A strange amalgam
Respect's second annual conference took place over the weekend of November 19-20. But what is Respect, asks Peter Manson - a party or coalition? In fact it is a chimera, a multi-headed beast which is regularly redefined by its leaders according to needs and circumstances
"We have entered the mainstream of British politics,” said George Galloway in his opening speech at Camden Centre. We are occupying the “territory of the working people of this country - the whole reason for the Labour Party coming into existence.”
However, said the organisation’s main spokesperson, “Respect has the duty not to get stuck in the leftwing language of years gone by. Nobody understands it.” But that did not stop him commenting: “In the eighth year of a Labour government, the billionaires have all the rights; working people almost none.” Sounds exactly like the “leftwing language of years gone by” to me.
In fact this sort of contradiction is typical within Respect. Such phrases are fine for leadership speechifying, but when the left attempts to endow them with concrete meaning, then we in the CPGB are told we are being unrealistic.
Unlike last year, we had a handful of delegates at the 2005 conference - despite the best efforts of Socialist Workers Party hacks to keep us out. Our comrades were able to challenge the SWP’s opportunistic accommodation to Galloway and the “muslim activist” non-working class right wing of Respect on a number of key issues.
The main business began with a session on ‘Iraq: the war and the occupation’ and it was comrade Galloway who moved the uncontentious national council motion on the subject. He gave his usual trenchant performance on this subject, laying into the US and British imperialists for their hypocrisy and brutality.
“Saddam Hussein didn’t have chemical weapons - but we did and we were using them,” he said, referring to the white phosphorus that the Americans have now admitted they employed during their murderous assault on Fallujah. “Saddam Hussein is no longer torturing people in Baghdad - but we are.”
While the NC resolution noted only that “Iraqis have the right to resist occupation”, a motion from Cambridge wanted Respect to support three specific groups, all connected with the Worker-communist Party of Iraq. Presumably the original drafter of this motion was not present, as it was moved formally by an SWP member.
This was a pity, as the opportunity for a debate on the kind of organisations we should support in Iraq was lost. It was only the SWP position we heard when Chris Bambery moved an amendment seeking to delete reference to the WCPI-backed organisations: “We shouldn’t be put off by the fact that the majority of the resistance are islamic. What do you expect? In Poland the majority of the resistance was catholic.” The resolution, he said, wanted to cherry-pick between various elements of the anti-occupation forces.
The SWP amendment comrade Bambery was backing stated that Respect supports all “those campaigning to bring troops out”. But it did name the “National Foundation Conference, which unites religious and secular forces”. We should not make our support “conditional on those groups being secular”, argued the SWP-inspired amendment.
In the SWP mindset ‘secular’ and religious’ are posed as opposites. Yet in comrade Bambery’s own example of Poland, the anti-Nazi resistance was undoubtedly secular, in the sense that it united believers and non-believers in a common struggle - exactly what is needed in Iraq too.
The original motion from the national council had the fingerprints of comrade Galloway all over it. Steeped in social chauvinism, it referred to the “sacrifices made by our forefathers during the Second World War” and expressed the belief that “we as a community and brotherhood of human beings” should “expose and fight against all who seek to divide and bring hatred to the harmony and diversity that is Britain”.
No doubt at least partially as a result of the slating this motion received in the Weekly Worker (October 27), the NC had had second thoughts and at the instigation of the SWP Galloway was overruled. The NC itself put in an amendment to its own motion which deleted the worst of the original’s nationalistic and liberalistic excesses, but still left in place phrases about those that threaten “our security” and “the democratic beliefs and values that define who we are as a country”.
It is quite remarkable that this motion got as far the agenda in the first place and even in its amended form it was opposed from the floor (in all other cases of disagreement it was the NC that opposed motions from the membership rather than the other way round). But clearly the SWP decided that it could live with this toned down expression of nationalist class collaborationism and it was overwhelmingly passed.
