After the victory party
Despite its election success, Respect's future looks far from certain, writes Tina Becker. There is unrest within the SWP leadership and George Galloway might well end up back in the Labour Party under Gordon Brown
George Galloway's success in Bethnal Green and Bow is a victory for the anti-war movement. Socialists all over Britain and the world will rejoice at the fact that he defeated the warmongering 'Blair babe', Oona King, on a clear anti-war and anti-occupation ticket. It is quite disgusting that there are actually so-called socialists who in the run-up to the election described his potential victory as "a shame, not a victory, for the left" (Solidarity April 28). The Alliance for Workers' Liberty even called for a vote for Oona King against Galloway. Readers of the Weekly Worker know that we have not been shy in voicing our many criticisms of Galloway and Respect. The largely phantom right (muslim) wing in Respect sets the parameters of its programme, which then sees the Socialist Workers Party majority voting against one working class principle after another. Critical voices have been sidelined, internal democracy is undermined by control-freakery and shameless gerrymandering. However, the (partially) excellent results Respect achieved on May 5 have vindicated our position of critical but active engagement with that organisation. To ignore or belittle the political possibilities that Galloway's victory opens up is just plain daft. He will - in general - be on the side of the oppressed. Despite his reactionary positions on immigration, abortion, the right to die with dignity and other such issues. Whose MP is Galloway? But clearly he will not be Respect's MP in any genuine sense. Galloway is his own master and will pretty much do what he likes. The SWP has not only used its overwhelming numerical majority to subordinate Respect to him politically - it has allowed him to make up Respect's programme as he goes along: be it a points-based system for 'useful' immigrants, his opposition to a woman's right to choose an abortion or his idiotic call for "a war on drugs" - he thinks the Royal Navy should not be "patrolling the coast of the Persian Gulf but patrolling the coast of Great Britain [so that] there would be fewer boats arriving every night landing junk on our shores that ends up in the veins of our young people" (BBC News, April 10). During the election campaign, Galloway mostly chose bourgeois newspapers or the Morning Star to reveal his latest musings. The SWP's response was always the same: silence. There were no Respect press releases clarifying the party's position. No articles in Socialist Worker criticising Galloway's stance (apart from a couple of shamefaced interviews or guest articles that 'coincidentally' argued for the legalisation of drugs in the week after Galloway's outburst or put forward the SWP's opposition to border controls just after he had argued for 'controlled immigration' in the Morning Star - none of the articles even mentioned Galloway). It is rather unlikely that this situation will now change. The biggest revolutionary organisation in Britain is in programmatic crisis and has been for some time. Reformism and opportunism seem now to have been confirmed as a winning formula at the ballot box. Which road will the SWP now go down? It seems there are two trends emerging in the organisation. On the one side, there are John Rees and Lindsey German, who have become increasingly close to 'Gorgeous George' and have been at the centre of the Respect project. They are celebrating the election result as an unequivocal success for their strategic orientation. Rob Hoveman rejoices in an email circular to all Respect members at the "best result ever for a party to the left of Labour. Not only did we win a seat - we came second in three more, third in one and fourth in four seats. We also saved eight deposits out of 26. We had four of the biggest swings from Labour out of the top 10. Whilst all three of the major parties are licking their various wounds, Respect has had far and away the best result of all the parties which stood in the elections, relative to where we were before" - not exactly hard, mind you, for a party that has not stood in a general election before (May 10). Comrades Rees, German and Hoveman will now be turning their attention to the 2006 local elections, in which they are hoping to get a swathe of people elected into local councils. For them, the dumping of socialist principle is no concern. On the contrary, it appears to have opened up a new audience for them. Communal vote? George Galloway is quite right to say that "the result in Bethnal Green and Bow "¦ should bury the slur that people who have solidly backed Labour in the past suddenly become 'communalist' when they feel the sting of betrayal and vote for an alternative" (Socialist Worker election results special, May 7). Communalism is pitting one's own, often 'ethnic', section of the population against society at large. It is to foster division and hostility against the other. Respect is opportunist, but it is hardly communalist. Those who describe the Respect vote as communalist betray either ignorance or barely concealed islamophobia. Nevertheless, even a casual glance at the Respect vote shows that where it was successful it relied on one thing: how many muslims live in the given constituency. The excellent results for Galloway (38.9%), Salma Yaqoob (27.5%), Abdul Khaliq Mian (20.5%), Lindsey German (19.5%) and Oliur Rahman (16.8%) reflect the deep hostility to the US-UK war on and occupation of Iraq. It is not that the muslim population were dragooned into voting Respect by the elders and the imams. But there is no doubt that elders and imams did give their imprimatur. So did the Muslim Association of Britain, which backed some Respect candidates. Yaqoob, also won the support of Birmingham central mosque. Respect has not though made any inroads into any other section of the population. The average vote for Respect of 6.97% goes down to 2.7% when the seats of those five candidates are excluded. In 12 of the 26 seats contested by Respect, the candidates received less than