Open letter to Oliur Rahman

Oliur Rahman is Respect's first elected councillor. On May 5 he stood as parliamentary candidate for Poplar and Canning Town, winning a healthy 16.85% of the vote. He writes in Socialist Worker's Respect supplement (June 4) that electoral advance has put pressure on the local Labour Party. In Tower Hamlets, it is "going through difficult days" and a local paper even reports that "seven Labour councillors are planning to defect to Respect". But, quite rightly, the comrade is wary: "Serious consideration [of] Labour councillors who want to join Respect" is needed, he says. Respect will have to "look at their record" before they are allowed in

Dear comrade Rahman First, belated congratulations on an excellent result on May 5. You know that we in the CPGB are hardly starry-eyed about Respect - we only supported its working class candidates and then critically. That said, it is clear that the election of George Galloway was a victory for our side in the class struggle. I want to pick up on some comments you made in your contribution to the Respect supplement to Socialist Worker (June 4). We all want to build an organisation that will "fight for the working class movement", as you put it. But how? Though Respect has taken a step forward electorally, it has taken two steps back in terms of upholding some of the basic principles of the "working class movement" you talk about. Any perceived success inevitably delivers new problems, not least the interest in the project from people who suddenly discover a career ladder in the making. Ralph Miliband notes that one of the results of the 1922 general election - when the still young Labour Party leapt forward in terms of representation - was that the party "became a possible channel for a political career to professional men who "¦ no longer found the Liberal or the Conservative Party satisfactory vehicles for their private and public aspirations "¦ The labour movement had by no means been free from careerists before "¦ but after 1922, the opportunities became greater - and so did the temptations" (R Miliband Parliamentary socialism London 1987, p94). So you are right to take a cautious approach to those seven Labour councillors in Tower Hamlets. They may well be gravitating towards Respect through real political conviction. On the other hand, as you point out, Labour locally is in trouble. They may constitute a less than magnificent seven displaying a simple drive for self-conservation. Rats and leaky ships, etc. But it is not simply people's pasts. The main question, comrade Rahman, is how can Respect impose democratic control, not only over them, but you too? One obvious way is through limiting official salaries and allowances to that of an average skilled worker - the balance going to Respect. Another would be ensuring that elected members of Respect are strictly subordinate to collective discipline, eg, the national committee. It was more than sad then, that these historically established means of combating careeris m were rejected at two successive Respect conferences, most explicitly at the fraught annual conference held over the last weekend of October 2004. Wages of sin Anyone who has been around the Socialist Workers Party over the recent period will have heard the phrase, "Every step of the real movement is more important than a dozen programmes", repeated ad nauseum. This comment of Marx is being scandalously misused by SWP comrades to excuse a willingness to junk basic principles of the workers' movement for short-term gain. We have repeatedly tried to explain its real content. It is not meant to imply that "the movement" is simply reducible to a numerical value, that its health is just gauged by votes in ballot boxes or a head count on the last demo. It must also be assessed politically. "The movement" is also composed of principles - crystallised lessons drawn from the whole preceding experience of struggle by the socialist and workers' movement. So it was outrageous that comrades from the SWP took the lead in voting down the principles of workers' representatives getting a skilled worker's wage and their democratic accountability. At the launch of Respect, CPGBers and others were told that our support for the worker's wage principle was simply a veiled attack on George Galloway as an individual politician, nothing more. The SWP's Paul Holborrow informed conference that, while he agreed with "the principle of a worker's wage for MPs" - indeed, he didn't think "that there [was] anyone" in the audience who would not - we had to put such principles on ice, as "Respect is not a socialist organisation". The comrade challenged us: "What are we to say to George Galloway? Are we to say that it is a condition that he takes a worker's wage?" (We shouted, "Yes!", but he pressed on regardless). Adopt too "narrow" an approach - or a 'principled' one, as others might put it - and the whole project would become "exclusive of the people we might otherwise attract" (Weekly Worker January 29 2004). Like opportunists and self-serving parasites on the workers' movement, perhaps? Inevitably, the same issue raised its head at Respect's first annual conference over the weekend of October 30-31 2004. Your fellow Respect councillor, Michael Lavalette, was wheeled out