Spin, deception and eclecticism
If there was ever any doubt, Respect's third annual conference, held over the weekend of October 14-15, confirmed that the organisation is now indisputably a Socialist Worker Party front, writes Peter Manson. Despite efforts to prove the opposite, Respect is visibly shrinking
The outbreak of islamophobia sparked by Jack Straw's comments on the niqab definitely had its positive side from an SWP point of view. It provided the conference with a much needed cohering theme, enabling the comrades to constantly stress their commonality with their mainly east London muslim allies. In fact it was decided to give over an entire session of conference to a rally on the question (see 'For the right to choose' in this issue).
The conference, held in London's Friends Meeting House, was notable for the large numbers of empty seats throughout. The main hall holds around 500 people, but, apart from during the anti-islamophobia rally, it was never more than half full.
Nevertheless the SWP had made up its mind that the conference would show Respect as a dynamic, expanding organisation enjoying tremendous success and anticipating future breakthroughs in terms of recruitment and influence. The problem was that official membership figures show a big decline of almost 1,000.
Spin and deception
In order to get round this inconvenient fact the SWP and Respect's main figurehead, George Galloway, adopted that tried and trusted method of the hardened politician - spin and deception to fool the membership and anyone else that might take notice.
Comrade Galloway modestly described his own election as MP for Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 as a "political earthquake" and said that no "leftwing party in the entire history of this country" had ever before elected 18 councillors. He went on to report that between six and 10 councillors from a "northern working class city" are about to come over to Respect.
So far, so good. But then the hype went into overdrive. Respect, said comrade Galloway, is not only the "fastest growing party" in Britain - it is "probably the only organisation that's growing". In fact, as the national council annual report states, official membership is down from 3,040 a year ago to 2,160 today. But this information was suppressed in the version of the report given to delegates, which seemed to imply that the exact figure was not known. Instead, "The most restrictive criteria on which we can judge the membership of the organisation is the number of delegates at conference, based on one delegate per 10 members. The total attendance at conference last year was 362. At the time of writing, 416 delegates and observers have already registered "¦"
This was loyally repeated by Socialist Worker's post-conference report: "The number of delegates and observers was up on last year" (October 21). Note that the two categories are merged together to further disguise the true state of play. But in fact even this statement is untrue. The total attending was clearly well down on 2005 - I counted just over 200 delegates on the Saturday, down to 150 or so on the Sunday. In addition there were around 50 observers on the Saturday morning (perhaps there were twice that number who attended for some part of the weekend). Every delegate I asked told me their branch entitlement had fallen compared to last year - some quite considerably - and the last 12 months has certainly not seen the creation of any number of new branches.
In addition to suppressing the membership figures, Galloway played up the numbers who had joined Student Respect. In his opening remarks he gave a figure of 10,000 new recruits, who he said had joined the party. But, of course, filling in a form expressing interest in a Respect student society is hardly the same as signing up as a paid up member of the party.
However, this figure was 'corrected' the following day by SWP and national council member Nick Wrack, who put the number of Student Respect adherents at 2,000. By this time the lying over overall membership had been well and truly exposed - first by the CPGB's Dave Isaacson and then by the International Socialist Group's Alan Thornett. In response to what they said comrade Wrack stated, rather cryptically, that the true figure was actually much higher than the official 2,160 (presumably that was why the SWP and Galloway thought it best not to report it) - the "2,000 students who have joined" are not reflected in the national figures because they "don't pay by standing order". What? People who pay by cheque are not counted as members? The truth is, they are not reflected in the national figures because they are not members at all.
In its October 14 press release, headed 'Third annual Respect conference silences the doubters', the national office stated that there were "hundreds of delegates" attending. It reported comrade Galloway's claim that "a staggering 10,000 students had joined Respect over the last few weeks". A couple of days later this was amended to: "many thousands of students had joined Respect over the last few weeks".
All this spin is actually counterproductive, as it risks allowing Respect's actual gains to be dismissed along with the hype. For example, Respect has high hopes of being able to win control of individual student unions and even the National Union of Students itself. This is certainly not a fantasy. The vacuum created by the dire state of the left means that any reasonably sized grouping should be able to make inroads into these currently sleepy and inactive student organisations. And it does look as though Student Respect will have much more appeal than the Socialist Worker Student Organisation.
