Little controversy, less principle

You will need a big cup of coffee (or two) to get through the 68 resolutions going forward to the November 19-20 Respect annual conference. But working your way through the dozens of embarrassingly boring motions is worthwhile, because there are quite a few gems amongst them - good and bad. Tina Becker takes a closer look

The 68 resolutions can be divided up roughly into three categories. Firstly, the vast majority of motions have obviously been pushed through by members of the Socialist Workers Party at the behest of their leadership. They seem to have been copied directly from their internal Party Notes, as resolutions from different branches contain almost word for word the same formulations. It is quite painful, for example, to read through the 12 (!) motions on climate change or the five dealing with the NHS and try to work out if there are any qualitative differences between them (there aren't). If the comrades have attempted to give the impression that there is a healthy debate on these issues going on in Respect, they certainly have not succeeded. Quite the opposite. The duplicated motions give the impression of an absence of real life and debate in the many Respect branches that are dominated by overwhelming SWP majorities. Secondly, there are a few motions that feel a little more real, and that seem to stem from branches with a larger proportion of non-SWP members. Maybe not enough to form a majority, but sufficient to shame SWPers into allowing more critical and uncomfortable motions to go through. For example, there are a number that demand access to minutes of the national council or the establishment of a regular newspaper. Thirdly, and very encouragingly, there are a handful of resolutions that more or less openly challenge the majority populist line and put forward principled politics. The two CPGB motions are part of this third trend (it looks as though they may yet see the light of day - see box), as are the two motions from Milton Keynes on immigration and the accountability of elected Respect representatives. Unfortunately, those principled motions are few and far between. The vast majority of the resolutions are either totally uncontroversial or simply restate and reformulate existing policy. These are divided into eight themes and I will deal with them in the order they appear on the list. Civil liberties The first of the 68 resolutions is highly confused and deserves a detailed look. It has been submitted by Respect national council and deals with the inability of the anti-terror legislation to get to the roots of terrorism. It starts well enough by noting that "the struggles for the right to self-determination and struggles from oppression cannot be deemed illegitimate". Agreed. But then it goes on to state that "domination, discrimination and denigration of groups and individuals are always causes and sometimes justification for terrorism". Now this is far from clear, since it appears to say that terrorism can sometimes be justified. But then the motion goes on to describe how the national council thinks "terrorism can ultimately be defeated" ("by strengthening liberty and not weakening it") and that Respect will "expose and fight against all, whether it be individual criminals or the government, that seek to threaten our democracy and values." The above sentence also gives a taste of the rather sickening description in this motion of a classless society, where Respect will "fight against all who seek to divide and bring hatred to the harmony and diversity that is Britain" (my emphasis). And: Respect will "struggle to ensure that the democratic beliefs and values that define who we are as a country also dictate how we behave to other countries". And where do we "as a country" get these democratic beliefs from? Wait for it"¦ "The fragile existence of democracy, and the very progress of moral civilisation itself, has always been predicated on the people's struggle for liberty and the defeat of injustice, [which] sums up the sacrifices made by our forefathers during the Second World War" (my emphasis). Reading the beginning of the sentence, I thought for a moment the comrades who drafted the motion were about to refer to the heroic working class struggles of the past that have led to the limited democracy and improved working conditions we 'enjoy' today: the Chartist movement, the Levellers, the Russian Revolution, the general strike of 1926, etc. It is quite unbelievable that they should be actively praising the part played by Britain in the slaughter of millions of people, which had nothing to do with 'liberating Germany' or 'saving the Jews' and everything to do with protecting imperialist interests. This motion is devoid of any class content and simply appeals to the good-hearted people of Britain (all of them) to go back to how it used to be - when we were all nice to each other, uniting with Churchill and the capitalists to save civilisation. Undoubtedly, the SWP leadership has played an active part