The CPGB’s Dave Isaacson referred to this the following day in proposing the motion on openness from Calderdale. He said it was natural that there would be differences on the NC, but Respect members should be entitled to know about the debates that take place among the leadership. World War II was not “Britain’s finest hour”, but an “imperialist bloodbath”. Yet when Salma Yaqoob had proposed both the motion and amendment she gave one of conference’s shortest speeches, merely saying that she was “against” the original wording.
In his closing oration Galloway replied directly to comrade Isaacson. We “could have a debate on social chauvinism” - and he made clear that for him World War II was indeed “Britain’s finest hour” - but allegedly “most people are not interested” and it was simply “not relevant” to today’s politics. So why had he proposed the original phrasing in the first place and what made the SWP take it out? Why had the NC spent so much time on something that was “not relevant”?
Religious hatred laws
There were two amendments to motions on civil liberties opposing the government’s Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, as well as a separate motion drafted by the CPGB.
Sean Thompson, in moving the first amendment from Camden and Barnet, referred to the RRHB as “another brick in the wall” of repressive legislation. It was, he said, a “poisonous amalgam”, a “cynical fig leaf to disguise attacks on the muslim community”. It added nothing to current race hate legislation, but, on the contrary, would “lead to censorship”, putting in doubt the appearance of works like Jerry Springer, the opera and Satanic verses. Comrade Thompson said he was “prepared to put a wager: among the first people prosecuted would be members of the muslim community themselves”.
SWPer Helen Salmond was wheeled out to oppose this amendment and she repeated the Blairite lies that the bill was needed to ‘plug a gap’: “Muslims don’t constitute a racial group and this legislation extends legal protection to them”. She admitted the new law “could well be used against the people it was said to protect”, but, all in all, it was a “net gain”. It would be “a major, major mistake to line up with the right wing” on this question.
Since when is it the right that defends basic freedoms? It is true that islamophobes and racists want to be at liberty to hurl all sorts of abuse, but we as materialists demand the legal right to criticise religion, expose its obscurantism and, yes, if necessary offend religious bigots. Just as they should have the right to criticise and offend us. Why should religious views - or any other, for that matter - be above criticism?
Jane Kelly of the International Socialist Group, in moving the Southwark amendment, correctly dubbed the RRHB “a blasphemy law in all but name” and this time it was a young muslim woman whom the SWP had persuaded to oppose the motion. Ifhat Shaheen had actually spoken out against the bill when the subject was raised in her Hackney branch: “We don’t want a crackdown on our civil liberties. We should be against this law” (see Weekly Worker October 20).
However, it was obvious that in the intervening period the SWP had been grooming her - a naive young muslim making a heartfelt plea for ‘protection’ would be just the ticket. Ifhat said: “I face abuse and am not covered by the law. Does Salman Rushdie have more rights than me to have a peaceful existence?” The answer is that both she and Rushdie should be entitled to a life free from harassment and physical assault, but the opinions of neither should be protected from attack.
In moving the motion against the RRHB signed by 20 individual members, Anne Mc Shane stressed the centrality of our attitude to the question, in that it is determined by our view of the role of the state: “Those who are really against islamophobia and racism need to organise that struggle from below. We need to fight independently, not foster illusions in this government.”
Comrade Mc Shane pointed to the wide range of religious, artistic and ethnic minority opinion that had seen Blair’s attack on free speech for what it was. She was astonished that comrade Salmond had insisted that the bill was a gain, even though she had acknowledged that muslims could well be the first to be prosecuted under its clauses. Comrade McShane stated that, in any case, racism and islamophobia could not be defeated by driving them underground.
National secretary John Rees, however, replied that he did want to drive them underground - to wild applause. Islamophobia was “the main prop of the ‘war on terror’” and the Metropolitan Police had reported a 600% increase in attacks on muslims. Therefore, “whatever the motivation” behind the bill, we should support it. Comrade Rees freely admitted that Afro-Caribbeans had been the first to be prosecuted under the Race Relations Act - and they continue to be prosecuted under it, he said. But his main concern was what New Labour hacks would say if Respect opposed the bill. Weren’t we supposed to be defending muslims?
