Dither Thornett?

Divisions are opening up in the ranks of the International Socialist Group/Socialist Resistance over its relationship with Respect, says Cameron Richards

Most dramatically, this has been illustrated by the recent resignation from Respect of Liam Mac Uaid, a leading ISG member in Tower Hamlets. Announced on his own blog (http://macuaid.blogspot.com), comrade Mac Uaid claims that the final straw for him was the disgraceful way in which Respect's Organising for Fighting Unions conference was stage-managed by the Socialist Workers Party. He argues that Respect has "become ever more hegemonised by the SWP".

No surprise there, one would think, given the SWP's predilection for control-freakery. Yet for comrade Mac Uaid the antics of the SWP seem to have come as something of a shock. As with other Resistance supporters, the creation of Respect marked for Mac Uaid a clear turning point in left politics in Britain - a golden opportunity for it to put into practice the 'left regroupment' strategy of the so-called Fourth International (of which the ISG is the British section). Such was the promise of Respect, the ISG was prepared to act as the lackey of the SWP in destroying the Socialist Alliance.

In fact the ISG's leader, Alan Thornett, was positively joyous at the early achievements of Respect. As he put it, in 'debate' with the SWP's Alex Callinicos, "Respect already has a bigger ex-Labour component than the SA achieved, for as well as the traditional Labour left, Respect has attracted many from the ethnic minority communities - the first time the left has managed to do this. Activists were strongly represented in the Respect candidates' lists and are evident in Respect meetings, with new people also coming forward. But its vote is much wider than this layer."

He continued: "George Galloway's expulsion for opposition to the war is the nearest thing we have had to a split in the Labour Party. With the stature and credibility of an ex-Labour MP he brings with him an important chunk of the left Labour tradition" (www.isg-fi.org.uk/what/wwt01.htm).

If this rather exaggerated view of Respect's ability to attract those on the Labour left beggars belief, certainly comrade Thornett's assessment that Respect had attracted members from ethnic minorities has a ring of truth about it. Indeed, Socialist Resistance has been gushing in its praise of the SWP and Galloway's wooing of muslims, irrespective of the class position of its new recruits.

Disagreeing with leading Fourth Internationalist Gilbert Achar in the pages of International Viewpoint, Jane Kelly and Karen O'Toole of Socialist Resistance took him to task for his "flawed" understanding of British politics. They maintained that "In areas such as east London and Birmingham, with large black and minority communities, Respect is now seen not only as the anti-war party, but also a left party, and is winning support. Part of this support comes from the mosque, some of it from individual muslims and other ethnic minorities, but, either way, the majority of the support is working class" (International Viewpoint April 2005).

Whilst such populist sentiments may have made those ISGers more closely aligned to the European centre of the FI than to Thornett wince, there was in public at least uniformity in the British section over the 'electoral breakthrough' made by Respect.

However, there was just one snag. The FI's project of building broad anti-capitalist organisations (rather than avowedly Marxist ones) involved left unity in party formations like the Scottish Socialist Party. However, the SWP has no interest in making Respect a properly functioning democratic party. Indeed, it is almost certain that if the SWP altered course, the populist formation would soon crumble. Can one see Galloway accepting party discipline?

So in time the ISG/Resistance has shifted from being loyal lieutenants of the SWP to being loyal critics. This is evidenced by its formation of the (virtually invisible) Respect Party Platform and its nose being put out of joint by the SWP at the last two conferences. With no sign of a Respect newspaper appearing and with Respect being simply one of the SWP's numerous 'united fronts', the ISG's hope that Respect would become something more than an on-off, SWP mask has simply fallen apart.

Yet ironically it is just as much events north of the border that have sown disillusion in the ranks of the ISG as those in England and Wales. The SSP was the model to emulate, but with the poisonous atmosphere created by the Sheridan affair and the SWP's open intention of forming a Respect mark two with the breakaway Solidarity, relations with the SWP have effectively broken down.

This not only explains comrade's Mac Uaid's resignation from Respect, but why debate has broken out on the pages of the current edition of Socialist Resistance (November-December). Comrade Thornett, for all his criticisms of the project, still believes that "The fight therefore has to continue to win Respect away from its current course of development." Clearly, Thornett is not too pleased with Mac Uaid's decision.

Elsewhere in its pages are contributions from other supporters. One comes from Tami Peterson, who takes the dithering Thornett to task for his perspective and says of Respect: "Every indication is that it is in terminal decline." She goes on to argue that Resistance should "turn away" from Respect and immerse itself in the John McDonnell campaign for the Labour leadership and issues like the NHS.

Clearly the ISG's perspective has been shattered and, for Thornett at least, the Respect project has turned into a disaster. Whether an organisational split in its ranks will take place is too early to say. But it is clear from Mac Uaid's action that discipline has broken down in the ISG. The CPGB urges the ISG to stand up to the SWP within Respect, but with no illusions that it is anything other than a populist formation. At the same time, the ISG would do well to follow the example of People's Democracy in Ireland and take a serious look at the debates we are having around our Draft programme and the building of the Campaign for a Marxist Party (see Nick Roger's article). All halfway houses, whether inside Labour or out, are bound to fail and produce demoralisation and confusion.

But, perhaps, this is expecting rather too much from a group that has traditionally sought to tail reformist or non-working class movements and prostrate itself before bigger organisations. It is extremely doubtful that the ISG could become heroes, even for a day.