Rees comes out for Blair's laws
Leaders of the Socialist Worker Party are galloping to the right at a breathtaking pace: John Rees supports the religious hatred laws, reports Mark Fischer
Not unexpectedly, at Respect's September 10 national council meeting, the SWP's John Rees argued in favour of supporting the Blair government's proposed laws on incitement to religious hatred. Far from this being an "exploratory discussion - so we shouldn't make too much of it", as Respect NC member Ken Loach told me - we have yet further proof of the SWP's opportunist collapse. The September 10 debate was initiated by Alan Thornett of the International Socialist Group, who seems to have recently become utterly frustrated that meetings of this so-called leadership body had been almost exclusively technical, with politics effectively being decided elsewhere. Perhaps he now regrets having opened his mouth at all. I have questioned a number of ISG comrades and the general impression they give is one of shock and embarrassed evasion. On the September 24 anti-occupation demonstration in London, comrade Thornett himself was clearly at that stage thoroughly perplexed. He conceded that this would indeed be a very important political moment - not simply in the evolution of Respect, but of the SWP itself. And he was quite clear that John Rees's position should be judged as no personal aberration. He reckoned that the SWP would prefer not to take a position, but if it came to the crunch Rees would lead the SWP majority in Respect in support of his disgraceful stance. If pushed, Respect will support the incitement to religious hatred proposals from the government, comrade Thornett confirmed. In a subsequent conversation, comrade Thornett had switched to evasion mode. When I spoke to him on September 27, he refused point blank to outline the reasons advanced by comrade Rees for his support for this deeply reactionary New Labour proposal - "No, no - I'm not prepared to do that "¦ I don't really want to go into it any more." In other words, the comrade is refusing to allow the politics of Respect - of which he is a leading member - to be opened up to democratic scrutiny. I took the opportunity of our brief exchange to remind him that the Respect NC is a closed body. Respect members see no minutes and do not even receive outline reports of its discussions. He did not take the hint "¦ The unfortunate truth is that the ISG has publicly maintained a disgraceful silence over this further lurch to the right in Respect. To all intents and purposes this makes the ISG complicit in the SWP's foul culture of secrecy and private deals. Perhaps the comrades only deign to inform the wider movement (let alone the Respect membership) of political discussions on the Respect leadership when there are opportunities for them to be relentlessly optimistic? For example, the front page of the ISG's website still prominently features a post-general election report by comrade Thornett of the May 21 Respect NC. Of course, there were smiles all round at this post-general election meeting - Thornett's text positively twinkles with phrases like "extremely upbeat", "huge opportunities" and "world impact". The one small caveat for ISGers appeared to be the failure to progress the conference decision from 2004 that (in principle, at least) Respect should have a regular newspaper. At this May NC, leading ISGer John Lister wondered "how it could be possible "¦ to have an effective mass-membership party without a party publication? How could it be a campaigning organisation without a publication in which to advance its campaigns?" (www.isg-fi.org.uk/what/wwt03.htm). Frankly, in the context of the political crisis we see unfolding, this is an almost apolitical diversion. While the SWP leadership makes concession after concession on the basic principles of our movement, the ISG carps about the absence of a Respect newspaper. The comrades correctly observe: "There is the possibility in east London that Respect could win substantial groups of councillors - or even win outright control in Tower Hamlets." We wonder whether they also think it worthwhile fighting for these councillors to be elected of the basis of principled politics and being accountable to the organisation as a whole? The informal 'line' of the ISG appears to be that, given that there were no votes at this NC, the disagreement over the hate laws really is not that important. Comrade Thornett told me that his group "haven't discussed it, but I doubt that we will do anything on this". To his credit, another leading ISGer, comrade Greg Tucker, was slightly more forthcoming than the terse Thornett - although the vulnerable nature of his organisation's position evidently caused the man some pain. First, comrade Tucker conceded the blindingly obvious about the debate on the NC: "The SWP were making big concessions which they will come to regret." Despite this palpably true observation - which echoes comrade Thornett's original comment to me, that this was an important political moment in the development of both Respect and the SWP - ISG comrades seem resolutely determined on maintaining a public silence. Thus, comrade Tucker downplayed the significance of the September 10 NC discussion: it had been instigated by Alan Thornett because "it was something useful to be discussed", but there was "no question of a vote on it". For the purposes of debate only, it had been a "useful issue ... We were bound to be asked about it" during the course of Respect campaigning, "so we needed some exploration of the issues". The comrade confirmed the conviction of Alan Thornett that, if it comes to adopting a position, the SWP will ensure that Respect is lumbered with supporting the reactionary legislation - "that is my understanding of Alan's understanding". OK, then. The ISG is a component part of the Respect leadership. What exactly does it intend to do to fight this, I wondered? "It is not a priority