This was also George Galloway’s main line of attack: “If you send me into the lobby to vote against it, you’ll hand New Labour a real gift.” We should vote on the measure itself, not on who was putting it forward, he said. In fact we have to base our decision on both factors - and on both counts the bill must be opposed. The idea that Blair, while stirring up islamophobia on the one hand, was genuinely putting forward measures to protect muslims is laughable - and the comrades were admitting it.
Galloway’s apparent commitment to follow Respect policy when voting in the Commons - “If conference decides we should oppose this bill, I’ll oppose it” - was, however, immediately negated when he put forward a rider: “This is a matter of tactics, not conscience.” The implication was he would not abide by Respect policy on matters of “conscience”. So who decides what they are? No doubt he wants to be able to continue to vote against a woman’s right to choose an abortion on the basis of his own religious views on the question - he thinks he should be allowed to impose those views on everybody and at the same time cock a snook at conference - so long as he declares a given matter one of “conscience”.
Galloway concluded by speaking directly to comrade Mc Shane and the CPGB: “Call me a reformist if you will - you have in the past. But I’m willing to vote for something that makes things a little bit better.” Especially when not to do so would allegedly “dismay, demoralise and confuse muslim supporters of Respect”.
Comrade Galloway painted a picture of Respect making substantial gains in a few carefully targeted councils in next year’s local elections. He was clear where it was that Respect “could make the most difference”: Tower Hamlets. He claimed that in that borough Labour was “rushing through the privatisation of housing and land because they fear a Respect majority after May”.
But there was no discussion, either in Galloway’s contribution or in the debate, of what Respect would actually do if it gained control of Tower Hamlets - apart from twinning the council with Jenin, that is, and flying “the Palestinian flag on the town hall”.
There was every chance of making a sizeable impact and establishing a group of councillors in other places too, including Newham, Hackney and Birmingham, said comrade Galloway. He said that Respect should contest all 51 seats in Tower Hamlets and all 60 in Newham, but in most other areas we should stand just one candidate: “It’s better to stand and elect one than stand 10 and lose them all.” After all, “One councillor this time may become 10 next time” - Galloway reminded conference that Sinn Féin had “started with one councillor and now Gerry Adams is almost the president of Ireland”.
Lindsey German referred in her contribution to claims that Respect had relied on one particular section in previous elections: “Of course there was a muslim alliance, but we cannot rely on one bloc.” Since some muslims voted Labour or Lib Dem, Respect had also had to appeal to other sections in order to do well.
Comrade German said: “Respect is not just an electoralist party - electoralism is the easy bit. But if we don’t see standing in elections as central we’ll be in trouble.” There was a time, of course, when the SWP dismissed the very notion of standing in elections, since it would inevitably lead to “electoralism” (elevating the winning of votes over and above fighting for principled working class politics). Now the comrades have not only embraced electoralism - they are proud of it. Mind you, it does help not to have a programme to guide you: that way, U-turns come easy and nobody will notice, will they?
John Rees emphasised the same theme - the need to win seats over and above anything else: “This isn’t old-style left politics. It’s not about sinking roots over the next decade. Victory is the best propaganda.” Like Galloway and German, he completely ignored the question of policy - his speech dealt with technical questions relating to getting out the vote: in Bethnal Green and Bow “we visited 10,000 people on election day”.
Comrade Rees was looking forward to Respect becoming a “small mass party” in double quick time, and to that end the details of policy were secondary. What mattered was hard work - lots of it. That was the message for the rank and file.
Both the CPGB (via the 20-members rule) and Milton Keynes put forward a motion against immigration controls. Moving the CPGB proposal, Dave Isaacson said that Respect’s policy has been to highlight individual cases on the one hand and to defend “asylum-seekers and refugees” on the other. In other words, the rights of economic migrants are not championed in any consistent way. In the meantime capital controls migration in its own interests - allowing certain economic migrants to enter when their labour is required, while keeping out those it considers unsuitable for exploitation. By contrast we must regard the free movement of people as a basic democratic right.
