Losing the plot

The latest meeting of Respect Hackney underlined the profound crisis of the comrades in the Socialist Workers Party over their role in Respect - they either ignore oppositional voices or they shout them down. Tina Becker reports

Around 30 people attended the Hackney Respect meeting on December 7. An overwhelming majority were - as usual - members of the Socialist Workers Party. But this time their level of aggressiveness was markedly increased. Perhaps they no longer feel the need to pretend to be building a pluralist organisation. It had been announced that the meeting would feature a discussion on American civil rights activist Rosa Parks, as well as the May local elections. A request from members of the CPGB to also use the meeting to report back from the November 19-20 Respect conference, which we sent via email a number of days beforehand, was first ignored and later ridiculed. Obviously, SWP members had already been told what to think of the conference. Any non-affiliated, 'normal' person attending would have been thoroughly put off and alienated by the comrades' behaviour - but then there weren't any. The opening by Donna Guthrie was a workmanlike introduction to the life of Rosa Parks. She was not properly introduced by the chair (presumably because most people in the room know her as a longstanding SWP comrade), but thanks to Google we know that she used to be involved in the SWP's Anti-Nazi League - now dissolved into the more mainstream Unite Against Fascism, for which she works full-time. Comrade Guthrie quite rightly emphasised Rosa Parks' leftwing credentials in order to reclaim her for our own movement. She pointed out that comrade Parks was not just a "tired old woman who was too knackered to give up her seat on a bus", which was the story her daughter was taught at school. "If you know the real history of Rosa Parks you can see how outrageous it is for pro-war hacks like Condoleezza Rice to try and present Rosa as one of theirs. She belongs firmly to our movement." Pete Gillard (SWP) reminded the meeting that only a few months before her brave refusal to give up her seat for a white man, comrade Parks had attended a two-week seminar at the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee, which was set up and run by the Communist Party of the USA. She later described how the training had helped her to understand that in order to win civil rights for black people, they had to unite with their white brothers and sisters and also fight for the civil rights of white people. Anne Mc Shane of the CPGB pointed out that the story of Rosa Parks showed how the limited democracy we enjoy today "has been won from below and was not handed to us from above". Therefore, it was to be welcomed that Respect conference had adopted a self-critical motion which highlighted the absence of gay, lesbian and transgender rights in Respect's manifesto for the 2005 general election. This led to the first SWP sneers, but this was nothing compared to the reaction we got later on. The contribution of SWP member Julie Waterson was a little more extravagant, to put it mildly. The former ANL leader claimed that the situation for black people today "is a lot worse than it was in the 1960s, in the USA as well as in Britain". In her opinion, black people today have greater trouble getting jobs than they did 40 years ago: "The only people who have not been given their jobs back after the Gate Gourmet strike are the black trade union leaders." Comrade Waterson seems to have overlooked the fact that unemployment has doubled, doubled and doubled again. So everyone has more trouble getting a job. What of Gate Gourmet? The vast majority of those on strike also were black and did get their jobs back, albeit with worse conditions. The union officers were sacked because of their role as militant 'troublemakers', not because of the colour of their skin. Racism still exists, but it is self-denuding to pretend that the nature of bourgeois ideology never changes - or to ignore the existence of official anti-racism. In the second part of the meeting, Respect secretary and SWP member Mike Simons explained how "the election strategy adopted at Respect conference" would be acted upon locally at the council elections in May 2006. "We can get three or four councillors elected in Hackney," he said, and there should be no more than 10 or 12 local candidates. This was the line laid down at the conference by George Galloway and John Rees: concentrate resources in seats where we can win, rather than standing in as many wards as possible in order to spread Respect's message to the maximum number of people. For Respect in its current form, this is also a question of survival. SWP leaders need to get a number of local councillors elected in order to prove - mainly to their own comrades - that Respect is successful. They need to show that all the programmatic sacrifices have been worth it; that SWP members were right to vote against immigration controls, play down a woman's right to choose an abortion, and to drop gay rights. Apart from George Galloway's election