Fighting to get inland

Anne Mc Shane reports from Respect's May 18 rally - where SWP leader John Rees applied military jargon to get his members active

A mix of manufactured salutation and genuine emotion greeted George Galloway as he made his entry into Friends Meeting House to flashing cameras and cheers for the May 18 Respect rally. Returning triumphant from his thrashing of the US senate committee the day before, he certainly deserved the standing ovation he received. That the manner of the welcome had been planned could not be in doubt - with Chris Bambery signalling frantically from the door for the chanting to begin as he walked in. Nonetheless there is no doubt that people would have spontaneously risen to their feet to greet Galloway anyway. Indeed it was a great shame that the organisers had not chosen their slogan better. To have the audience chanting 'Troops out now' would have sent a powerful message to the media gathered for the opening of the rally. Instead, as all the news reports later described, his supporters repeatedly chanted 'Respect, Respect, Respect' - for more than three minutes. While presumably simply an attempt to get the name of the party across, it sounded inward-looking. Galloway arrives, they rise With a number of new supporters present, the hall was full and the audience in jubilant spirits. The SWP comrades were obviously on a high, having won an MP. Forgotten were the old dark days of trying to struggle past 5% of the vote. Now they have somebody who had just made himself an international politician overnight. It was a major morale boost for the comrades. But this triumph carries with it difficulties. Galloway has operated very much as an individual within Respect and now the SWP may have left it too late to harness him. The 47 minutes in Washington will surely make it impossible to pull the reins on Galloway and almost certainly make him even less inclined to listen to the SWP majority in the leadership. But back to the rally. Mark Serwotka was the first to speak and was the only trade union representative with the exception of the chair, Linda Smith. He made his usual friendly, supportive speech with some mild criticisms thrown in. He argued that "Respect must broaden out and campaign on other issues besides the war". He pointed to the need to take up a strong position on the government's law and order agenda and identity cards and to support striking workers, including civil service union members currently discussing the possibility of action. As a trade union leader he was anxious for Respect to take more of a stance on traditional economic issues. He was followed by Abdul Khaliq Mian - a very different kind of speaker, coming as he does from the muslim activist wing of Respect. Khaliq is somebody who says that his commitment is to his "community" - and he is clear that this is the muslim community. He began as he always does, by greeting those present "in the name of allah". As a murmur of reply rippled through the audience, it was not just the few muslims present who answered - many SWPers have also learnt the accepted Arabic response, it appears. He continued by congratulating Galloway and calling for a commitment to stand in every constituency in the next general election. He also denounced the muslim extremists who had attacked the Respect campaign, for "the prophet did not spread islam by intimidation". John Pilger was the next to speak and gave a long and largely interesting talk about the hypocrisy and lies behind the war in Iraq. He condemned the media for "censorship by omission" - for failing to speak out and reveal the truth behind "the genocide of sanctions" and then the "unprovoked attack" against the Iraqi people. He said with a few exceptions journalists should "be full of moral shame" for their role and that "they were as much a part of the invading forces as the US marines". He hoped that now, with Galloway's election, "the courage has come back into the opposition". Lindsey German's speech was entertaining but without much by way of political content. She condemned New Labour, in particular her opponents in the West Ham constituency who warned muslims off her in the general election because of her socialist credentials. Interestingly this was the only time the term 'socialist' was uttered in the entire two and a half hour event. Salma Yaqoob also spoke well but in terms that would not have distinguished her from the average Liberal Democrat. She was concerned with "the needs of the British people" to have a political alternative. She wanted to "stress the democratic agenda" for the "people as citizens". She also condemned the muslim extremists who had attacked her politically for standing with non-muslims in the general election. The most interesting speaker was John Rees, who, as Respect national secretary, set out his "strategy for the way forward". He used military analogies - "we have landed on enemy territory" and need to "get inland fast or be surrounded". We "are a fighting detachment and do not have the luxury of time", as "our enemies will try and break us now". Respect is now seen as a threat, he said. But it must make itself a mass alternative nationally - and fast. Rees argued that Respect must recruit hand over fist in order to protect itself from attacks and make a qualitative leap forward. It was essential to build "a campaigning party", a "mass membership party on every street, outside every mosque, in every union". Rees stressed the need to "build an alternative for working people" - "and we could do no worse than to raise the hopes of working people and then let them down because we could not fulfil our promises". He talked in terms reminiscent of SWP membership drives in the past - only then it was the SWP that was the answer. Here was John Rees promising that if Respect grew it would threaten the current order. Unlike the Socialist Alliance, which was seen as simply a recruiting pool for the SWP, Respect itself is being presented as the solution. For Rees it seems that Respect is now the party and its inner core is the SWP. As the star turn of the rally, George Galloway spoke of how moved he felt on receiving the standing ovation on his arrival. He said that he was glad that his performance at the senate "has given you a little bit of heart", as he hoped it had to the millions who watched it throughout the world. He referred to his ambition for Respect to seize control of both Newham and Bethnal Green councils in next year's local elections and "show the people of the East End that we can make a difference". Making comparisons to the Chartists and the communist MP Phil Piratin, he said he wanted to "build a fighting, militant organisation". He spoke of a demonstration planned against the removal of a fire engine from Bethnal Green by London Fire Brigade and pledged that "we will blockade the way with thousands of demonstrators to prevent it being removed". This "is the way we can show we will make a difference". He ended with a declaration that "this has been the most magnificent period of my life". We "have a country and a world to win" - "our flag is red and green". This last slogan contains within it, of course, the contradiction at the very heart of Respect. Is it green for the environment or green for islam? Take your pick. How long can this ambiguity last, especially now that Respect is to be "a campaigning party", in the words of John Rees? And how will this party make its leaders accountable - the increasingly confident and bullish Galloway and the scheming and autocratic Rees? It is difficult enough for a democratic centralist Communist Party to discipline and hold in check the rightism of its parliamentary wing. How much harder, then, in Respect? Anne Mc Shane