in drawing up this drivel in order to please the phantom right wing in Respect, otherwise they would have simply used their majority on the national council to vote against it ... wouldn't they? Hopefully the comrades are planning to put forward a series of amendments. I cannot imagine that SWP rank and file members will be told to vote through such crap. A few other motions under the heading of 'civil liberties' are generally supportable, particular a rather good one from South Birmingham (motion 4). This calls on conference to "unreservedly condemn the July terrorist attacks on London", goes on to say that "those carrying out such terrorist attacks are enemies of us all" and rejects the attempts to "criminalise support for legitimate national liberation struggles". Motion 5 (also from South Birmingham) is more problematic. It offers unquestionable support for, and defence of, "the ideals of multiculturalism", which it says "aspire to treat all communities and cultures with equal respect". In reality official multiculturalism leads to scenes like those we have just seen in Birmingham. Communists should strive for positive and voluntary assimilation of peoples, not celebrate their continued existence as separate, often isolated communities. Multiculturalism is in reality weakening and dividing our forces. Other resolutions in this section are uncontentious: for the right to protest against arms manufacture; opposition to shoot-to-kill and to Guantanamo Bay concentration camp. However, the latter motion is worth a quick comment, because it again reflects a move away from class politics. The comrades from Brighton and Hove state that the camp should be shut down immediately, because it "is a travesty of natural and international norms of justice" (motion 8). What the hell is "natural" justice? The law of the jungle perhaps? Survival of the fittest? And who currently defines "international norms"? Certainly not the proletariat - which is why "justice" is in such short supply. Climate change This is the most painful section. Apparently, it needs the weight of 12 resolutions to ensure Respect's participation in the December 3 demonstration against climate change. The comrades know "that anthropogenetic global warming is an undeniable reality" (motion 13), that there is "overwhelming evidence for the existence and scale of the problem" (motion 9), that it is "one of the biggest threats facing humanity" (motion 16) and that something needs to be done "before future generations curse us" (motion 18). And the solution? "Enforce the Kyoto protocol" and/or "draw up new international protocols"; push through "energy-saving strategies" for businesses and private households; nationalise Rover and let the workforce "produce wind turbines and solar panels", etc. Not only are there a lot of unrecognised scientists and experts amongst the Respect membership who are absolutely sure that the dramatic fluctuations of temperatures encountered in the past are totally different from what is happening today. They are also utterly convinced that climate change never occurs through natural processes and that its effects must always be unpalatable. Iraq, the war and the occupation The national council's resolution on this question is a little pointless, as it is largely a restatement of existing policy. However, the interesting thing about it is the absence of a certain three-letter word. In the Stop the War Coalition, the comrades of the SWP have dumped the demand for 'troops out now' in favour of the less controversial 'troops out by Christmas' (which was one of the slogans of the September 24 anti-war demonstration). This was done to appease the left Labourites in the STWC who wanted to draw attention to the fact that the UN mandate for the occupation 'runs out' in December. Of course, it also creates the dangerous illusion that imperialism has some kind of progressive role to play in Iraq and that it might need to stay longer to 'finish the job'. There are no serious left Labourites involved in Respect, however. None that could put that much pressure on the SWP. That begs the question as to why the comrades feel it is unnecessary or undesirable to demand "an immediate withdrawal of occupying forces", as does Cambridge (motion 22). In addition Cambridge specifically calls for support for three organisations: "The Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq, the Union of the Unemployed and the General Union of Oil Employees". The first two organisations are closely linked to the Worker-communist Party of Iraq - not an organisation that the SWP is particularly keen on. Scandalously, SWP members recently walked out of the NUS conference when WCPI member Houzan Mahmoud delivered a speech (see Weekly Worker April 14). No doubt, this motion will be vigorously opposed by the SWP. National Health Service Should Respect affiliate to the 'Keep our NHS public' campaign? Maybe it should, seeing as six resolutions repeat the same suggestion almost word for word. The motions (23-27) call for