - one designed to punish Tony Blair and bring the Labour Party to its senses. As a left muslim, Salma Yaqoob presumably considers Respect some kind of contribution towards the universal caliphate. Meanwhile the SWP talks in terms of working class representation and envisages Respect having a life after the June 10 'super Thursday' elections for the European parliament and Greater London Assembly.

Yet, though heralded as a unique opportunity to harness the anti-war movement and "reshape politics", the truth is that, as presently constituted, Respect unites little more than what the Socialist Alliance achieved at its rather modest best. The interim committee is the rump Socialist Alliance plus George Galloway, plus George Monbiot, plus Salma Yaqoob. Not only is the trade union awkward squad noticeably absent; so too are representatives of the Labour left. No CLPs. No Labour councillors. Even the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain finally balked at the prospect.

And in order to take this "momentous step forward" the SWP has been prepared to pay a price: seemingly any price. The Socialist Alliance's programme has been watered down to a minimalist, essentially petty bourgeois wish list. Many points are unobjectionable, a few eminently supportable. Nevertheless, there appears to be a ruling belief that platitudes are preferable to principles and that less always equals more: ie, the less Respect has to say, the more it will attract partners and in due course votes. Marxism has a term for this - opportunism.

Though often transparently sincere, opportunism is a well trod road to disaster, and has recently had SWPers mournfully citing the Muslim Association of Britain and its unwillingness to join us (reportedly it will lend support from the sidelines). Apparently the paper you are now reading is to blame.

MAB vehemently objects to Respect's pledge to uphold the "right to self-determination of every individual in relation to their ... sexual choices". And, of course, this formulation was introduced in the aftermath of our polemical broadsides against Lindsey German. She notoriously announced at Marxism 2003, the SWP's annual educational event, that women's and gay right should not be treated as "shibboleths" (Weekly Worker July 10 2003). A clause four moment. At the time, the motivating idea of comrades German and Rees was to cement an electoral pact with Birmingham's central mosque ... and naturally that meant 'respecting' islam's traditional attitude towards women and homosexuals. Women are viewed as inherently inferior and homosexual acts are deemed an abomination in the sight of god.

Our protests against this blatant attempt to lay the ground for trading away elementary democratic principles were answered by SWP national secretary Chris Bambery. He unleashed his goons. CPGB members leafleting outside Marxism 2003 were not only harangued but physically assaulted - something which still to this day has not resulted in any calls for disciplinary action inside the SA nor even an apology from a contrite SWP central committee.

Not surprisingly though, there was much consternation amongst honest SWPers. And thankfully there are many of them. Doubtless to calm their fears and assuage outraged leftwing allies the SWP grudgingly agreed to include a few words on women's and gay rights. Remember, initiative in the SWP emanates solely from above, so it is revealing that SWP cadre now sorrowfully refer to this as mistaken. The implication is crystal clear: principles are a burden; anything can be sacrificed in the interests of "building the movement" (not only women's and gay rights, but, as shown by the SA's January 17 national council, a workers' representative on a worker's wage, opposition to immigration controls, republican opposition to the UK's monarchical constitution, proletarian socialism, etc).

The foolish notion is that Respect can be all things to all people. In other words only by moving further and further to the right can the left get votes - a caricature of what the SWP used to say about the sorry course plied by successive generations of Labourites. Historically this is false: eg, the Bolsheviks stayed true to their principles and still won election after election. Moreover such an attitude treats the electorate - ie, the working class - with utter contempt. Elections become not about making propaganda and enhancing class combativity, but rather saying what you think people want to hear in a desperate bid to get elected - almost for its own sake. Unless we equip ourselves with a fully rounded programme - one firmly based upon the Marxist world outlook - the chances of success are slim indeed. If Respect is viewed as any kind of a threat to the existing order the pro-capitalist parties, media, educational establishment and think tanks, will interrogate not only what it says, but what it leaves unsaid. Every diplomatic silence, every gaping hole, every contradictory statement, every shortcoming will be minutely probed, dissected and pored over and mercilessly highlighted by their well oiled publicity machines. Under such circumstances lack of a programme becomes a fatal weakness.

Hence we have to ask ourselves whether or not Respect is really an advance on the SA. For all its faults and limitations People before profit represented at least two steps forward. Firstly, by accepting it as the basis of common action we achieved a virtually unprecedented degree of organisational and programmatic unity. Secondly, in practice most of the SA's principal supporting organisations shifted significantly to the left - from auto-Labourism or passive abstentionism to actually presenting their own alternative.

Had the SWP encouraged "all its members and supporters to throw themselves into building" the SA, rather than waiting till Respect before making such a bold call, then surely we would have been well placed to engage with and recruit many of those who were mobilised by the anti-war movement - crucially leading sections of the organised working class. Instead, before, during and after the Iraq invasion, the SWP ensured that the SA was kept as an on-off united front. Mostly off. The result - demoralisation, decline in members, derisory votes and now virtual death. What might have been can surely be glimpsed from the Scottish Socialist Party's altogether better record - left nationalist and parochial though the organisation is.

People tend to join and vote for parties which over a sustained period of time have established a known presence and record of activity and stand on a comprehensive and testable programme. Put another way, despite the failure of the SA the party question has not gone away: it is simply posed anew in the more difficult subjective conditions of Respect.