Being in Respect and going through the SWP
Mary Godwin reports from the latest CPGB members' aggregate, which saw lively debates on Respect, the finances of the organisation and Ireland
Meeting on December 11 in London, the CPGB membership aggregate reaffirmed the necessity of our work in Respect. Our purpose is to win the unity of the left on a principled basis in order to build a mass Communist Party. This cannot be done by attempting to bypass the existing left, but only by going through it - crucially, today, the Socialist Workers Party. Opening the main debate of the aggregate, comrade Peter Manson, editor of the Weekly Worker, described Respect as an unstable formation.
The SWP presents it as an alliance between secular socialists and muslim activists, and the tension between the two wings - even though the latter is only present in a more or less token form - increases its instability. A second, related cause of instability is the ambiguity about whether Respect is a party or simply a coalition. Our allies in Respect are fewer and less firm than they were in the Socialist Alliance. The International Socialist Group has so far rejected our offer of working together, but we can cooperate with its comrades as individuals.
The ISG is unhappy, to say the least, not only with the dropping of gay rights from Respect's general election manifesto, but also with the way its comrades were attacked by the SWP simply for having complained about this at conference. It was strongly implied that those who objected must be "islamophobic", since gay rights had been abandoned in deference to actual or potential allies in the mosque. Apart from the ISG, a few non-SWP socialists remain in Respect, and we can work with them. Unfortunately, however, most have dropped out in despair. Even though many of the Respect independents will be to the right of those who worked with us in the SA, it will still be possible to work with them, especially as they also run up against the SWP's control-freakery. We need to step up our involvement in Respect branches, so as to be able to engage more closely with the SWP membership, especially disaffected SWP comrades.
The CPGB will also attend the January 21 conference called by the RMT union on the crisis in working class representation, as well as being ready to participate in any new initiative on the part of the Socialist Party. Despite its limited potential, we will also continue to take part in the relaunched Socialist Alliance. The aggregate voted unanimously in favour of a proposal by Nick Rogers that the CPGB affiliate to it. In the debate comrades spoke about their experiences in Respect branches. Anne Mc Shane's branch leadership in Hackney refused to give a report-back from the conference, or to circulate branch steering committee minutes to members. But comrades in Oxford and Guildford reported a much more constructive atmosphere. London-based comrades gave examples of branches where SWP members are open to the arguments put forward in the Weekly Worker and concerned by the direction John Rees is taking them, but they dare not speak out. However, in some Respect branches SWPers are buying and reading the Weekly Worker openly, and comrades gave examples of SWPers and others voting with the CPGB on questions such as the religious hatred laws.
Student comrades reported on Respect university branches. In spite of the sectarianism of SWP full-timers, Respect is making recruits at some universities, although many leave very quickly, it seems. The development of Respect remains geographically uneven. In parts of east London and Birmingham where there is a large muslim population, it is a real force. Comrade Bob Davies reported that in Wales Respect has virtually disappeared. Comrades discussed the nature of Respect and our tasks in it. John Bridge said the SWP is approaching a crisis: its members know it is coming out with opportunist rubbish, but think they have to do this in order to get someone elected so they can "make a difference".
Comrade Tina Becker predicted that after the May elections a handful of newly elected Respect councillors, not being accountable to the organisation or even to the leadership, will sharply increase tensions. Mike Macnair said that pro-Respect elements within the SWP may decide the SWP itself is the obstacle to the success of Respect, and attempt to liquidate it. Whether the SWP goes out with a bang like the Workers Revolutionary Party or fades away with a whimper like the Eurocommunists, comrade Macnair hopes it will prove to be the last example of the kind of Trotskyist sectarian organisation which has held back the development of the working class for decades. On the alternative left formations currently proposed, comrade Lee Rock welcomed the relaunch of the Socialist Alliance, which will hold people together who might otherwise drop out of political life. He said the RMT initiative is very interesting. But comrade Macnair pointed out that historically the SWP takes over and then destroys rival formations which show any sign of success. We can best deal with the SWP by way of Respect - any attempt to build a parallel formation is doomed to failure. Comrade Bridge agreed that it is impossible to go around the SWP: we have to go through it. Comrade Steve Freeman of the Revolutionary Democratic Group spoke strongly in favour of the latest version of the Socialist Alliance. He reported that at the refounding conference some comrades attempted to insert bureaucratic safeguards against the SWP, but these proposals were rejected. He added that the relaunch of the SA is part of the rebellion against the SWP. In his reply to the debate, comrade Manson urged the members of the Socialist Alliance to join Respect and work with us in forming a left opposition.
As reported in the Weekly Worker (December 8), the paper has launched an appeal for regular financial contributions to enable it to continue its vital work. In the second part of the aggregate comrade Mark Fischer reported on our financial position, giving a breakdown of money coming in and going out. To put finances on a firmer footing and help with the forthcoming move to new premises, CPGB members will be asked to approach sympathetic readers and ask them to take out standing orders to the paper. To improve the financial situation of the CPGB itself, branches are asked to be more active in selling papers and books, and to send the money back promptly. At present the London centre effectively subsidises branches. Comrade Mc Shane urged sellers of the Weekly Worker to be more assiduous about ensuring that cash from sales found its way back to the paper and was not diverted to other party work. Comrade Manson agreed, stressing that the price increase from 50p to £1 had not reduced circulation. Readers appreciate the paper and many will respond positively to a personal approach. Even those who disagree with us appreciate our willingness to publish critical and hostile viewpoints.
A couple of comrades who recently joined the CPGB from the SWP spoke about the energetic and successful approach the SWP has to paper-selling and fundraising, and encouraged comrades to learn from it. In reply, comrade Fischer agreed we can learn from SWP tactics, although we would not want our comrades to become paper-selling automatons. As a contribution to the financial appeal, the RDG was asked to double its standing order to the Weekly Worker. Ireland debate In the final hour of the aggregate, our debate on Ireland continued. The documents presented by Jack Conrad and Mike Macnair to the September 25 aggregate were discussed (see Weekly Worker September 29 for text). Comrades Macnair and Conrad have agreed three amendments to the Conrad draft theses, representing a convergence of their positions, although they do not completely agree about the question of the British-Irish. Comrade Conrad described the theses as a challenge to communists in Britain and Ireland to develop their theory to deal with the new phase of Irish history initiated by the Good Friday agreement. He was pleased by the quality of response in the pages of the Weekly Worker, particularly from comrade Liam O Ruairc. Comrade Conrad spoke about the two agreed amendments, which mentioned the attitude to Ireland of other left groups and also set our position in the context of the European Union. Ireland is part of the EU, but is still suffering from British oppression, the comrade explained.
Anne Mc Shane said she is ever more convinced that the British-Irish perceive themselves as a separate people from the rest of the Irish population. But she still disagrees with the formulation in the draft theses of "a one-county, four half-county British-Irish province" as too specific. She proposed an amendment to comrade Conrad's thesis 19, replacing the first sentence with: "We stand for a united Ireland within which the British-Irish can exercise self-determination in a separate area where they form a clear majority." She said the insertion of the word "can" would make it clearer that there is no obligation to take up the option of forming a separate province. No votes were taken on any of the theses or amendments, which remain on the table for discussion by a future aggregate.