Don't mention open borders

Around 60 people - mostly members of the Socialist Workers Party - attended what was billed as an "East London meeting for all London Respect members" on January 30. Strange title, strange meeting. Rather than "enable us to coordinate the campaign in east London with areas where we don't have candidates standing", as the email invitation stated, this 40-minute meeting in Toynbee Hall felt much more like a cheap trick to lure people into picking up leaflets. Surely, that could have been done from Respect's national office. Discussion or political debate was certainly not the point of the meeting. At the beginning, Respect's national secretary (and SWP leader) John Rees delivered a 10-minute speech, which was strong on meeting points for leafleting events and dates for diaries, but had very little by way of politics. The only political point comrade Rees raised was over the pension crisis. However, he did so merely in the context of the TUC's 'day of action' on February 19. Without putting forward any alternative programme on the question (how would we envisage the pensions being paid for?), he told the meeting why this is an "extremely important" issue for Respect: our vote will "depend on how we get involved in initiatives like this one". If it's moving, jump on it! Comrade Rees emphasised the weakness of Oona King, the pro-war, New Labour candidate whom George Galloway will be challenging in Bethnal Green and Bow. He assured comrades that "Labour is terrified by what is happening with Respect in east London. We are told they don't know what to do to stop the loss of votes." However, comrade Rees did not go as far as to promise his members that Respect would gain "an MP or even a couple", as SWP hanger-on Ghada Razuki did from the chair. John Rees SWP leaders learned this particular lesson quite painfully in the 2004 European elections: by promising the membership a "breakthrough", they could attempt to justify the dropping of a raft of socialist principles - open borders, free abortion on demand, a worker's wage for workers' representatives and the abolition of the monarchy. When there was no breakthrough, many members became increasingly frustrated with the 'party line'. John Molyneux is the most prominent of the dissenters, but he is hardly the only one. Membership now stands at about 1,200 and seems to be going down fast. John Rees was careful not to raise hopes too much. So he quite rightly warned the audience that "Labour is still a mass party. Overturning these kinds of majorities is no child's play - even if the wind is blowing in the right direction, even if many Labour voters are turning their back on Tony Blair." Obviously, his solution to this key problem of breaking the working class from Labourism does not lie in building a democratic centralist Communist Party, which is of course what is needed. In fact, he proposed the exact opposite: "Respect members have to think and act like a guerrilla army." Sadly this was not quite as exciting as it might sound and this new tactic was in fact the old tactic of concentrating Respect supporters (and their friends) from all over London to cover a whole constituency in one day. This "guerrilla army" would "leaflet various areas in east London simultaneously and then come back the next week and hit another set of streets!" No need to sleep with your boots on then, boys and girls. While comrade Rees might have used the metaphor in a throwaway manner, it certainly reveals an interesting thought process - to engage in guerrilla warfare Respect must be more than a mere coalition. Indeed, despite the best attempts of the SWP leadership to bring on board forces to its right - Green Party, the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain, the Socialist Party, the Muslim Association of Britain - they have all kept their distance. It is the SWP leadership that is setting the course. Meetings like this one draw in the same old crowd - mainly SWP members. The increasingly disgruntled membership should not accept the excuse that Respect cannot be socialist because it is a broad coalition. Respect is the current incarnation of the SWP: it is the thoroughly reformist vehicle through which these 'revolutionaries' present their alternative programme of government. After comrade Rees's words of encouragement, Ghada Razuki opened up the meeting for questions, but was not too pleased when I actually tried asking one. I say 'tried', because Ghada shut me up after about 90 seconds, as soon as I mentioned "open borders". Wasn't Michael Howard's attack on the right of asylum a disgrace, I asked, and did it not provide Respect with an ideal opportunity to present the case for true internationalism? Did the three east London Respect candidates present think we ought to expand on our very limited policy and accept the need to defend the free movement of people, not just the existing rights of asylum-seekers and refugees? "This is not a political debate," comrade Razuki interrupted abruptly. "There are a lot people who want to speak," she said, looking around rather desperately for raised hands (fortunately there was one). While neither Lindsey German (candidate for West Ham) nor Oliur Rahman (Poplar and Limehouse) chose to respond, the third candidate did. Abdul Khaliq Mian, "a community activist" and Respect candidate for East Ham, thought that "issues like immigration come up at election time, but these are not the issues we should be concerned about. The real issues are pensions, education and hospitals and we should only speak about them." Now call me suspicious - but I got the distinct impression that he might have a rather dodgy position on the question of asylum rights and immigration. Why else would he not even state his own view? He would certainly not be the only person from a minority background to adopt the so-called 'common-sense attitude' to keeping newcomers out of the country. That attempt to simply ignore what has become one of the main issues in the election campaign of the bourgeois parties was too much even for John Rees: "We are precisely giving answers to this question," he said, contradicting Abdul Khaliq Mian. "Myself and Lindsey German have been giving interviews in which we condemned Michael Howard's proposals. He is trying to scapegoat certain parts of the community, just as they did with the Irish and just as they did with the Afro-Caribbeans. And there's more than one way to skin a cat: when Lindsey or George Galloway stand next to Oliur or Abdul, then that is an answer as well." It is a wholly inadequate answer. As is Respect's official programme of "defence of the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers". What about people who want to come to Britain or Europe because they are looking for a better life - ie, so-called 'economic' migrants? Should socialists accept this artificial and anti-human distinction between the 'genuine' and 'bogus', made by bureaucrats on behalf of a system that has created the massive inequalities that cause millions to think of abandoning their home country? Tina Becker