opposition to the dismantling of the NHS and demand that the NHS should be free at the point of delivery, publicly owned, democratically accountable to the public and that it should directly employ NHS workers. One resolution would surely have been sufficient. Building Respect Here it gets (a bit) more interesting. This is the area the comrades from the International Socialist Group have concentrated their fire on. Well, it's more a case of lobbing a few paper darts, actually. The comrades' resolution (which was adopted in slightly altered form by three branches) gushes about "our success in the general election", which has given Respect a "remarkable public profile" and the "unique opportunity to build itself into a very significant organisation". It goes on to suggest that Respect could be transformed into a "mass membership organisation" by ensuring "that local branches develop strong and regular campaigning activities" and that Respect "prioritises recruitment, expanding its activities and stabilising its finances". It wants to see "further editions of the successful Respect tabloid paper" and seeks "to strengthen the national office and press and publicity profile between elections". Why anybody should bother to write such non-committal platitudes is beyond me. What kind of "tabloid paper"? How often should it come out? Should it maybe contain debates on the political questions where Respect members disagree? And how exactly do we make Respect "as open and inclusive as possible"? The comrades are certainly not leading by example: they have not exactly fallen over themselves to challenge the ridiculous ban on our motions (Alan Thornett, one of their representative on the Respect executive even refuses to discuss Respect with us). Rather more interesting and concrete is the resolution from Greenwich and Lewisham (motion 30). It starts off by distancing the movers from unnamed 'troublemakers': "Conference 2004 is to be congratulated for arriving at a set of policies which constrain [!] Respect to a progressive, socialist agenda while not alienating any of the individuals and groups which have made significant contributions to this coalition". The only ones who may feel 'alienated' are those that never make "significant contributions" - such as putting forward principled working class politics, obviously. Having put some clear water between themselves and the likes of the CPGB, the comrades then propose a rather uncomfortable set of organisational measures, which throw an embarrassing light on an organisation with next to no internal democracy: there should be a "formal mechanism" to submit motions to the national council, whose minutes "should be made available to all groups", for example. The comrades also suggest that "groups should be provided with space on the Respect website". And something a little more basic: "Members' details, and updates to them provided by groups, should be stored centrally in a database as soon as they are received." Brilliant. Trade unions Another set of SWP-inspired resolutions, I'm afraid (nos 32-36). Apparently, it needs half a dozen conference motions to organise a Respect trade union conference in 2006. And, yes, we all agree that the anti-trade union laws should be repealed, that secondary strike action should not be illegal and that the Gate Gourmet workers deserve our support. Constitution, manifesto and internal affairs In order to "ensure and to demonstrate openness and accountability within the party", Calderdale branch wants the national office to "produce a quarterly bulletin for members that will inform members regarding decisions made by national council" (motion 37). That would be a good start, but why not report on all meetings as they happen? However, this half-hearted motion certainly reflects how out of the loop many Respect members feel. Motion 38 from Camden and Barnet wants Respect to be "recognised as the most democratic, transparent and pluralist organisation with the wider labour movement". Quite a way to go there, I would suggest. The concrete suggestions are entirely supportable, however: observers should be allowed to attend meetings of the national council; reports of meetings of the national committee and the national officers group should be circulated and more information made available on Respect's website. Meanwhile, motion 39 from Oxford wants "a regular national publication". While such motions reveal a desire to transform Respect into a more healthy organisation, there are very few that attempt to get to the root of the problem: Respect is a deeply populist formation, run by revolutionary Marxists who are hurtling away from Marxism, while at the same time claiming to remain true to their ideals. So, in order to maintain such an impossible balancing act, critical voices like ourselves have to be silenced as far as possible. So fragile is the SWP that it simply cannot afford to allow anything more than token accountability. No doubt then as to what will happen to the excellent motion 41 from Milton