for us," I was told by comrade Tucker. "There are a whole range of issues which are important. It is useful for Respect to have views on a whole number of them," he went on lamely. Incredibly, he did not feel that "it was essential to have a clear view" on this question. The ISG - in the form of its front, Socialist Resistance - "has two or three resolutions that its supporters are putting round and that's not one of them "¦ we think it would be a rather pointless exercise". So instead of fighting for political clarity, instead of openly stating that we oppose this extension of the blasphemy laws as an infringement of basic democratic rights to free expression, as something that hands even more repressive and censorial powers into the hands of the Blair government, the ISG intends to play a cowardly waiting game. Or, in the words of comrade Tucker: "People may think it's a carrot, but we don't. One of the arguments that I'm sure that Alan put forward at the NC was that, however attractive the legislation may seem, it is not going to be used in our favour. I think this is one of those issues where experience is going to tell at the end of the day. We will win this argument when people realise that something they thought was attractive turns out not to be so." Frankly, after dealing with fearful, mealy-mouthed fudge from comrades who tout themselves as working class leaders, it was refreshing to speak to a serious politician - even if he belongs to a different class. Anas Altikriti is a leading member of the Muslim Association of Britain who has been interviewed in this paper in the past. He is not a member of the Respect NC, so he was unable to talk in detail on the September 10 discussion. Nevertheless, his comments were useful. First, in stark contrast to the manner in which the Weekly Worker has had to squeeze information out of taciturn and sullen comrades on the left, Altikriti was relatively open about disagreements in his own organisation. I commented on the lack of an unambiguous statement on the religious hatred laws on the MAB website and he told me: "I'll tell you what the official position is. We approve of and are supportive of the Muslim Council of Britain's stand backing these laws. Basically, this is primarily being taken forward and promoted by the MCB - we agree with them on their stand, if you know what I mean. We haven't yet had an internal debate within MAB in order to settle on an official policy on this issue." He explained the reasons for the internal equivocation: "At the very start of this year, MAB feared that [these proposals] came at a time when the muslim voice was absent from the advisory process that prepared the legislation. It was timed to appear before the general election when it was clear that Labour's muslim vote was being squeezed quite considerably. It seemed to us a stunt to grab back muslim votes before that election. In general we welcome the principle of it, but we would have preferred that the government reconsider its stance on the anti-terror legislation. That would have been far more important. "People tend to view the muslim community as a monolith. Far from it. The main reasons why MAB has not adopted an official policy - and I don't think I am giving away any secrets here - is that within the organisation there is a whole array of views on the question. I personally am not in favour of the bill. I don't think it will do much good. But then there are others who think this will be a very good step towards rebuilding our relationship with the government and possibly safeguarding certain rights and freedoms of the muslim community. These too are valid views. So, at the end, we chose to respect the spread of views on this question and formulate our position as being supportive of the MCB in what it sees as the best position." Again, in contrast to the equivocation I had encountered elsewhere, Altikriti was clear that Respect must agree on a policy: "I do think it is important that all political parties adopt a position on this. I think this broad issue is increasingly coming to the notice of the public in general, not simply the muslim community. We are talking here about all faith groups." He was relaxed about those he dubbed "brilliant friends" in the Labour Party, Liberal Democrats, the trade unions or the Conservatives who "have not taken the same stand as the MCB". MAB "recognises that Respect is a political party" and therefore must have a political stance on this issue. Its diverse nature may mean that "MAB acknowledges the fact that at certain junctures Respect may come to particular stands that don't coincide 100% with the stand favoured by the muslim community and that this issue may possibly be one of them" - or possibly not, it seems. Either way, he insisted that the process must have an element of openness and dialogue about it: "We would like Respect and all parties to debate the issue itself. Adopting a stance of either approving or disapproving of this bill must be based on the correct reasons." The disagreements in the ranks of MAB on the religious hatred legislation perhaps explains the blunt statement from the organisation's president, Ahmed Sheikh Mohamed on August 2, reiterating that, "in accordance with its constitution, the official spokesperson of MAB is the president" and that "the statements of any other individual are to seen always as personal" (www.mabonline.info/english/index.php). But this is a secondary question. The deeply worrying point to note is what is happening to the SWP, the single largest organisation of ostensible Marxists in Britain today. Under the leadership of John Rees - a man increasingly characterised by an unseemly appetite for mainstream bourgeois politics, it seems - this group is moving to the right at a breathtaking rate of knots. While this may not be a "priority" for groups as craven and cowardly as the ISG, for revolutionary Marxists it must be a matter for grave concern.