Respect after George Galloway's celebrity bid

What will happen to Respect when George Galloway "retires from politics" in order to "speak, write, read, relax, love"? Ian Mahoney reports

George Galloway has now made it plain that Respect does not feature in his stated plans. As we have reported previously, he does not intend to contest the next general election and even now "his political career, he asserts, is no longer his priority", according to the Daily Express's 'Day & night' column (February 14).

The Socialist Workers Party's John Rees has made rather plaintive noises in the recent past, desperately raising doubts about Galloway's stated intention to exit electoral politics: "That's not the construction I would have put on his remarks, unless in the atmosphere of the Big brother house he has come to a different conclusion" (The Guardian January 27). In fact, Galloway appears implacable: "I've fought and won five elections and I'm not fighting any more," he stated unequivocally. "Respect is a household name and that's enough for me. If someone came in here now and said 'Time' and handed me my notice, I would go away and do other things," he added (All Galloway quotes from Daily Express February 14 unless otherwise stated).

And what type of "other things" does the comrade have in mind? "To speak, write, read, relax, love. I've been in politics since I was 13 years old. I'm 51. I have a daughter and grandchildren, books I've been meaning to read and write, programmes I've been wanting to watch and make "¦ I'm discussing a lot of possibilities at the moment - including presenting programmes and making documentaries about politics and life."

If Galloway does indeed disappear over the horizon in pursuit of a media career, where will this leave Respect? Whatever the man's eccentricities, he undoubtedly represented some form of organic link to Labourism, to the politics of the mainstream of the contemporary workers' movement. Without him, Respect will be seen even more for what it is: an SWP front, albeit one in which the 'revolutionary Marxists' subordinate themselves programmatically to the conservatism of a tiny handful of "muslim activists".

How long such a monstrosity will last is debatable. Fault lines began to creak last week in the Tower Hamlets meeting convened to rubber-stamp a pre-selected 'take it or leave it' slate of Respect candidates to fight the local elections in May. Things almost went pear-shaped for the SWP control-freaks, however, when SWP leader John Rees was the subject of strong objections from a sizeable bloc of Bengali members present.

The key point here is that this uncomfortable 'ethnic' spat over divvying up council wards is the product of the opportunist approach the SWP has had to sections of the muslim population. With the imminent prospect of the political disengagement of Galloway from the project, these local elections very much assume an air of 'make or break' for Respect.

The SWP's internal bulletin, Party Notes, said last year that, "If we are serious about building our base in east London and Birmingham and breaking into new areas, then the campaign starts now "¦ we have to start systematically campaigning in these areas, "¦ take up local campaigns and win the trust of people in these communities." Key to the fight to "win the trust" of these people is plugging into "the networks that exist in every working class community - trade unions, community groups, churches, mosques, etc "¦ A good Respect campaign is also about motivating these people to see Respect as their own and to help build it and make it a success" (Party Notes May 23 2005).

The question we have repeatedly posed is - what type of "networks" is the SWP-Respect party relating to and how? Effectively, its orientation has been tailored to make its politics resonate with some of the most conservative elements of this population. With 20% of the vote across Newham in the general election, there is a chance that Respect will indeed win councillors - the anticipated Big brother backlash notwithstanding. But what sort of politics will they articulate? How will Respect reconcile what are essentially not just different views on important political questions, but different class interests? And how on earth will Respect be able to exert any control over these forces when the principle of the accountability of elected representatives has already been so cravenly abandoned as one of the many concessions to George Galloway? And we all know where that ended up.

In many ways, the May 2005 post-election meeting in Newham epitomised the problem. Plenty of new faces had turned up, keen to associate themselves with what seemed to be a viable electoral project with some forward momentum. Many expressed interest in putting themselves forward as councillors for Respect. The majority of them middle-aged muslim men (all wearing prayer caps and often small businessmen).

The general impression many give is of seeing themselves as the new generation of 'community leaders'. They want, via Respect, to replace the older generation of (Labour Party) 'community leaders' and councillors - although, judging from some of their political comments, there are clearly problems. They moan about lack of support from the council for single-sex education and for small traders. They also make general anti-crime and anti-prostitution noises and complain about litter.

Galloway was an important unifying element in Respect - at least, until his BB sojourn. As he fades from the scene, the danger presents itself of the organisation he helped found - the "mother ship", as he has vividly described it - doing a 'Challenger'. That is, spectacularly exploding and going down in flames.

That or the even worse scenario of what remains of the SWP's formal commitment to 'Marxism' being swamped and corrupted by profoundly alien brands of politics. After all, its leadership seems to have been eminently susceptible to the allure of electoral success - and they have sold themselves cheap so far.

One proxy MP and a handful of councillors was all it took to get them shedding principles like autumn leaves.