Earlier the SWP had put up an Asian member to oppose the Milton Keynes motion. He condemned the notion of open borders as “dangerous” and not the way to go forward. “Many black people say there are too many immigrants”, so it was not racist to maintain a “balanced attitude”. Comrade Isaacson acknowledged that a chauvinistic ‘protect our borders’, ‘keep ’em out’ attitude was prevalent. But just because the principled position was unpopular “doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight” for what is in the interests of the working class.
This time it was SWP member Gary McFarlane - chosen no doubt because he is black - who opposed the motion, which he described as “inept”. Didn’t comrade Isaacson understand that Respect wanted to “build a mass party”? Yet everyone knows that the masses favour border controls. For comrade McFarlane proposing open borders was “like saying ‘abolish wages tomorrow’”.
What is more, not all potential migrants who might want to come here were poor and oppressed. What about those hundreds of thousands of racist white South Africans who are keen to get out now that apartheid has gone? If Respect was lumbered with such a policy can you imagine how “ridiculous” George Galloway would look on Newsnight?
It is true that Galloway would look ridiculous if he tried to argue against immigration controls, since he believes that “nobody serious” favours open borders. Sensible people like him (and comrade McFarlane?) stand for a quota system to control numbers. To accept free movement would be to “block off debate”, said McFarlane. “We need a real policy on immigration, not a nice, pure one that makes us feel nice and warm inside.”
Another black SWPer, Dean Ryan, came in later to back him up: “I am disappointed by some abstract resolutions - for example, on border controls. The best way to fight racism is to go out and campaign” - for individual victims, clearly. But there can be no question of combating national chauvinism, it seems.
What was noticeable about this was that the SWP has more and more started to believe in the positions it has been arguing Respect should adopt over the past couple of years - positions it previously claimed were necessary for a non-revolutionary, indeed non-socialist, organisation if it was to make headway. The comrades told us they had gritted their teeth and reluctantly, for the greater good, voted against the things they believed in. Well, it must be a little easier now.
Unlike almost every other vote, when decisions were taken either unanimously or virtually unanimously, on this question there was a small minority of 20 or 30 who voted for both motions.
Six separate motions on climate change, along with several amendments, were before conference. All of them stated that it was a scientific fact resulting from human activity and must be halted. According to ex-Green Party NC member Elaine Graham Leigh, “only Donald Rumsfeld can claim climate change is not happening and is not caused by human activity”.
Interestingly though, Phil Thornhill, convenor of the Campaign Against Climate Change and a guest speaker, began his speech with the comment that ‘climate change’ was a “crap phrase”. Much more suitable, he said, would be “catastrophic destabilisation of the global climate”.
Comrade Thornhill referred to a previous period of “catastrophic destabilisation”, when “95% of life on earth was extinguished” and it took the planet “600 million years to recover”. This certainly calls into question both the notion that current changes are entirely anthropogenetic, and the kind of tinkering measures proposed by some of the resolutions.
The NC was prepared to accept all the motions, as well as putting forward its own. It raised no objections to most of the proposals, including those from Islington, which demanded “taxation of airline fuel and a halt to airline expansion”, cancellation of the current road building programme and “reducing food miles to a minimum with incentives to encourage consumption of seasonal, locally produced foods”.
The NC did, however, amend two other motions. It deleted one of the bullet points in Plymouth and Cornwall’s proposed energy policy, which urged “the development of high-grade, low-pollution coal extraction, with investment in new technologies for a new, nationalised coal industry”. This was replaced with “the development of long-term support for workers affected by the move to nationalised energy and the communities around them”. ‘Good riddance to coal’ was the NC message.
