Call to work harder
Will Lindsey German split anti-Tory vote for London mayor? Simon Wells reports on the Respect meeting to select candidates for the Greater London Assembly elections
All good thrillers maintain a certain suspense until the very end. Bad ones telegraph the payoff almost from the first scene.
The April 16 Respect Greater London Assembly candidate selection meeting in Conway Hall had a plot about as tantalising as a Scooby Doo script. The meeting was ostensibly convened for London Respect members to elect a mayoral candidate and a list for GLA slate in June 2008, with the star turns on the flyers distributed beforehand touted as George Galloway, Lindsey German and John Rees.
It was clear almost from the off that the purpose of the meeting was not really to democratically debate the relative merits of the hopeful candidates - the names and even the order on the final list that will be put to voters in the capital had clearly been decided in advance by Socialist Worker Party luminaries and their allies. Certain 'democratic' formalities had to be observed, but the really interesting moment came at the end of the evening in John Rees's speech. More of that later, however "¦
Nick Wrack oversaw proceedings and he started by stating that, although the GLA elections actually take place next year, Respect needs to get into preparation mode now, as other parties were already underway with their candidate selection. Comrade Wrack has a talent for lame and manifestly inappropriate comments. (Who can forget his wince-worthy threat to "high-five" the founding conference of Respect in 2004? Here was a man with "all the youth cred of a high court judge", we observed at the time). On this occasion, he surveyed those gathered in the hall and told us that he was "glad to see the mosaic of London" laid out in front of him.
I'm not sure what meeting he was looking at. The 300 or so gathered were overwhelmingly white and SWP-heavy. That notwithstanding, he gave us the familiar and profoundly tired rhetoric about the huge opportunities afforded to Respect by Labour's turn to the right - the usual guff, in other words.
Next up was comrade Galloway - a little more subdued than normal, as he was suffering from a bad back caused by his full itinerary. But he turned in his usual slick performance, emphasising the successful ongoing campaigns in Birmingham and Preston. He name-checked "excellent" people like our very own Salma Yaqoob, Oliur Rahman and Lindsey German, later chosen as our mayoral candidate (she was uncontested). We fight for peace, justice and the working class, he said, and, come June 2008, there just might be a "revolution" in City Hall - ironic laughter greeted this comment. Comrade Galloway left early for a prior engagement.
With half an hour to go before the ballot boxes were closed, an opportunity was given for contributions from the floor to address what Nick Wrack called "strategy and organisation". For those unfamiliar with SWP protocol on these occasions, open discussion and bold statements were, of course, not being called for. Thus, the next part of the meeting was taken up with speaker after speaker telling us how great Respect was, how fantastically well everything had gone so far and what good times we could expect if we just carried on campaigning. There was excited talk of the sleeping giants of disconnected communities and how, if we just reach out to prod them into consciousness, power will be within our grasp.
This was not so much a discussion as a series of stand-alone rah-rah speeches and even - oddly - a couple of the contributions that were designed to be taken as election hustings "¦ but only minutes before the ballot box was due to close.
Between the count and the results being announced there was an interlude for fundraising - over £500 was collected on the night - and a few more speeches from the floor. No surprises when the results were announced, of course - everything went according to script. The recommended slate prepared by the Respect officers was overwhelmingly agreed.
Of course, reading between the lines, it is was clear that this meeting represented an attempt by the SWP to reassert a measure of control over the Respect project. There was to be no embarrassing repetition of the Birmingham fiasco in the capital. On January 23, Yasir Idris was selected at a meeting of South West Birmingham Respect to contest the Moseley and Kings Heath ward in the May council elections, beating the SWP's Helen Salmon by 35 votes to 20 (see Weekly Worker February 8). 'Never again,' thought the control freaks who head the SWP-Respect party.
Throughout the evening, the audience was assured that getting "three candidates" elected was within our grasp - all it would take is "a 15% vote for Respect". Now, this is hardly likely in the real world, but it was psychologically instructive. When the results were announced, the order in which the candidates appeared on the list was decided on by Respect officers after a meeting jokingly dubbed by Nick Wrack as their "shortest ever". It was almost as if they knew who was going to be elected and had already decided who should be first, second and third on the slate. Heading the assembly member list will be Lindsey German, followed by Oliur Rahman and Linda Smith - the top three slots whose occupants could be elected, as people kept reminding us.
By the time the last speaker, John Rees, addressed the meeting, the hall was half full - having done their duty, a large number of SWPers had already disappeared into the night. They really did not miss much. Comrade Rees spoke of the changed political landscape that Respect would operate in by the time the elections roll around next year. These elections would be the first real test for a post-Blair Labour Party. With a war leader no longer occupying No10, there would be a natural tendency for people to hope that Gordon Brown would provide something better.
So those Respect members - mostly SWPers, of course - were told that their task was to double their campaigning efforts. The usual tired, hopeless perspective of 'work harder, work longer' that we have heard a thousand times before - perhaps, after all, those who had already decided enough was enough had a point. Essentially, this was a speech that underlined the fact that comrade Rees's Respect gamble has not paid off.
First, as recent interviews in this paper with Respect council candidates have graphically illustrated, the organisation is one of those unpopular popular fronts. Respect has lost organisations such as the Muslim Association of Britain, only to find new allies in the form of muslim businessmen. Each has his own client base and he takes them from party to party in the hope of building or maintaining personal influence. Respect is no longer a coalition of "secular socialists" and muslim organisations, but a coalition of "secular socialists" and local muslim bourgeois. Classes act in their own perceived interests, of course, and that includes Respect's bourgeois wing. To hold the organisation together the SWP, and Respect as a whole, will drift ever further to the right.
Second, the revival of the Tories. Rees chided the Morning Star for a suggestion in a recent article that the Respect leadership should refrain for standing against Livingstone for fear of splitting the left vote and letting the Conservatives in - "The left cannot afford to indulge in the luxury of division," declares the Star, wagging its finger at the rest of the left (April 12). Comrade Rees countered that if Respect held back it would have to accept this argument forever. He noted that Labour was haemorrhaging votes and that the responsibility for this mess lies with its leaders, not Respect. True. But this totally fails to appreciate, let alone deal with, the widely held and essentially healthy, anti-Tory feeling amongst militant workers.
Equally to the point, it shows that Respect-SWP lacks a serious orientation towards the Labour Party. Lumping Livingstone and New Labour together as a single, reactionary bloc reveals a profound tactical and strategic poverty. Ken Livingstone is against the Iraq war and is clearly on the left of the Labour Party. He ought to be challenged - with the offer of support. But only under certain conditions.
Eg, if he demands the immediate withdrawal of British forces from Iraq; if he comes out fighting against the privatisation of London underground; if he breaks from his support for the 2012 London Olympics - a sporting form of war between states that help create the ideological conditions for horrors such as Iraq; then we should say we will vote for him.
Campaigning around such demands is the way to get to Labour's rank and file in the constituency parties, the activists in the affiliated trade unions and Labour's mass base in the working class.