Faced with an inability to recruit meaningfully, the SWP had had no alternative but to look increasingly to its own forces. This was demonstrated by the elections to the 50-strong national council, which saw a further increase in the SWP contingent.
The outgoing NC proposed a 46-person slate and, since no other slate was proposed, they were all returned unopposed. The remaining four places were filled by newcomers from among the individual nominations and three of them - Helen Salmon, Jerry Hicks and Clare Solomon - are SWP members, taking the overall number of SWPers on the NC up to 22 by my calculation. There are also around half a dozen very close supporters.
The four successful candidates were announced by Elaine Graham Leigh from the conference arrangements committee, but she refused the request from Nick Wrack to provide conference with voting figures, as these would be "unnecessarily embarrassing", she said.
There is a good deal of dissatisfaction with the 'take it or leave it' slate system, which has the effect of perpetuating the existing NC. This year it was not considered necessary to supply conference with biographical details of the candidates - although, of course, apart from the 10 individuals who were not part of the slate, such information cannot affect anything at all: the 46 had already been declared elected.
There was actually a request from the floor for written information on the candidates. Although Elaine Graham Leigh said that would not be fair unless everyone supplied personal details, Linda Smith, from the chair, asked for "20 words" from each candidate. Some provided this mini-biography.
Labour and Respect
As expected, the two CPGB motions got very different responses. Dave Isaacson got a lukewarm welcome from conference for our call to "work with, aid and build" the John McDonnell campaign for the Labour Party leadership. Comrade Isaacson noted that comrade McDonnell's positions were not without their shortcomings - for example, the Labour Party was never socialist and so it cannot be 'reclaimed' in any real sense. Nevertheless, we should support his campaign critically and try to strengthen his platform.
The motion was opposed by Jim Rogers, who had been a Labour councillor for 20 years. He said we should do nothing to revitalise this "rotten, corrupt party" and if John McDonnell wants support he has a simple remedy - "cross the floor and join Respect". This won loud applause - although comrades Rees and Galloway kept their hands on the table. Earlier John Rees had been cheered by a large section just for mentioning the Fire Brigades Union's disaffiliation from Labour.
It fell to Lindsey German to lay down the line to the assembled SWPers, the majority of whom, if left to their own devices, would in all likelihood have voted down this motion. She said that delegates should not "worry too much about the people who had put their name" to the motion, noting disdainfully that "only one of them appears to be a delegate here". Its sentiment was "absolutely right" - even if comrade McDonnell managed to get his name on the ballot paper it would be a blow against Blair, she said. This did the trick and the motion was clearly passed - although about 20 voted against and around the same number abstained.
These figures give some idea of the number of delegates not aligned to the SWP or ISG. The instincts of most of these 'independents' (like many of the SWP rank and file) would be not to touch Labour with a bargepole. However, when it comes to what kind of party they think Respect should be, most of them are pretty much in agreement with SWP - it should be 'old Labour' reincarnated.
The position of SWP leader John Rees was made clear by his reaction to the speeches of the international guests - he nodded and clapped throughout their reformist contributions. Francisco Manna of Rifondazione Comunista noted that, while the centre-left L'Unione governing coalition (of which Rifondazione is a part) is "full of contradictions", it has started "pulling troops out of Iraq" and "increased taxes on the rich" - and, of course, it is much better than Berlusconi.
The Linkspartei.PDS speaker, for his part, said that the L.PDS aim of "a future democratic socialist society" did not prevent it "changing things now" by participation in government. The guest from the Danish Red-Green Alliance also talked about "fighting the bosses' attacks today", while "building a socialist society tomorrow".
No wonder comrade Rees approves. A new reformist party - a Labour Party mark two - is exactly what he intends Respect to become. In his main speech he said that Respect "will never be an alternative to Labour until it makes inroads into the trade unions" - crucially through affiliation. That was why the forthcoming November 11 'Organising for fighting unions' conference was of "absolutely central importance" - it would give Respect the opportunity of discussing with people who "don't yet agree with us".
There was a rather different response from the SWP leadership to our motion on accountability. In moving it comrade Isaacson began by referring to the "democratic deficit" noted by Respect in its founding statement - most Labour MPs simply ignored the views of their own voters and sometimes went back on their word and ended up voting for Blair's war on Iraq.
But elected representatives must be accountable to their own party too. That meant members must have the right to know the truth. Yet Galloway talked about Respect being the fastest growing party in Britain, while in fact it has lost almost a third of its members over the last year.
