Votes of conscience and women's rights

Party notes

George Galloway, Respect MP for Glasgow Kelvin, is speaking at a rally in Leeds on Monday April 26. It will be one of many hundreds he has addressed over the past two years. What is different about this meeting is that pro-abortion activists are organising a lobby (see indymedia.org.uk/en/2004/04/289514.html). Although the organisers have dubbed their protest a ‘picket’, they intend to enter the meeting to ask questions of the Respect candidates.

It is a matter of public record that comrade Galloway opposes a woman’s right to choose. He is speaking alongside Anas Altikriti, Respect’s lead candidate for the Yorkshire and Humberside EU constituency. Altikriti is the former president of the Muslim Association of Britain, which, as a group based on political islam, also opposes abortion. It is quite right, I should add, that candidates should face tough questioning over their position on all manner of issues, including women’s reproductive rights.

For communists, comrade Galloway’s record on this is more than worrying. It puts him to the right of mainstream bourgeois thinking in the UK. In an interview in The Independent on Sunday, he said: “I’m strongly against abortion. I believe life begins at conception and therefore unborn babies have rights. I think abortion is immoral.” He added: “I believe in god. I have to believe that the collection of cells has a soul” (April 5).

The website of Right to Life UK describes Galloway thus: “Elected to parliament in 1987, since when he has consistently opposed abortion on demand and late abortions. He has also shown himself to be a courageous fighter against the use of the human embryo for experiments and against euthanasia. In 1990 he opposed clauses aimed at legalising abortion on demand, with one doctor needed only to certify that the pregnancy has not exceeded 12 weeks. He also voted against abortion up to birth on various grounds, including handicap. He is also against the use of the human embryo for experiments and human cloning … He is completely opposed to euthanasia by omission and euthanasia by commission.”

In a democratic political party the particular positions of individuals on questions of policy and principle, while not irrelevant, are less important than the position of the party itself. When it comes to actions, any elected representative of a Communist Party would be bound by its democratic centralism on all such questions. Individualistic ‘votes of conscience’ are incompatible with communist organisation. Even the Socialist Alliance requires all elected representatives to uphold national policy (constitution, clause E5).

This exposes Respect’s central weaknesses. The unity coalition imposes no collective discipline whatsoever. It is fighting the European elections with the most minimalist of populist platforms, without any policy at all on a whole range of vital issues - not least abortion, contraception and reproduction. Here is what, according to our founding declaration, Respect stands for: “The right to self-determination of every individual in relation to their religious (or non-religious) beliefs, as well as sexual choices.” Clear as mud then. This could be read any number of ways - and such is the aim of populism. As George Galloway himself says, “What you want, baby, we got it.”

Does this mean that, if elected, comrade Galloway will be allowed “self-determination” in relation to matters of sexual and reproductive choice? Or does it mean he will be duty-bound to vote in accordance with the decisions of Respect itself? How would George Galloway MEP vote on such issues if they appeared on the order paper of the European parliament?

This needs urgent clarification. What do other members of the executive think about abortion? In our opinion the collective will must prevail over an individual’s viewpoint. The recall conference of Respect in autumn will need to set out a clear partyist approach to this and all such questions. If not, Respect will become a barrier to the struggle for a working class party in Britain.

Clearly, an overwhelming majority of Respect members support a woman’s right to chose whether or not to have an abortion. This should become firm policy. Elected representatives must vote as representatives of the organisation, not according to their conscience. If they cannot stomach abiding by the collective position on particular questions, they should stand down. George Galloway - along with all candidates - should tell us whether voting for a policy he disagrees with would be a fundamental problem for him.

What will John Rees say on women’s reproductive rights? We should ask him. Will the SWP remain silent and once again sacrifice its principle in order to maintain an alliance with anti-abortionists? Is a woman’s right to chose merely a “shibboleth” or is it a central aspect of our fight for general human freedom?

In what may be a coincidence, an article in last week’s Socialist Worker on “genuine equality for women” by Colin Barker fails to mention the word ‘abortion’ (April 17). Given George Galloway’s interview a week earlier, perhaps this is what philososhers call a ‘significant silence’. Comrade Barker could hardly be unaware of the utterances of our leading candidate on this subject.

Within Respect, the method of the Socialist Workers Party and Alan Thornett of the International Socialist Group has been to avoid contentious issues. Workers’ representatives on a worker’s wage. Secularism. Republicanism. Open borders. And now abortion. To bring up such issues is to divide the movement, goes the refrain. Such an opportunist method may temporarily work, but cannot achieve anything in the long run except disarray, collapse and demoralisation. Candidates standing for election are asked all manner of awkward questions on every conceivable issue. Voters - not to mention hostile media hacks and rival politicians - are not so stupid as to content themselves with mere empty platitudes. They will demand to know what Respect actually stands for. Would Respect vote to keep abortion legal? Or would Respect vote to make it illegal? Keeping quiet on the question will not wash.

Of course, communists fight for a world where late terminations are completely unnecessary. In the here and now, we emphasise the right to choose - as early as possible, as late as necessary. Men and women must, of course, fight for this together. It is not simply a women’s question to be left to them. Free abortion on demand, like every other social and democratic issue, needs united working class leadership.

And it needs to be supported as official policy, accepted by all. Unless our candidates agree to submit themselves to agreed positions, standing together in elections becomes merely an opportunist attempt to get elected for its own sake and nothing to do with what we want to achieve. Respect certainly must not become a vehicle for promoting the backward ideas of this or that individual, no matter what outstanding role they may have played in other fields.

Should comrade Galloway’s regrettable views on abortion lead us to withhold support for Respect in the June 10 elections? The CPGB thinks not. Of course there will be those who eagerly pounce on his statements around this issue to reinforce their sectarian opposition to voting for the coalition. A mistake. Any kind of electoral success for Respect will once again put the question of partyism at the top of the agenda. It will also be a blow to the Blairite war machine from the left. We should therefore vote Respect, albeit highly critically.

Amongst other things, Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT transport union, is in favour of capital punishment. Like comrade Galloway’s opinion on abortion, this is a reactionary position. Yet such individual points of view are hardly incompatible with membership of a socialist or left organisation. However, as the CPGB’s Ian Donovan has pointed out in a recent email exchange, “If Galloway switched the focus of his public work to a crusade against abortion, or if Crow did the same thing with his view of the death penalty, then that would be a very different manner. But in the absence of that I am prepared to work with flawed people. The thing to do is to fight for democracy - so that positions on these matters are decided in a progressive manner - not to engage in campaigns against individuals”.