Breaking out of the ghetto

Ben Lewis reports from an impressive Respect rally in Sheffield University

Looking around at the 600 people present in the Octagon Centre at Sheffield University reaffirmed my belief that, although the left may be in a pretty dire situation at the moment, Respect is definitely not to be ignored. As the great orator George Galloway himself put it, "No other group in Britain could organise a meeting this big." Indeed, following the relative success of the Socialist Workers Party's Maxine Bowler in the general election campaign (over a thousand votes and four percent), it is not surprising that Sheffield Respect has picked up new members and supporters. There has been much talk about how in terms of support Respect can best break out from areas with a substantial muslim population, into the working class as a whole, and at this meeting there was some sign that this is happening in a very small way. While around 40% appeared to have been mobilised by the mosque (the local imam was on the platform), the SWP - along with supporters of other left groups, including the Socialist Party and CPGB - definitely accounted for a minority of the rest. In other words they were fresh faces. Muslims actually made up half of the four platform speakers (the other was Yvonne Ridley), and they both concentrated their fire on Blair's assault on civil liberties (detention without trial, ID cards, etc). However, neither thought Labour's Racial and Religious Hatred Bill was worth a mention (presumably this is one aspect of the assault on civil liberties they actually support, since they believe their faith should enjoy special protection). The SWP's John Rees talked of muslims defending muslims, socialists defending socialists and trade unionists defending trade unionists, etc. But Respect, he said, was not about that - rather it was to do with solidarity from muslims for socialists and vice versa. He gave an introduction to class politics by saying that if the wealth of the population were represented by thousands of individuals of different heights marching by in a procession, the overwhelming majority would be tiny compared to the handful of giants bringing up the rear. Comrade Rees was at pains to assert that it was because of this unfair distribution of wealth within the country that Respect had been founded. Rees described how a "real Labour" government would never allow such differences to exist, and that Respect's job is to put across an agenda for the small people in the absence of that "real Labour" party - indeed both Rees and Galloway made a number of appeals to "Labour members and sympathisers" within the audience. John Rees's speech was, of course, overshadowed by comrade Galloway's, who came across as much to the left of the SWP leader. His witty, charismatic style won rapturous applause and a standing ovation after he lambasted the hypocrisy of the G8 summit and its vacuous pledges. This was an excellent speech that, unlike that of Rees, explicitly focused on the systematic basis of exploitation and war - capitalism. Yet on the question of left unity Galloway sadly mirrored the musings of his friend. "You don't have to leave your politics behind" when you join, he said: "just leave them at the door." There are, after all, "many things we agree on". He went on to attack the organised left for only selling papers to itself and "preaching to the converted". Thus the agenda of comrade Galloway and the SWP is clear (if it were not already so) - everybody should agree to disagree and then go out and make Respect recruits. Yet what are they recruiting to? How does this overcome the problems of paper-selling sectarianism, when Respect's biggest component (whose comrades had booked the hall and given out the promotional leaflets) continues to sell Socialist Worker and did so at the meeting? Comrade Rees tells us that Respect, not the SWP, is the answer, and recruits were being signed up to Respect, not the SWP. But there is no Respect paper and no Respect party in the real sense of the word (with a fully worked out programme, rather than a list of left populist platitudes). Unity in a party can only come through allowing the space for minority opinions to flourish and encouraging an open interaction of different ideas - apparently because the speakers were pressed for time due to their grand tour of Britain, no interventions from the floor were allowed. Yet debate and the expression of differences are key. Judging by the manoeuvres that we have seen already by those influential within Respect, this fight for space is not going to be easy, but it is one that any serious partisan of the working class must be part of - not to extol the virtues of Respect as it is and to lose oneself in its left populism, but rather to campaign within it for the type of organisation that is objectively needed in Britain today - a democratic centralist party of the working class that rises above the narrow-mindedness of the sect and that offers working class people in Britain of whatever background an effective leadership in their daily struggles l Ben Lewis