Its other point of departure was over the policy of ‘contraction and convergence’, which Bradford wanted Respect to support as a means of achieving “a globally sustainable and equitable level of carbon dioxide emissions”. The NC argued that ‘contraction and convergence’ was inextricably linked to the capitalist market.
The SWP has cottoned on to the idea that opposition to climate change could be the next big ‘movement’ and has rushed to ‘green’ itself and Respect so as to tap into this new potential source of recruits. It is, of course, entirely unnecessary to put forward a distinctive, working-class-based programme in relation to the environment.
Conference unanimously passed a resolution on Venezuela, which “applauds its government”. The mover, from West Central branch, hoped that “Venezuela follows the Cuban road”.
SWP NC member Maxine Bowler reported how she and other comrades in Sheffield had raised over £2,500 for aid for the victims of the earthquake in Kashmir in a “multicultural collection”. She did not say that the cash had been handed over to the pro-establishment religious charity, Islamic Relief. She stated that Respect was “pro-Kashmir”, but did not elaborate - the main thing for comrade Bowler, it seems, is that this, along with charity-mongering, helps Respect in its work with Sheffield muslims.
In introducing this section, comrade Rees spoke of a recent poll which declared the Stop the War Coalition to be “the most important protest movement of the last 100 years”. We “have set the politics of this country alight” and now the job of Respect is to “see what a movement needs, what a people feel”.
Turning to the resolutions on Respect’s organisation and practice, comrade Rees conceded that “motions are important”, but not as important as “the ability to lead in the movements”. If, then, some of the motions we were about to hear wanted “a national secretary sitting behind a desk answering emails, then get another one”. Of course, the SWP rank and file just love to clap and cheer such demagogy, and this was only the first instalment.
Comrade Rees was setting the tone for what was to follow when he dismissed the importance of organisational questions or for that matter a grasp of politics - not as far as the membership is concerned at any rate. What mattered was action: “It’s about guts, being willing to fight, putting in the effort.”
Alan Thornett of the ISG spoke next in support of a motion from Southwark: “What we need is a bit more of a sober assessment of where Respect is.” We must “build an organisation and it must be built as a party, with the attitude of a party”. He said Respect was an “extremely uneven organisation” and there was “not enough contact between the membership and the elected bodies”.
Comrade Thornett might have good intentions, but the Southwark motion was very short in concrete proposals. It spoke only in terms of vague generalities and platitudes and the leadership had no problem accepting it.
But that was not the case with Greenwich and Lewisham’s motion, which was far too specific for the NC’s liking. Not only did it call for minutes of national committee meetings to be “made available to all groups”, but went so far as to request the setting up of “web-based discussion forums”.
The SWP got a young female comrade to oppose this and she called the motion “inward-looking and introspective”. It would be a “fundamental mistake” to set up an internet discussion forum, because that would mean “Respect members talking to Respect members”. Yes, comrade, that was the idea. But for her discussion is “no substitute for getting involved on the ground”. It is always useful from an SWP point of view to have its apolitical bureaucratism voiced by a naive-sounding rank and filer
Councillor Oliur Rahman gave us a second-rate Chris Bambery impersonation in his reply to Calderdale’s motion on openness, which, like Greenwich and Lewisham, demanded “a forum for members to exchange views on policy and practice” and also wanted a “quarterly bulletin … that will inform members regarding decisions made by the national council”.
Comrade Rahman ranted: “I don’t want to see John Rees sitting behind a desk. I don’t know who’s going to pay for quarterly reports - go out and knock on doors. If you think that by producing quarterly reports and minutes we would have got George elected, you can think again. Let’s not waste time debating nonsense.”
“Nonsense” or not, the NC did recommend acceptance of a Camden and Barnet motion which stated: “The national secretary should circulate reports on the business conducted at meetings of the national council as soon as is practically possible after those meetings.” But none of this stopped the serried ranks of the SWP wildly cheering comrade Rahman and overwhelmingly voting down Calderdale’s motion, while, a few seconds later, overwhelmingly supporting Camden and Barnet’s.