two percent of the vote - pretty much in line with the poor showing of the rest of the left. When one compares the results in 10 seats that were contested both by the Socialist Alliance in 2001 and Respect in 2005, in six constituencies Respect did better, but in the other four the result was worse than that obtained by the SA. The overall vote for these 10 areas went up from 6,035 to 7,677 votes - ie, an average of 164 votes per seat. Of course, Respect was quite right to target a highly politicised and deeply alienated section of the population. What we criticise is that Respect subordinated its programme to the conservatism of the mosque and imams. No attempt was made to attract muslim workers to a full socialist programme. SWP discontent In the last few weeks, John Rees has attempted to bend the stick back again, with a number of articles on Respect that do not even mention the word 'muslim' - but this appears to have been directed more at his own SWP comrades than the 'people out there' (see 'Business as usual' Weekly Worker April 28). The April 30 issue of Socialist Worker makes a feeble attempt to convince SWP members with a double-page spread that Respect's success can be compared to Keir Hardie being elected to parliament in 1892: "Now, with Respect standing in West Ham and neighbouring East Ham, the radical tradition of breaking new ground - seeking to represent those who don't have a voice that can truly speak for them in parliament - lives on," writes Tash Shifrin. Even she must have felt a tad cheeky when she wrote about the social unrest, increasing number of strikes and working class action that went on at the time - be it the protests over unemployment and home rule for Ireland or the 1888 strike by match girls at the Bryant and May factory in Bow. Quite clearly, these were struggles that symbolised the rebirth of the working class as a subjective force in British politics. What we are seeing today, however, is the political shift of a small section of the population that is defined first and foremost not by class, but by ethnic identity and religion. Clearly, these articles are attempts by those SWPers who are very keen on Respect to convince those in the SWP who are not so keen. The sect-culture in the SWP unfortunately prevents the membership from engaging in honest and open debate about the future of their organisation. Opposition or scepticism is 'dealt with' locally or regionally. Members have no opportunity to discuss their views in Socialist Worker or Socialist Review. Factions are only allowed three months before annual conference and limited to contributions in the very rare Pre-conference bulletin, which often only turn up on members' doorsteps on the day of conference. We have written many times that without any internal democracy, effective opposition can only be expected at a leadership level. 'Conservatively-minded' Harman? The latest issue of Socialist Review seems to confirm this with a comment by former Socialist Worker editor Chris Harman, in which he argues openly for "a Bolshevik party": "Socialists have to build an organisation that fights on every front if there is ever going to be a serious challenge to ruling class power "¦That can't be done with a party like the Labour Party of a social democratic sort, or, for that matter, simply by an electoral coalition like Respect. It requires a different sort of party, active within the Respect coalition, as within every other front of resistance, but also aware that there is a wider and, at the end of the day, more important struggle. This is the sort of party 'of a new sort' that Lenin set out to build in Russia, and Rosa Luxemburg in the short weeks before her death in Germany. It remains a necessary goal in Britain today" (Socialist Review May). In the shadowy world of the SWP, a bit of 'Kremlinology' is needed. Differences are expressed through signs and signals - not by calling things by their real names. Readers of the Weekly Worker will remember John Molyneux's contributions in last year's Pre-conference bulletin. In similar vein, he argued for the SWP not to drop Respect, but to become a clear socialist focus within it - naturally his language too was loyal, conciliatory and coded (Weekly Worker November 11 2004). In short, though, both argue against the political subordination to the mosque. So we might just possibly be witnessing the beginning of a serious faction fight. Are comrades Harman and Molyneux amongst those whom John Rees condemns as the "conservatively-minded people on the left"? Those who judge political organisations "simply and solely by programme and label"? (Socialist Review May 2005). Clearly, he means neither the CPGB nor any other group on the British left. He surely means those within his own ranks who are quite rightly concerned about the sacrificing of the SWP's formally revolutionary politics within the Respect popular front. In the latest issue of Socialist Worker, John Rees makes another attempt to win over the old guard: "Respect fails when it is simply a collection of left activists. Respect succeeds when the left, which comprises its core, reaches out to and engages and involves wider networks of trade unionists, campaigners, mosques and other communities "¦ In this project the socialists in Respect, who have the clearest understanding of the general situation in which we operate and the greatest organisational ability to create the alliances, have a crucial role to play. Where they are capable of engaging and leading the wider forces, Respect will succeed. If they fail, Respect will fail. There is too much at stake to allow this to happen, and too much to be won not to succeed" (Socialist Worker May 14). This can be read as flattery: only we, the socialists in the SWP, know how to do politics. But in reality it is a barely disguised threat: we will not sit by and watch you spoil our party. A threat of expulsion even? What would Rees be prepared to do in order to ensure that Respect's failure is not allowed to happen? This would not be the first time that the SWP leadership has tried to cleanse itself by expelling a whole section of the party - including members of the