George Galloway's rebellion rocks SWP
Peter Manson looks at the civil war being fought out in the run-up to the November 17-18 conference
Respect is in crisis. A full-scale, semi-public row has broken out between George Galloway and the Socialist Workers Party, and this brings the future of the whole organisation into doubt.
Despite pockets of success - most notably Tower Hamlets, Preston and Birmingham - it was always on the cards that Respect would end in recriminations. A political party built on systematically abandoning one principle after another, that began with deals with the Muslim Association of Britain and local imams, that now gets more businessmen than trade unionists elected as councillors, which is dominated by a single, tightly policed bureaucratic centralist sect, was bound to hit the buffers sooner or later.
Galloway's document, 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times', ostensibly written to members of Respect's national council, has now been widely circulated on the web, together with a brief response from the SWP, first published in that organisation's internal Party notes.1
Clearly both Galloway and the SWP knew their exchange would quickly become publicly available - indeed there were signs earlier this week that the SWP may be preparing to raise the whole question in Respect branches unless some kind of accommodation could be reached with Galloway. The SWP leadership was due to meet with him on September 4. There was, of course, no mention of the crisis in the latest Respect members' bulletin (also September 4).
In his letter Galloway states baldly: "Respect is not punching its weight in British politics and has not fulfilled its potential either in terms of votes consistently gained, members recruited or fighting funds raised." He continues: ""¦ membership has not grown. And in some areas it has gone into a steep decline."
This refreshingly honest assessment stands in sharp contrast to what he said less than a year ago, at the October 14-15 2006 annual conference. Then he claimed that Respect was not only "the fastest growing party" in Britain - it was "probably the only organisation that's growing". He went on to make the absurd claim that "10,000 students" had joined.2
In fact he knew that membership was already in "steep decline", since he was in possession of the national council annual report, which contained precise figures: Respect had 2,160 members in 2006, compared to 3,040 in 2005 - a loss of almost 30%. However, this information was suppressed in the version of the report given to conference delegates, which implied that there were no details available, but there was continued steady growth.
Galloway is also spot on when he says: "Whole areas of the country are effectively moribund as far as Respect activity is concerned. In some weeks there is not a single Respect activity anywhere in the country advertised in our media "¦ This has left a small core of activists to shoulder burden after burden without much in the way of support from the centre, leading to exhaustion and enervation." As a result, fundraising is "all but non-existent "¦ We have stumbled from one financial crisis to another."
The few hundred committed Respect activists up and down the country will recognise this only too well. The minority of branches that function in a real sense (leaving aside those like Tower Hamlets, Birmingham, Preston and a few others) are typically run by a handful of comrades - a combination of increasingly frustrated non-SWP members who still believe (or hope) Respect can be built as a leftwing alternative; and SWP cadre who are either allocated to the organisation or 'going native' within it.
While to some extent rank and file SWP members have voted with their feet and shunned any active participation, it is also undeniably true that the principal reason for this failure is that the SWP - the main, indeed the only, substantive force within it - treats Respect as it treated the Socialist Alliance: as an on-off electoral front. You may be hard-pressed to find a Respect stall, but Socialist Worker is still being sold outside Sainsbury's on a Saturday.
This was always going to be the case once the SWP rejected the idea of 'doing an SSP' - unlike Scottish Militant Labour, which dissolved its own organisation and threw all its resources into the Scottish Socialist Party. In a way it was a perverse decision not to follow SML's example - after all, if it really is the case that the only party form able to make an impact in current circumstances is some kind of halfway house, then surely it must be necessary to work wholeheartedly and exclusively to construct such a formation. Instead the SWP tries to ride two horses at once - and there is no doubt as to which benefits from most resources in terms of time, money and people.
Alongside this absence of prioritisation for Respect is the SWP's overbearing control-freakery. As, in the minds of John Rees and Lindsey German, only the SWP is destined to lead the project, any initiative undertaken by non-SWPers immediately becomes a problem.
Galloway writes: "There is a marked tendency for decisions made at the national council or avenues signposted for exploration to be left to wither on the vine if they are not deemed to meet priorities (which themselves are not agreed)." This is an exact replication of the situation on the ground. The SWP may not openly reject proposals for action raised by others - indeed it may seem to support them. But the real decisions are taken elsewhere: in the local SWP branch or area committee, in accordance with the SWP's own nationally determined priorities.
Time after time, the SWP will let through a decision to leaflet a shopping centre, run a stall or do a phone-around - only for it to be given token practical support or not followed up at all. Non-SWPers rapidly become disillusioned and drop out.
Once more referring to the leadership, Galloway states: "People pop up as staff members in jobs which have not been advertised, for which there have been no interviews and whose job descriptions are unclear and certainly unpublished. This unnecessarily poor management leads to tensions, even animosity, and the suspicion that staff are recruited for their political opinions on internal matters rather than on a proper basis."
In fact it is not always necessary or even desirable for a principled political party (which Respect most certainly is not) to recruit staff on what Galloway calls "a proper basis" - advertisements, formal interviews, job descriptions, etc. What matters is accountability, not bureaucratic procedure. And of course "political opinions" are of no small significance. However, what Galloway clearly means is that staff are appointed who are deemed reliable from an SWP point of view: ie, staff who largely accept SWP "political opinions".
The other side of this SWP urge to control is what Galloway dubs its "custom of anathematisation" (he does not accuse the SWP directly of being responsible for this, but it is obvious who he is referring to). The alleged treatment of Salma Yaqoob most certainly will ring true for a whole range of independent-minded people who have been courted, flattered, sponsored and promoted by the SWP, only to be ditched once they stray too far from the SWP line. In the SA we could mention Liz Davies, Mike Marqusee, John Nicholson and Steve Godward, to name just a few. It seems Salma Yaqoob compounded her earlier criticisms of Respect's inefficiency and lack of democratic practice with her public rejection of the SWP's reaction to losing a candidate selection in Birmingham.