to parliament, however, Respect has so far not exactly been a runaway success story; and even this had more to do with the man himself than the organisation he represents. The official membership figure stands at around 3,500 - far from a mass organisation, especially as in reality even this figure seems to be rather inflated, judging by the turnout at local and national meetings. No trade unions have affiliated to Respect, nor has the organisation any roots in wider society. It is currently only successful in areas with a large muslim population. Even that could change quickly. With the slow recovery of the Tory Party it is possible that many muslim leaders, even in Tower Hamlets and Newham, will choose once again to back the Labour Party. Clearly, not a few in the SWP are acutely aware of Respect's shortcomings. Winning a significant number of councillors is therefore crucial to SWP leaders, in order to help continue to put off any open rebellion within the membership. But in all likelihood such a success will turn out to be a double-edged sword. There are no democratic mechanisms in place to exercise control over the actions of councillors. The SWP majority voted down a CPGB motion at Respect conference that tried to ensure that representatives would be accountable to the whole organisation. Councillors with an SWP membership card will undoubtedly be acting under its discipline (most of the time, at least), but what about those from a non-working class background? Without any democratic control and accountability, they could end up voting for all sorts of policies, which will only increase the tensions within the SWP over its whole approach to the Respect popular front. And tense the comrades are - evidently so at the Hackney meeting. Anne Mc Shane criticised the fact that we had no report-back from the conference - after all, at two pre-conference meetings, comrades in Hackney had discussed motions and amendments. She also suggested that the local executive should publish minutes or at least reports that, for example, could inform the membership of the decisions taken at conference. Her suggestions were met with almost hysterical hostility. Comrade Mark Thomas said that "it would be nice to have a chat about such issues", but "everybody who is serious about Respect" knows that "what now matters is the local elections" and that we should not waste our time talking about the Respect conference or democratic procedures. This was echoed by Dean Ryan, an SWP member who has stood for Respect in a number of local elections: "Most normal people do not want to be part of local committees or read and circulate minutes," he said. "Some people really make me laugh. They talk about democracy all the time, but when it really matters they are not there. Where are you when we are distributing leaflets and organising stalls?" he asked. If the comrade was truthful, of course, he would have to admit that most of these consist of the weekly SWP paper sale, supplemented with the odd leaflet from Respect. When CPGB comrades volunteered a few weeks back to help with a stall, it turned out the local organiser had no Respect material at all - the comrades are not in the habit of organising any Respect stalls locally. And even if we had done nothing else but run Respect stalls and distribute leaflets, the comrades would still sneer at the CPGB. It is after all the Weekly Worker that reminds them every week of their opportunist trajectory. Gareth Jenkins, a longstanding SWP middle cadre, also found it hard to suppress his anti-CPGB sentiment: "Respect is not a propaganda exercise and this is not the time for a tiny section to slag off the majority." Especially if criticism is "coming from those people for whom islam is the main enemy". With my curiosity awakened, I interrupted the comrade, asking who he could mean. "Well, you've replied, so you're in the frame now, aren't you?" he snarled, cheered on by Julie Waterson, clapping and whooping. Attempting to discredit the opposition with invented claims, however absurd, is an integral and important part of this sect's DNA. The steeper the decline, the more ridiculous the lies it has to make up. It got worse. Towards the end of the meeting, one SWP member explained excitedly that Respect would be running a stall on behalf of Make Poverty History the following Saturday and asked for volunteers. Dean Ryan, all fired up by his previous attack on the CPGB, shouted out, to the laughter of his comrades: "So Anne, where are you going to be this Saturday?" "I'm at the Peace Conference. Where are you?" she replied. This provoked the increasingly irate Julie Waterson to tell us loudly to "shut up". Amusingly, it turned out that comrade Ryan would be at neither event, as he admitted that he was having to "sort some stuff out". Clearly, this is not the behaviour of an organisation that is confident about its current trajectory. Even a member of the International Socialist Group found it all rather hard to swallow and confessed to us afterwards that "they are really out of order at the moment". And that's saying something.