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

There was only one motion put forward on the question of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights at the Respect conference, originating with the International Socialist Group. It read: “Conference regards it as unacceptable that our manifesto for the general election did not contain any reference to the defence of LGBT rights despite policy adopted at last year’s AGM and contained in the founding statement. Conference resolves that in future our manifestos and principal election material will explicitly defend such rights and call for an end to all discrimination against lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people.”

This motion was bitterly resented by the Socialist Workers Party. Why? Surely, if there had been an oversight, it was simply a question of apologising and moving on. But there had been no oversight: LBGT rights had been deliberately omitted from the general election manifesto.

The draft manifesto had been drawn up by the ISG’s Alan Thornett and agreed by the national council. However, George Galloway did not like what he saw. In particular, he objected to the twin questions of gay rights and abortion, which, he insisted, would jeopardise hundreds, if not thousands, of votes in the East End. It was not so much the ordinary muslim voter who would be alienated, but the leaders of the mosque and groups like the Muslim Association of Britain, who might withdraw their backing and influence their followers to do the same. The fact that the NC had just endorsed the draft was of no consequence: Galloway was overruling them and that was that.

This caused consternation amongst the SWP and comrade Rees entered into urgent negotiations with Galloway. The CPGB had been campaigning against the fact that Galloway’s publicly stated, catholic anti-abortion views had not been challenged by the rest of the Respect leadership. As a result the SWP could no longer remain silent and had been forced, at the 2004 annual conference, to propose a policy which stated: “Respect supports a woman’s right to choose.” Respect could simply not get away with leaving this out.

And so a compromise was reached: the above phrase would stay in the manifesto (entitled Peace, justice, equality), but there would be no mention whatsoever of gay rights. Indeed the word ‘abortion’ itself was left out. All that was left was the following bullet point in the five-point definition of “social justice”: “The fight against, and ultimate abolition of, racism, sexism and all forms of discrimination. Defend a woman’s right to choose.” A “woman’s right to choose” what?

The ISG circulated a petition at the top, but to no avail - Galloway and Rees had decided the question. Of course, they did get away with it - nobody, as far as I am aware, noticed the specific absence of LGBT rights. And if anyone did, they could be fobbed off with the assurance that it was ‘obviously’ incorporated under Respect’s opposition to “all forms of discrimination”. A cowardly ISG did not openly rebel against this disgraceful capitulation.

However, it did sponsor the motion to last weekend’s conference demanding that there should be no repeat. In moving it, Norman Traub pointed out that Respect - a “party to the left of all others fighting the election” - was, on this issue, to the right of New Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

The SWP could hardly oppose the motion - otherwise the general election omission would be exacerbated and Respect would be seen, once again, to have nothing to say on gay rights. Instead it put forward two ‘amendments’ (in fact they were stand-alone motions) which condemned “all homophobic attacks and acts of prejudice”.

But the Coventry amendment went off at a tangent, attacking “some LGBT campaigners, such as Outrage”, who “disproportionately highlight homophobia among African Caribbeans [sic] and muslims”. It went on to state that “homophobia is not mainly a problem among minorities … the largest group perpetrating attacks are likely to be white men”.

What on earth was the relevance of this? Why was a critical motion on gay rights being transformed into an attack on a section of the gay movement itself?

The SWP mover from Coventry claimed that the motion “doesn’t so much condemn homophobia as condemn Respect” and he merely wanted to redress the balance. By way of explaining the reference to Outrage, he went on to say that the “disproportionate focus” on black and muslim opposition to LGBT rights “ties in with islamophobia”. An easy target - or so thought the speaker - was Outrage and its main spokesperson: “I don’t see Peter Tatchell picketing the 17 bishops” who recently spoke out against homosexuality.

It mattered not a jot that the accusation against Tatchell was false: the aim was to smear all those in the hall, including the ISG, with the ‘islamophobia’ brush - simply for having raised gay rights in the first place.

This was the line of attack chosen by all the SWP speakers and their cohorts, including Oliur Rahman, who has apparently been undergoing training as a poor man’s Chris Bambery. “It’s absolutely wrong to suggest that muslims are more likely to attack gays,” yelled comrade Rahman (even though nobody had). “The muslim community have different views, but we respect them as individuals. Muslims will never attack or discriminate against gays.”

Comrade Rahman then went on to contradict himself, at least when it came to the “discriminate” part. He told of a muslim in Tower Hamlets whom he had asked to join Respect, but “he wouldn’t because of our policy on gays”. Rahman went on: “I said, ‘If you saw a gay being attacked, would you help him?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ That says it all.”

Unfortunately it does not say it all. Opposition to physical assault is one thing. A commitment to genuine equality is quite another. Homophobia must be tackled head on - irrespective of the ethnicity of the person expressing it. We do not merely shrug our shoulders if workers refuse to join us because we have a formal position (in our policy documents, if not in our manifesto) in favour of gay equality. Comrade Rahman’s anecdote points to a big problem - which the SWP’s electoralism opportunistically attempts to skirt around.

Next to speak was comrade Lindsey German. She said she would support the ISG motion, although she had “reservations”. She liked neither its “tone” nor its “hidden agenda”. While she did not think that the elderly comrade Traub necessarily shared this (islamophobic) “hidden agenda”, the implication was that there were some people behind him who did.

“Most muslims are not anti-gay,” declared comrade German (again no-one had said they were). “I resent the idea that somehow there is a problem here.” As for the non-appearance of LGBT rights in the manifesto, comrade German made no direct reference to it, but she said: “The idea that this was not an issue is not true - we always took it up.” The other parties were always bringing it up, according to comrade German, claiming that Respect was pro-gay - and despite the fact that they had dropped it from the manifesto too!

Comrade German concluded, totally disingenuously, that the motion had been moved “in bad faith”. No, comrade, you voted for it in bad faith, seeing as you have no intention, if your behaviour at conference is anything to go by, of actually abiding by it.

Comrades may recall how the SWP reacted, in July 2003, to our criticisms of a speech made by German at the SWP’s Marxism school of that month. Notoriously she had said: “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).

When, later in the week, the CPGB handed out a leaflet warning against the dropping of gay rights for the sake of expediency, the SWP leadership reacted with fury and our comrades were physically attacked. The SWP ignored our subsequent letter of complaint, and brushed it aside within the Socialist Alliance. In the SA it was said that comrade German’s speech had been taken out of context and that it was absurd to suggest that the SWP would ever contemplate ditching its commitment to gay rights. In Respect, of course, it has done just that.