Furthermore, "Respect representatives must be Respect representatives," said comrade Isaacson. So when comrade Galloway put his name to an early day motion calling for abortion rights to be further restricted, did he discuss this first with the NC, or did he just go ahead and act contrary to Respect policy without consultation?
Galloway was by this time looking rather ashen-faced, but for some reason he did not return to the microphone again. It was Monica Axson who spoke against the motion for the SWP. Her speech was so inane, it is worth reproducing at length. We should be "looking outwards", she said, instead of putting forward such motions. However, comrade Axson herself then proceeded to 'look inwards', for she informed us: "I agree with accountability." But this motion was a "personal attack on our leadership" rather than a proposal to implement "substantive points". By contrast she is "always proud when I see any of our representatives speaking in public".
Clearly the call for the publication of minutes, monthly reports by elected reps and their answerability to relevant committees was not at all "substantive" - in fact these points were so 'insubstantive' that the NC decided to delete them all via its amendment. And what was "personal" about the criticism of Galloway? Comrade Isaacson was giving an example of the apparent lack of accountability that the SWP says it upholds - an example, by the way, that nobody attempted to refute.
Did we realise, continued comrade Axson, that there were only two people working on their own in the national office, and they were doing a "tremendous job"? Minutes take up "huge amounts of time" and, besides, people need to have open and honest discussions and they would feel constrained if they knew their words were being recorded: publicising minutes "all over the internet" would lead to divisions.
"Don't tie up NC members and our branches in this bureaucratic nightmare," pleaded comrade Axson in conclusion. Instead we should be dealing with the "outside world" and talking about defending the NHS - "that's what I joined Respect for".
While she was opposed to all minute-taking in principle, it seems, Chris Bambery, who moved the NC amendment, took a rather different tack. We should minute only decisions, not the whole discussion of a committee, he said. Comrade Bambery might be surprised to hear that in general we agree - although it is important that major differences, properly articulated, are brought out into the open before the membership.
Comrade Bambery drew conference's attention to the "difficulties around Big brother" - the organisation might have torn itself apart because of the "different opinions", but, because the NC was able to have "open, frank and fraternal meetings", agreement was reached and Respect has continued to "march forward" as a result. But "we could have committed suicide by releasing the minutes" of those discussions. He confessed that at many meetings he personally makes "silly, stupid remarks" which he does not want "thrown back at me in years to come".
Unlike comrade Axson, who thought the CPGB was being "personal", Bambery said we were too "coy" in not naming individuals in our motion. He thought there were two alternatives: either "look at your representatives as though they are constantly selling out"; or "be proud" of them. Let's not have "Maoist self-criticism sessions", he concluded. Leaving Mao out of it, wasn't it Lenin who said the party should work on the basis of "organised mistrust" of its leaders, including himself?
Another SWPer, Tony Dowling, complained that comrade Isaacson had twice mentioned the name of "another organisation" (the CPGB) when his first loyalty should be to Respect - unlike Dowling's own comrades, of course, who never put the interest of the SWP before the front they are operating in, do they? The SWP comrades never mention their own affiliation, hoping to give the impression that they are simply like-minded individuals who just happen to vote the same way on every issue.
For her part, Maxine Bowler complained that three of the CPGB's signatories - members of Sheffield Respect - had "never picked up a single leaflet" in support of election campaigns when she was the candidate.
But Ghada Razuki's comments were perhaps the most pathetic of all. "Don't come and moan when there's so much to do," she said. "Let's get this conversation over and done with" and talk about "things that really matter to people, like rubbish on the streets and parking".
As with last year, the International Socialist Group attempted to persuade conference to tiptoe gently forward in the direction of a party - not that it had any hope of getting its proposals through, of course, in view of the SWP's controlling block vote. It put forward an extremely tentative proposal to "reopen a discussion" on the production of a regular Respect paper, which won support from between a quarter and a third of delegates.
The ISG had not got its act together sufficiently to propose this as a motion before the deadline and so had to resort to an amendment. As the ISG's John Lister explained at the Respect Party platform fringe meeting on the Saturday evening, the NC had not tabled any kind of motion on building Respect and nor had anyone else, so the ISG had had to resort to an amendment (in the name of Oxford branch) to a motion on trade unions and workers' rights.
