'Reformism from above'?

Anne Mc Shane compares Respect's election materials to Socialist Worker's 'What the Socialist Workers Party stands for' column

"The present system cannot be patched up or reformed "¦ it has to be overthrown. There is no parliamentary road. The structures of the present parliament, army, police and judiciary cannot be taken over and used by the working class "¦ At most parliamentary activity can be used to make propaganda against the present system" ('What the Socialist Workers Party stands for' Socialist Worker).

Clearly the yawning gap between the SWP's theory and its practice must be closed at some point. The organisation's practice - the real politics it is presenting to millions of working class electors - bluntly contradicts its literary loyalty to revolutionary politics.

This is nowhere more obvious than in the Respect 'heartlands' of east London. "Lets take our town hall back!" blares the banner headline of the Tower Hamlets election broadsheet.  Our town hall? Since when has Tower Hamlets council ever been controlled by the working class? Never. So, if not the working class, for whom is this part of the local state bureaucracy to be reclaimed? Inside we are told that Respect will introduce policies to put east-enders first, rather than big business. Elsewhere this populist appeal is simply to "voters", who George Galloway tells us are not stupid and therefore can be expected to vote for Respect.

These same "voters" are informed that a Respect council will fundamentally change their quality of life - and all they have to do is deliver a vote on May 4, then sit back and wait for the Galloway team to deliver. It will "dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions in its first term, aiming for a 60% reduction in emissions by 2030". It will end council housing privatisation, build more houses, create new school places, regenerate the borough's rundown parts and attract more small businesses into the area.

As Tony Cliff (a comrade not unknown to SWPers) once put it, "For a very long time in British history the prevailing ideology in the British working class was that of parliamentary reformism. This old-style reformism had one central feature of particular importance to socialists. As an ideology it told workers, 'Leave it to your leaders - your MPs and your trade union chiefs - to win reforms for you'. This was, in other words, 'reformism from above' "¦" (Tony Cliff In the thick of workers' struggle, selected writings, Vol 1, London 2002, pp101-2).

To win all these reforms on behalf of workers, the Tower Hamlets broadsheet assures readers: "Respect will work constructively with any party on measures that will improve the lives of local people." Maybe a hung council could see a Respect coalition with Labour, Liberal Democrats and even Tories?

In Newham the propaganda is much the same tired mixture of localism and reformism, with similar flatulent promises about the idyll that life will constitute under a Respect-controlled council.

We are assured that "Respect works for the whole community". It is the only opposition party worth voting for because it is the only one challenging Labour in all of the wards: "The Tories and Lib Dems do not have the people to stand and will be only fielding a tiny number of candidates." A vote for them is therefore a "wasted vote", as they have no hope of being elected. No differences of principles there - just make your vote count!

Much is made of Respect's opposition to the destruction of Queens Market, which the council plans to bulldoze to make room for luxury housing. But the Tories have also jumped on this bandwagon along with the other opposition parties and are standing candidates in four wards under the title 'Conservatives Support Queens Market'. Again, no qualitative differences there. (Unless Respect really, really means it, of course - see www.friendsofqueensmarket.org.uk).

With the partial exception of the Iraq war and occupation, it is hard to spot the differences between Respect and other parties on the strength of the political material that has been put out so far. Like the Liberal Democrats, Respect complains about corruption and large payouts to councillors but, tellingly, there are no pledges to limit expenses and payments. As readers will know, at the Respect conference the motion calling for all elected members to take home no more than the average wage of a skilled worker was defeated - thanks in good measure to the SWP bloc vote. Indeed Galloway and Yvonne Ridley have both talked of wanting a fivefold pay increase on any MP's salary!

Respect promises to end corruption - but proposes no effective measures through which elected representatives can been held to account. There is no talk of opening the books, let alone measures to establish an alternative and truly democratic way of running society as a whole. So any Respect councillors will be subject to no real democratic transparency or control, either by the local electorate or the political organisation they stood for - but they won't be corrupt, they promise; and they won't close any schools or community centres.