to chide us that it was "not an appropriate demand for the broad movement". What is more, it was "dishonest" in that it was "really trying to target certain people" (Weekly Worker November 4 2004). We were Galloway-bashing again, in other words. All nonsense, of course, but effective enough as abuse to get a revved-up audience of SWPers howling their approval. Next time you see comrades Holborrow and Lavalette, I think you should put them on the spot. If a worker's wage is only appropriate for a "socialist organisation" and it should not apply in a "broad movement", then why did a 2003 pamphlet by leading SWPer Martin Smith call for "a rank and file trade union official" to take home the "average wage of the workers he or she represents" (M Smith The awkward squad London 2003, p26). In our experience, trade unions constitute a pretty "broad movement". You should ask the comrades for some clarification. And, while we are on the subject, there is the rather more weighty political figure of Engels who, distilling the lessons of the Paris Commune, highlighted a worker's wage as one of the "infallible means" to guard against the "inevitable" danger of the "transformation of the state and the organs of the state from servants of society into masters of society". A workers' wage salary cap is "an effective barrier to place-hunting and careerism" (K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 27, London 1990, p190). Similarly, why did Lenin stipulate: "The salaries of all officials, all of whom are elected and displaceable at any time, [are] not to exceed the average wage of a competent worker" (VI Lenin CW Vol 24, Moscow 1977, p23)? The Communist International codified other measures of control. In particular, it placed great emphasis on the idea that the work of a parliamentary or local council group was subject to the strictest discipline. The following rules "should be observed", it stated: * The leadership of the party must "systematically inspect" the quality and organisational abilities of its parliamentarians. * These parliamentarians must "subordinate all their parliamentary work to the extra-parliamentary work of their party". * They must not use their positions to "build up business connections with their electors". In short, elected representatives must be "responsible not to the atomised mass of voters", but to the party that they claim to stand for (Alan Adler [ed] Theses, resolutions, manifestos of the first four congresses of the Third International 1980, pp103-5). Just to reiterate, these are principles of the broad socialist and workers' movement that we should fight for all to adhere to. They are not a set of arcane, slightly eccentric practices designed to differentiate our group from others - like, for example, only wearing orange or not eating pork. You don't have to be a genius to see Respect's problem. It is a problem that has been around as long as there has been a workers' movement. Respect's leaders - including people who dub themselves Marxists - appear to believe that the promise of personal integrity is sufficient. It ain't. I recall a Respect fringe meeting at an aborted FBU conference in May last year (see Weekly Worker May 13 2004). The top table was loudly challenged by one delegate - "Why are you different? Why won't you go the same way as other politicians?" he demanded. The essential gist of John Rees's limp reply was - 'Trust us. We built the anti-war movement.' The questioner was visibly - and audibly - dissatisfied with the answer. And he was right to be. To be taken seriously on this, Respect has to come up with something rather more convincing. Our common history teaches us the basic lesson that the cancer of political corruption does not simply eat away at our elected leaders through crude material bribery. The process is far more complex - and seductive - than that. Take it on trust? In his 1996 pamphlet New Labour or socialism?, SWP ideologue Alex Callinicos talks of firebrand leftwingers in the parliamentary Labour Party succumbing to "the entrenched power of the parliamentary "¦ machine" (p33). True, but not the only, or even most powerful, source of political decay. The 1922 general election result I refer to above serves to illustrate the point. Within the overall advance for the Labour Party its affiliate, the Independent Labour Party, increased its representation from five to 32, including members of the ILP's firebrand left wing like James Maxton, David Kirkwood, Thomas Johnston and Manny Shinwell - products of the near-insurrectionary struggles of the Workers and Soldiers Councils on Glasgow's Clydeside during World War I. Miliband notes that "it seemed likely that the arrival of a militant Clydeside contingent, well to the left of its leaders and greatly determined to make the House of Commons resound with the echo of working class grievances, would help to give a sharply radical inflection to the Parliamentary Labour Party" (R Miliband Parliamentary socialism London 1987, p95). Yet not only were the newcomers effectively contained by their leadership's use of the "machine" of parliamentary procedure, their arrival precipitated a far more insidious process of assimilation and moderation that would make subdued parliamentarians out of these 'wild men' of the north. David