leadership. However comrade Rees is planning to convince the "conservatively-minded people", there can be no doubt that Galloway's victory will now further deepen these tensions and fault lines within the SWP. Galloway's future Only fools would expect Galloway to be the humble 'representative' of Respect in or outside parliament. No, he will be party whip, policy-maker and parliamentary leader rolled into one. Respect - and with it the SWP - are bound to be pulled sharply to the right under his influence. How would he vote on the question of the reclassification of cannabis, a woman's right to choose or state funding for religious schools? He would presumably be on the opposite side to the SWP on these questions, as on a number of others. Add to that the uncertainty about Galloway's future and you have the makings of a proper crisis on your hands. Galloway has announced that he will not stand again in Bethnal Green and Bow, making way for "a Bengali candidate". He is, of course, quite aware that his victory in 2005 results not only from his own outstanding political capabilities, but a determination amongst muslims to punish Tony Blair for the Iraq war. In four or five years time circumstances will undoubtedly be different. But does this mean the end of Galloway's political ambitions? Not at all. The last eight years of New Labour government have provided opportunities for the revolutionary left: a Labour Party that has moved sharply to the right, launching a series of attacks on the working class and a desperately unpopular war. Coupled with that, the Tory Party is unable to mount any serious challenge. Good conditions for revolutionaries to regroup and build a viable alternative. The Socialist Alliance could quite possibly have been transformed into such an alternative: a multi-tendency socialist party that could have developed roots in the working class and laid the basis for the Communist Party we so desperately need. Instead, we now have Respect: a deeply unstable formation - not least, if, or when, the semi-detached muslim organisations decide to back a different horse. We have no illusions in Gordon Brown. If he ever becomes prime minister he will surely continue Blair's programme of privatisation and neo-liberalism. We think Jeremy Corbyn was desperately wrong when he suggested on the moronic TV programme Morgan and Platell that Gordon Brown was simply lying when he publicly backed the prime minister over Iraq (Channel 4, May 6). Of course, Brown will do things differently - he is a human being, after all, and not a machine. But the differences will be those of nuance. Nevertheless, we should not underestimate the damage the war on Iraq has inflicted - not just on Tony Blair, but on the Labour Party as a whole. It is far from unimaginable that the new prime minister would want to draw a line under that disastrous chapter and start his premiership with a clean slate. He could easily say sorry without losing face. Such a new-look Labour government would appear infinitely more attractive to the tens of thousands of disgruntled muslim voters who punished the party by opting for the Liberal Democrats and Respect. After all, a government can actually make things happen. It can easily allocate more money to deprived areas of the country - like, say, Bethnal Green and Bow (a process that started during the election campaign and will certainly be repeated in four years time). It can actually see to it that muslim schools are generously financed. It can give real support to 'multicultural' projects - as opposed to simply arguing for more money. It is far from impossible to imagine a scenario where Brown invites another person back into the Labour Party: George Galloway. After all, Ken Livingstone was readmitted after actively defying the party leadership "¦ comrade Galloway, on the other hand, was kicked out on highly dubious grounds and never actually committed the 'crimes' he was accused of. Galloway himself has always been quite clear that he is a Labour man - and a very ambitious one at that. In an interview with the Weekly Worker, he revealed how party secretary David Triesman had offered him a deal to avoid his expulsion from the Labour Party, which he found "quite upsetting". Galloway speculated that "perhaps the decision to press ahead with my expulsion expresses some disorientation at the top of the party. But then one can never rule out the personal in politics: it could simply reflect a personal animus Blair feels for me". He went on to look at the chances of Respect: "If outside Labour a progressive, mass left burgeons and starts to score successes, that can only have the effect of strengthening the left inside the party. It will encourage people to pull the plug on Blair and the New Labour clique" (Weekly Worker December 4 2003). Galloway now clearly enjoys support amongst a not insignificant part of the electorate: the many tens of thousands of muslims that rejected the war. Brown would miss an opportunity if he did not recognise the 'healing potential' of bringing Galloway back into the party. Without Galloway on board and with many muslims likely to go back to Labour under Gordon Brown sooner rather than later, Respect would look like a rather damp squib. But you can almost see John Rees, Lindsey German and Chris Bambery sitting in a row like the three monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Clearly, they do not want to think of such rather bleak medium-term prospects for their new party. The CPGB does not point to these risks because we seek revenge for being gagged and gerrymandered within this curiously misnamed 'unity coalition'. But, quite clearly, the Respect project is acting as a barrier to the kind of working class Marxist party that we need. CPGB comrades will carry on their active engagement with Respect - from the inside as well as through our critique in the Weekly Worker. We do this because we want to work towards a positive resolution of the programmatic crisis of the British left, not least that of the SWP. Nobody would benefit if the SWP simply busted apart. The key is to rescue the many good comrades within the organisation for a viable Marxist alternative.