Frankly, this is the sort of vacuous fare that we expect from all mainstream politicians come election time. Seriously, what party stands in an election promising to cut and swindle?

The antiquated Socialist Worker 'what we stand for' column tells us that we can only use elections to make propaganda for socialism - a narrow position, frankly, but nevertheless a statement that expresses some sort of revolutionary impulse. Of course, in keeping with the SWP's role as born-again reformists, it is no surprise to find no mention of the 'S' word in any of the Tower Hamlets and Newham election material. The appeal is to a classless east end, to voters in general and not the working class. There is not even a fleeting reference to class interests; just promises from above.

While Respect in Tower Hamlets and Newham enters the battle with a puffed up conviction that victory is within their grasp, things are a tad more modest elsewhere.

In Hackney, Respect is standing SWP member Dean Ryan for mayor. Another eight candidates contest in four wards - out of which at least six are SWP members. No ambition to win the council here. At the last members' meeting we were told that comrade Ryan's campaign was a purely propaganda one - although the quality of the propaganda remains highly dubious from a socialist point of view. In reality, Respect will be extraordinarily lucky to win even a single seat in Hackney.

Enthusiasm is certainly lacking when it comes to campaigning. This previously strong area for the Socialist Alliance has lost out in the leadership's priorities. SWP comrades complain about the lack of help they are getting, with supporters and members being pushed further east - including many active Hackney SWP members. They have become the poor relation.

There are also nuanced differences in the literature being distributed. While their comrades in Tower Hamlets promise more community policing and "humane and prosperous" boroughs, SWPers in Hackney promote grassroots campaigns and opposition to closures. They will "stand up to big business" and defend asylum-seekers.

Interestingly there is no reference at all to asylum-seekers in the Tower Hamlets literature. Nor is the issue mentioned in the 'Respect east end charter' posted on its website on April 18 (www.respectcoalition.org). Is this seen as a vote-loser?  Another inconvenient policy dropped because of unpopularity on the doorstep?

Hackney Respect also has a markedly different attitude to the other parties. The most recent leaflet tells us that "We cannot expect the major parties to protect our interests", as they are all funded by millionaires.  And in the leaflet for Cazenove ward the candidates (both SWP) are asking for votes on the basis that they "have shown they are willing to challenge the establishment".

Being anti-establishment is something that some other Respect candidates elsewhere cannot be accused of. Councillor Abdul Karim Sheikh BEM came over to Respect from Labour in Newham recently. The British Empire Medal is an award given by the queen for community services of one sort or another. I could not locate when and for what services this was awarded, but it is a title that Mr Karim wears with pride, as it is listed after his name on all occasions - except on Respect leaflets actually.

The same councillor was secretary of the Alliance of Muslim Associations, president of Newham North Muslim Association and he was clearly viewed as a trusted figure by the local Labour apparatus, judging from the large number of council committees and forums for regeneration he was active on. It would be interesting to know why he left Labour for Respect, but I doubt that Respect's 'anti-establishment' credentials figured prominently.

Another is Shamim Choudhury, who stood for the Conservatives in the St Dunstan's and Stepney Green ward in the Tower Hamlets May 2002 election, and received 566 votes. Choudhury is standing for Respect in the Shadwell ward in May. Again it would be interesting to know the reasons for the switch.

There are clearly tensions within Respect as this election draws closer. In Tower Hamlets and Newham, where the best chances of a breakthrough exist, anti-establishment posturing is surplus to requirements. What is needed are candidates with connections, people who can plug into the "networks" the SWP's internal bulletin, Party notes, spoke of back in 2005: "the networks that exist in every working class community - trade unions, community groups, churches, mosques, etc" (Party notes May 23 2005). People who can pull the strings to mobilise a particular ethnic or religious vote, perhaps.