Kirkwood entered the House of Commons burning with a righteous, deeply moral rage against "the great ones, the powerful ones, the lordly ones" who were "crushing my fellows down into poverty, misery, despair and death". The suffocating intimacy of the place, however - with its arcane traditions, its carefully cultivated air of a gentleman's club, its insistence on parliamentary etiquette and proximity to power - went to work on him. Kirkwood soon found the place to be "full of wonder. I had to shake myself occasionally as I found myself moving about and talking with men whose names were household words. More strange was it to find them all so simple and unaffected and friendly" (David Kirkwood My life of revolt London 1935, p200). The web of golden threads that bind parliament to the establishment enmeshed all the radicals: "No society function was really complete in 1923 without the presence of one of the rebels from the Clyde," comments Miliband. Unsurprisingly, there was disquiet in the ranks of the ILP at such goings-on. John Wheatley, against official opposition, forwarded a motion to the 1923 ILP conference that stated that Labour MPs should "not accept the hospitality of political opponents at public dinners and society functions" (R Miliband Parliamentary socialism London 1987, p96). But the process of incorporation proceeded despite such weak attempts to reassert control. The 'Red Clydesiders' were tamed. I won't clog up this brief letter with too many historical examples of the same process - suffice to say, they are legion. So, perhaps we can bring it all a little closer home. If you remember, we carried an interview with you back in August 2004, shortly after you had become Respect's first elected councillor, where this came up. We asked: "How can councillors be made accountable? "¦ there are thousands of councillors across the country that sincerely intend to change things for the better when they first start out. But, as a trade union officer, you know how management try to buy you off. So how can we ensure that elected representatives are not corrupted?" You told us: "I will promise to do my best "¦ If you try and fail, you go back to the community and say, 'This is what I've done, this is how I fought, but I failed. Tell me what else I can do.' "¦ The council must open the books. Representatives must be accountable to the voters. The voters must decide whether they are doing a good job or not" (Weekly Worker August 5 2004). You are obviously sincere about what you say here - but relying on your personal integrity and a heartfelt "promise" from you is just not enough. Hopefully without being insulting, why should the working class take it on trust that you are different to the Red Clydesiders and the long list of others down the years who have deserted the camp of the working class? In the words of the Communist International, Respect as a political collective must be in the position to "systematically inspect" and control all your work on Tower Hamlets council. The same must hold for the seven potential recruits from the Labour Party that are now suddenly so interested in signing up to the winning team. And exactly the same principle should be applied to comrade George Galloway himself, of course. Instead, led by its SWP majority, Respect has already conceded the principle of parliamentary independence to this charismatic leader. He has been given a free hand. His unfortunate statements on crucial questions such as abortion, immigration and drugs suggest he is making up Respect policy on the hoof. If no effective scrutiny and control is permitted on comrade Galloway, how can it now be introduced for others? If he is allowed to vote according to his conscience on issues such as abortion, why can't other elected representatives dictate the line on what for them may be an issue of conscience (like a war, perhaps?). SWPers should have seen these sorts of problems coming, of course. After all, in their founder-leader's multi-volume biography of Lenin, Tony Cliff points out that "Lenin rejected the reformists' idea that the parliamentary group should have a controlling position in the party. He held that it had to be subordinated to the party as a whole, and had to play a role subsidiary to that of the masses fighting in the factories and the streets." He quotes Lenin to underline the point: "The parliamentary group is not a general staff (if I may be allowed to use a 'military' simile) ... but rather a unit of trumpeters in one case, or a reconnaissance unit in another, or an organisation of some other auxiliary 'arm'" (www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1975/lenin1/#n11). Lastly, comrade Rahman, while you may not yet agree with our solutions, you perhaps see some of the same dangers facing Respect as we do. You are right to raise the need for vigilance and scrutiny of recruits from the Labour Party. The same applies no less if Respect gets more of its own members elected as councillors and actually captures Tower Hamlets and Newham in 2006. A whole culture of democratic accountability has to be embedded into Respect from top to bottom. We cordially invite you to work with us and others in drawing up concrete proposals to put to the next Respect conference. With communist greetings Mark Fischer