George hits back
So what is Galloway's solution to these "internal problems of our own making", these "serious internal weaknesses which "¦ threaten to derail the whole project"? Well, firstly, everyone, including the SWP, should be "unashamedly promoting Respect as the critical force in the wider reconstitution of the progressive and socialist movement".
Secondly, knowing full well that the SWP is neither willing nor able to change its whole methodology, Galloway has no alternative but to come up with a bureaucratic organisational response as a means of countering its control-freakery (it goes without saying that measures of democratic accountability are as alien to him as they are to the SWP). Therefore he proposes the establishment of a "new, high-powered elections committee" - effectively as an alternative power centre.
This committee would not only "rapidly evaluate our election strengths and weaknesses, proposed target seats, supervise the selection of candidates - national and local". It would also "spearhead a national membership and fundraising drive". In other words, it would take over responsibility in all key areas.
The Bethnal Green and Bow MP also has a pretty clear idea of this committee's composition: it will have a majority of those he regards as current allies - he names Yaqoob, Yvonne Ridley, Abjol Miah (leader of the Tower Hamlets group of councillors), Alan Thornett of the International Socialist Group and himself - who will sit alongside four members of the SWP - comrades Rees, German, Linda Smith and Nick Wrack.
If this body were to come into being it would have a rather different political balance from that of the national council - officially Respect's leading committee. Of the 50 NC members elected at the 2006 conference around 28 are either SWP members or close supporters by my reckoning. Since a good proportion of non-SWP members are, to put it mildly, erratic attendees, the SWP can usually win anything that is put to a formal vote.
But if Galloway gets his way, the elected NC will be demoted - in effect bypassed. For example, he proposes that the new committee, not the NC, would oversee the appointment (after due process - advertising, interviews, etc) of a national organiser, who, it seems, would have equal status with the national secretary (comrade Rees).
The job of the national organiser would in reality be to supervise Respect's most important work. No doubt he or she would also ensure that a whole range of routine jobs were carried out - things like following through decisions and keeping the organisation informed.
In the past, Galloway himself has been at one with the SWP in denouncing calls from conference floor for the implementation of such measures. In 2005 he joined with the SWP in its philistine rejection of demands to report to the members. Respect's achievements had not been won "by sitting behind a computer or circulating conference minutes and reports", he said. They had been achieved "by action, not words".3 Mind you, Galloway has hardly changed his mind on transparency, information and democratic accountability. He envisages a top-down, bureaucratic drive to re-invigorate the party.
Of course, even if he were so inclined (which he is not), he would be unable to counter the SWP's control through democratisation - the SWP holds the trumps when it comes to numbers. Although Galloway can gain allies and often win out against the SWP in a few important localities (Tower Hamlets, Birmingham, etc), he has no national counter at his disposal. His main bargaining chip is himself - he can threaten to walk out and leave Respect high and dry.
There has been some speculation that Galloway himself is not the author of the document that has gone out in his name. Ex-Birmingham SWPer Ger Francis has been named. But I doubt such stories very much, although clearly Galloway did not issue his 2,300-word document without consultation. While it is quite possible that he has been assisted by dissident ex-SWPers, as some have suggested, I must say that some of his proposals bear a striking similarity to those of Alan Thornett in the latest Socialist Resistance, written before the appearance of Galloway's letter to the NC.
Comrade Thornett, like Galloway, compares the disappointment of Ealing Southall with the success of Tower Hamlets, demands specific fundraising and branch-building measures, and bemoans the lack of initiative shown by Respect after John McDonnell's failure in the Labour leadership contest. Comrade Thornett reports that his call in June for moves to engage with the Labour and trade union left and the Communist Party of Britain has been ignored. He wants the leadership to attempt to draw these forces, not least the RMT, towards Respect.
Galloway's 'alternative strategy', which also includes the organisation of "a people's march to London", similarly focuses on the Labour and union left and the CPB - although he does not go as far as comrade Thornett in seeing Respect as a mere stepping stone towards a "new and more inclusive alliance at the next election".4
What does all this mean for the SWP? Its response in Party notes claims that "The SWP is 100% committed to the Respect project and is currently doing everything it can to keep the show on the road" - a clear admission that Respect is in crisis.
But a crisis for Respect is also a crisis for the SWP's trajectory. Its collapse would mean the dismal failure of the SWP's whole strategy. And at what cost? The turn to popular frontism, along with the further watering down of socialist principles that this entails, has met with (mostly passive) internal resistance. The organisation as a whole has had to be won to the project. If Respect is killed, the SWP will have to rewin its cadre.
The Weekly Worker has consistently highlighted the SWP's lurch to the right - not least its new coolness to former "shibboleths" such as women's and gay rights. This has hit home with the SWP membership, forcing the leadership to stress its gay rights credentials, for example. This, not the cost, is the key question in Respect's intervention at Pride - resulting in Galloway's resentment at the SWP "instruction" to attend.
We have also consistently highlighted the kind of people the SWP has gone out of its way to draw in. Setting out to attract 'community leaders' of ethnic minority groupings, it had ended up with a collection of businessmen in Tower Hamlets and elsewhere. This can only hold back the working class cause and SWP members know it. Yet the SWP is still insisting that minority 'leaders', not principled working class politicians, are the candidates to go for (irrespective of whether they are even Respect members) in the forthcoming Greater London poll and possible general election.
It seems that comrade Rees, prior to the current crisis, had been thinking of a Respect relaunch. Perhaps he will end up having to relaunch the SWP.