The SWP's Simon Hester leapt on this - "We're supposed to be talking about building the unions" - implying that the ISG comrades were a bunch of time-wasters. He said they were somehow "disingenuous" for proposing merely to "reopen a discussion" on a paper rather than openly calling on Respect to launch one. Comrade Hester said that in Tottenham his branch had put out thousands of leaflets, broadsheets and postcards, but "Nothing John said convinced me that a national paper would have helped". In fact it would have diverted "huge resources" and put an extra burden on the national office.
It is really strange that single-issue fronts such as Defend Council Housing manage to find the human and financial resources to produce an occasional paper and, of course, the SWP would not dream of suggesting that Socialist Worker is anything less than essential reading. But, when it comes to Respect, a regular publication is regarded as an unnecessary duplication of effort and a distraction.
Apart from its unsuccessful proposal for a regular paper, the ISG put forward a constitutional amendment, which sought to transform the NC from a body elected by annual conference to a delegate-based sovereign assembly meeting at least three times a year - the equivalent of "three conferences every year", according to a horrified SWP. In addition to the NC, the ISG proposal called for a 30-strong executive, to be elected by annual conference by single transferable vote.
The problem with such two-tier structures is that there is a certain ambiguity over which body has precedence. While the NC would be superior in theory, in practice the EC would control day-to-day organisation and could lay claim to the authority that comes with annual conference elections.
But the SWP was not concerned with such niceties. John Rees, in a typically philistine response, had already introduced the session by declaring that changing the constitution won't help Respect gain support. Instead we should be "concentrating minds" - on the trade union conference, on islamophobia, on the 'war on terror'.
Elaine Graham Leigh, who seems to be moving closer and closer to the SWP, was more specific. STV would mean people "campaigning internally instead of externally", she claimed. If this was not enough, to the dismay of the ISG, she went on to label the constitutional amendment "a disgrace - it's a sign the party has lost its way".
In a sense the ISG deserved it. Its proposals had little to do with providing Respect with a more effective and democratic structure. Rather they were aimed at sneaking a couple more ISGers onto the leadership thanks to STV and considerably increasing its representation on a delegate-based NC. And, of course, the ISG will not lift a finger to change what really matters - the dire, left populist politics of Respect.
Not in front of the children
Graham Leigh's taunt was bad enough, but what really got the goat of comrade Thornett was the remarks of the SWP's Chris Bambery on Scotland.
A motion from North Manchester calling for Respect to develop a "positive, fraternal relationship" with Tommy Sheridan's Solidarity had been unexpectedly dropped when the SWP speaker invited conference to remit it. "On reflection," he had said, Solidarity is "not yet up and running" and it would be better to revisit the question next year.
This was all very puzzling until Alan Thornett let the cat out of the bag following Bambery's intervention. In response to the CPGB motion on accountability, which included a call for the publication of minutes, comrade Bambery warned of the dangers of revealing too much. In the Scottish Socialist Party Tommy Sheridan had been summoned to a meeting, said Bambery, where he was disgracefully subjected to a three-hour interrogation and the whole discussion, not simply the decisions, were minuted, he said. This led to the SSP leadership betraying their principles by giving evidence on behalf of the News of the World.
Comrade Thornett said in reply that he was now forced to change his speech - he was supposed to be speaking to the ISG's constitutional amendment. He revealed that there had been a deal struck not to discuss Scotland (which is why the motion on Solidarity had been remitted), yet here was comrade Bambery reneging on the agreement by accusing the ISG's allies in the SSP of betrayal.
This says a lot about the dismal method of Thornett's group. The comrades will go on about accountability when it suits them, but here they were conniving with the SWP to keep this important discussion off conference floor. The SSP-Solidarity split clearly provides us with an opportunity to learn lessons, but, rather than attempt to come to grips with them, the ISG wanted conference to pass over the question in silence.
All this took place on the second day of conference. The Saturday had been altogether more dull, with a number of routine and largely uncontentious matters discussed.
In the debate on islamophobia two completely contrasting speeches stood out from among the consensual dross. On the one hand there was Stephen Saxby, an Anglican priest from Forest Gate, who informed conference that, while the media were rushing to pronounce those arrested in the June raid guilty of terrorism, Respect had called for "due legal process". Fortunately, he said, the "community", including the council and the police, had already "come together" and were able to make a stand against scapegoating. People should realise that the terrorists had no connection with the mosque and that parents were "doing their best to raise their children as good muslims integrated into the community".