Keynes, which wants to see "elected Respect representatives" bound "by the decisions and policies of conference and between that the national council". If they disagree with a policy, they should "seek to overturn it" and, if that does not succeed, Respect representatives "should put forward Respect policy and vote accordingly - but can make clear that their own view differs from that". This is a straightforward and very democratic resolution that would go some way to avoid the danger of careerists standing for Respect simply to further their own aims. Electoral strategy Respect should update its election manifesto; raising the retirement age is a disgrace; Asbos should be abolished and the travelling community defended. Motions 42-51 are all uncontroversial. Then follow a couple more interesting ones on immigration and deportations. Motion 52 (Milton Keynes) is wrong in my view to describe all immigration controls as "essentially racist". However, the spirit of the motion is certainly supportable and it ends with "Respect advocates a policy of ending all UK immigration controls", ensuring that "refugees and other immigrants are welcome here". This is still official SWP policy. However, in various branches around the country, the same comrades have voted down a similar resolution from the CPGB. Some SWPers "now genuinely seem to oppose the position they held regarding immigration controls only a couple of years ago", as Lee Rock stated following a recent meeting in Sheffield (Weekly Worker October 20). The SWP majority in Sheffield preferred instead to propose a motion which argues in favour of the rights of a particular group: "Iraqi Kurds" should not be deported (motion 53). Quite right. But what about people being deported to war-torn Afghanistan? And do we not care about the "plight and humanity" of those from Zimbabwe or Sudan? And is it OK to send back people to Ethiopia, Malawi or China - because, after all, these are just 'economic refugees'? Quite clearly, the logic of such a resolution leads to the principled demand for 'open borders' - for the right of every human being to work, settle and live wherever they want. The current Respect policy clearly skirts around the issue: it merely "defends the rights of asylum-seekers and refugees to political asylum". It implicitly sanctions the right of capital to pick and choose 'useful' migrants like nurses or IT workers, while ignoring our brothers and sisters across the world who may choose to flee the poverty and misery that capital has heaped upon them. Lesbian and gay rights The section on electoral policy also contains four interesting resolutions on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights, which have been sponsored by the ISG. All four are - to varying degrees - critical of the fact that LGBT rights were 'left out' of Respect's election manifesto. Apparently, SWP members in local branches were too embarrassed to vote against the short motions. And maybe some shared the view that it was "unacceptable" to 'forget' about this issue. Of course, this was no simple oversight on the part of the Respect leadership. It has been a hotly contested issue, ever since leading SWPer Lindsey German announced at Marxism 2003: "I'm in favour of defending gay rights, but I am not prepared to have it as a shibboleth" (see Weekly Worker July 10 2003). This was followed by George Galloway's interview with the Independent on Sunday in which Respect's most prominent member volunteered the information that he was opposed to a woman's right to choose an abortion. The current Respect policy was accepted at the 2004 conference (as a counter to a CPGB motion): "Respect opposes any change in legislation that restricts abortion rights and defends the right to choose." Needless to say, there is currently no right to choose - our resolution was voted down precisely because it called not only for the defence, but an extension, of current legislation to make that right real. The discussion over LGBT rights neatly symbolises the debacle that is Respect: a popular front, in which the SWP as by far the largest component subordinates itself to the perceived politics of petty bourgeois forces from the muslim community. No attempt is made to convince politicised muslims of the validity and necessity of the Marxist programme. Class struggle is not even mentioned. Instead, platitudes and appeals to 'decency' are being put forward. If this tactic had been successful and thousands of people from a marginalised section of society had been recruited to Respect, then at least we could acknowledge some sort of rationale behind this trajectory. But it quite clearly does not work and, almost without exception, Respect branches have attracted very little by way of new forces. Opportunism has failed to deliver. But, unfortunately, there is no sign that the SWP is about to change tack. Form a Respect left opposition Conference fringe meeting Saturday November 19 6pm, Lucas Arms, 245a Grays Inn Road, London WC1 all welcome, lots of time for debate