In contrast to 2004, when the SWP for one reason or another voted for a regular publication, in 2005 the comrades voted against it. According to the SWP’s Liz Wheatley, “local sheets are much more useful than national publications”. It was no good “spending money that wouldn’t help build the party”.
In his closing speech George Galloway also opposed a Respect newspaper. He thought it would just be “another opportunity for us to speak to each other” - a bad thing, obviously. If we were allowed to write expressing our views, that would only “accentuate our differences, not unite us on the issues where we agree”.
And he too informed us that Respect’s achievements had not been won “by sitting behind a computer or circulating conference minutes and reports”. They had been achieved “by action, not words”. Not that Galloway for a moment believes this philistine nonsense. Like the SWP leaders, he thinks that writing articles, receiving reports and taking decisions are just fine - so long as they remain the exclusive preserve of those at the top. Those at the bottom just have to get on with doing what they are told.
Party or coalition?
It was the CPGB’s Anne Mc Shane who moved Milton Keynes’s motion on accountability. This stated that Respect’s elected representatives should be “bound by the decisions and policies of conference”. They are “expected to put forward Respect policy in interviews, articles, speeches and vote accordingly, but can make clear that her/his own position varies from this policy”.
In fact this motion, originating with the CPGB, was probably too one-sided. We certainly need to insist that our representatives abide by agreed policy when it comes to voting, and put it forward when they are acting as, or will be regarded as, official spokespersons. However, if, for example, they are asked to write an article expressing their own view, there is no reason why they should not do so - so long as it is clear that this is not the position of Respect if there is any divergence.
Nevertheless, the motion was correct in broad terms. As comrade Mc Shane argued, “Respect representatives must be tribunes of the people” and therefore need to be accountable to the organisation. If the May elections result in a number of councillors in, say, Tower Hamlets, we “don’t want them to do their own thing”.
In reply to this comrade Galloway said it was wrong to demand “I give interviews, write articles I don’t agree with”. He said he was “incapable” of stating opinions that were not his own and claiming they were. Of course, he was not being asked to do any such thing. He was being asked, where necessary, to give an accurate representation of Respect’s views if they differed from his own - surely he is not “incapable” of that?
“A vote in parliament - that’s another matter,” continued Galloway (except for matters of ‘conscience’, of course). But he described the motion as “a politics of another era, another country. We are not there now: we are in a plural world.” People today watch Big brother and I’m a celebrity: get me out of here. They are in organisations that are networking.
So “Don’t rush to be a party,” Galloway concluded. “Respect is a coalition - that is its strength. We might one day be a party. We might have to have a party line.” But not yet.
The SWPers applauded loyally - even though they had been clapping just as enthusiastically when their own leaders had been giving the opposite message throughout the weekend. There had been numerous references to the Respect “party”. The truth is, when Galloway, Rees et al want us to hand out leaflets, go on the knocker or raise money, then Respect is a party all right. That is why we have to act in a disciplined manner. But when we ask that they be accountable to the membership, then this is impossible, because Respect is a mere “coalition”.
- Fundamental right to migrate
Steven Brooks joined Michael Lavalette in forming a Respect group on Preston council when he left the Labour Party earlier this year. He voted in favour of the two motions calling for the abolition of immigration controls. Anne Mc Shane spoke to him after the debate
- Gay rights ‘shibboleth’
Was it just an oversight that gay and lesbian rights did not feature in Respect's election manifestio? Apparently not, as the debate at conference showed. Peter Manson reports
- Bizarre, upside-down politics
Peter Tatchell responds to the implied SWP charge of racism and islamophobia against him and Outrage
- United democratic opposition needed
Principled communists and socialists should start working together in order to combat accustions of islamophobia and treachery, says Anne Mc Shane
- A dead parrot - not quite
Non-aligned Respect member Sean Thompson expresses his fear that the project is being killed by SWP control-freakery