The contribution from Michael Lavalette, SWP member and Respect councillor in Preston, could not have been more different. In a fighting and inspiring speech he reported that before Straw's niqab provocation a gang of youths had been attacking one of the city centre mosques in Preston and Respect had successfully mobilised a patrol to defend it every evening (strangely, however, the gang of youths was both "mixed race" and "racist" at one and the same time, according to the comrade).
Lavalette went on to recount how, in Preston as elsewhere, individual chauvinists had attempted to impose their own petty restrictions on women wearing the niqab after Straw's remarks. Comrade Lavalette told conference how a local post office had suddenly informed a fully veiled woman who had been using it for 15 years that 'for security reasons' people covering their faces could not be served. Respect had organised a picket to have this vindictive decision reversed.
Come fly with me
The session on the environment was notable for two things in particular. First there was Jonathan Neale's bizarre speech: "I don't want you to go home and be hysterical about the climate change demonstration, because if you're hysterical you won't [organise a contingent]." Since when are SWP comrades "hysterical" about whatever is the next big event? Obviously comrade Neale knows that their excitement and enthusiasm is usually manufactured as a way of geeing up the apathetic. He would prefer delegates to "elect just one or two people to organise for the demo". Mind you, his own contribution to conference was pretty exuberant: "Go and do it for the future of the planet," he exhorted. "What you do when you go back matters, so do it," he yelled.
Comrade Neale's speech, like many of the other contributions, was hardly characterised by its accuracy and rigour. We "already have the technical capacity to halt climate change almost completely", he claimed. Presumably such technical capacity includes the ability to regularise the Earth's orbit and keep its tilt constant over a period of millennia.
A lot of proposals during this session were rather more mundane than correcting the Earth's tilt, though. For example, one comrade wanted employers to be forced to use energy-saving PCs that automatically switch off when not in use.
A long motion from York was more ambitious, calling on Respect to "promote international train travel as an alternative to flying". This was passed overwhelmingly, with just a handful of abstentions. The SWP's Dean Ryan did express scepticism: air travel is "here to stay", he said, so it might be better to encourage more environmentally-friendly ways of flying. But he too followed the voting lead of comrade Rees from the platform and supported the motion.
Within minutes of the vote being taken, however, Linda Smith was announcing details of the Respect raffle. The prizes were to include "¦ an Easyjet flight for two people to the destination of their choice.
This just about summed up the eclecticism of what passes for policy in Respect.
Tower Hamlets Respect edges towards split
A somewhat crestfallen Alan Thornett of the International Socialist Group writes in the current edition of Socialist Resistance about what he sees as the faults and failures of Respect. He highlights in particular Respect's failure to build itself as a properly functioning national political organisation. As a result, he says, membership has plummeted: from 3,040 to 2,160.
Speakers from the national council tried to counter comrade Thornett's criticisms by insisting that numbers do not matter; eg, when it comes to working with a coalition of different groups, the unofficial count is much higher. Yet last year, when there was a euphoric mood following George Galloway's electoral success, membership did matter. There was confident talk of increasing the membership to 5,000 or even to 10,000 within the year. Clearly Respect has failed on that score.
Indeed, in Tower Hamlets - Respect's flagship - the loss has been proportionately greater than elsewhere in the country. This is indicated by the number of delegates elected to conference: down from 40 to 17. To state the obvious, this is not due to inefficiency on the part of the branch secretary in keeping correct figures.
The problem is fundamentally political. Respect is a popular front which unites forces which are incompatible. To make matter worse, it does so on a lowest common denominator basis. Hence we get politics that are acceptable to the right in the organisation. Once again, as can be seen from Tower Hamlets, this will do nothing to save Respect. Indeed it is the seeds of destruction.
There are at present 12 Respect councillors in Tower Hamlets. How accountable are they to Respect nationally and to its local committees? Not very. In Shadwell ward, for example, Shamim Ahmed Chowdhury, Mohammed Mamun Rashid and Respect council group leader Abjol Miah consider themselves a power in their own right. They have a considerable personal following in the area - family, business associates, employees - and see no reason whatsoever to subordinate themselves to the SWP which runs and dominates the local branch.
The issue festers behind closed doors and if it continues for much longer I have been assured by one insider that it will lead to a split.