George Galloway demands the scalp of John Rees - so do we
Following the failure of the SWP to reach an accommodation with George Galloway, is John Rees now preparing for a final showdown at Respect's annual conference in November? Peter Manson reports on the latest developments
Last week's emergency meeting between the Socialist Workers Party's top leaders and George Galloway did nothing to stop the brewing civil war inside Respect nor resolve the crisis afflicting the SWP itself.
John Rees, Alex Callinicos, Chris Bambery, Chris Harman, Lindsey German and Linda Smith met with Galloway on Tuesday September 4. But instead of relations being patched up things have gone from bad to worse. Far from reaching some amicable agreement, the meeting ended sourly with Galloway insisting that John Rees must be junked. He wants him replaced as Respect national secretary forthwith. Indeed Galloway spent most of his time railing against Rees: his arrogance, his blunders, his despicable treatment of fellow Respect members, etc. So, yes, this is personal - very personal. Galloway loathes the SWP chief with a rare passion.
But now the SWP political committee is hitting back against Galloway and his loose factional grouping. Members are being readied for what looks like a final showdown at Respect's annual conference in two months time. Expect revelations. Expect bureaucratic manoeuvring. Expect fireworks. Expect walkouts.
The SWP requested the meeting with Galloway following the circulation (and widespread publication on the web) of his document, 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times'. Here Galloway blamed the "steep decline" in Respect membership squarely on the SWP. He pointedly listed the crimes and misdemeanours of the SWP (without naming it directly):
l not following through national council decisions when they did not coincide with SWP priorities;
l appointing its own people to staff the Respect office without any "proper basis";
l being responsible for the "anathematisation" of those like Salma Yaqoob who have criticised SWP practice.
Not that Galloway is a democrat or that he favours accountability and open debate. In fact he proposes a shift in control away from the elected national committee with its effective SWP majority. He demands a "new, high-powered elections committee", where he and his current allies - Yaqoob, Yvonne Ridley, Alan Thornett of the International Socialist Group and Abjol Miah, leader of Tower Hamlets Respect councillors - would call the shots. Whereas the SWP would be allowed four seats on this august body, they could always be countered and trumped by Galloway's five-strong, islamist-left reformist-Trotskyite alliance.
Following the failed SWP-Galloway meeting the SWP began its series of pre-arranged members' aggregates so as to prepare its counterattack. The first took place in the University of London's Manning Hall on Friday September 7. Officially it holds 300, but it was packed to overflowing. Many inactive members, often deeply disillusioned by the whole Respect popular-frontist turn, emerged from the woodwork. They were somewhat resentfully welcomed by Chris Bambery.
Starting at 6pm, the whole thing lasted for just on four hours - revealingly long for the SWP. There were two introductory speeches. Comrade Rees dealt with the political differences with Galloway and the Tower Hamlets councillors. Comrade Callinicos dealt with the breakdown in personal relations - George Galloway and Salma Yaqoob are virtually on non-speaking terms with John Rees. Galloway was lambasted as a being a law unto himself. Yaqoob was dismissed as a self-seeking careerist.
Of course, once John and George appeared almost inseparable. Galloway travelled in Rees's SWP car to rallies and meetings where they were booked as joint speakers. Now George says he will work with any other SWP leader, but not him. And if Rees is not replaced Galloway is threatening to bypass him through the appointment of a national organiser, answerable to his proposed elections committee, not the NC.
Much of what Rees and Callinicos said has already been in the public domain due to the Weekly Worker: Galloway goes off and does his own thing without informing his party, the Big brother episode being the most obvious example; he has sided with the businessmen's wing of Respect in Tower Hamlets and Birmingham instead of lining up with the SWP to defend Respect's left populist, anti-war, anti-privatisation programme.
Also, according to comrade Rees, Galloway is focussing too much on a possible early general election, instead of concentrating on getting Lindsey German elected to the Greater London Assembly next May - after all, a general election need not happen till 2010.
From Galloway's point of view, however, the general election is the priority - what if Brown decides on this autumn or next spring? This is particularly pertinent since Galloway announced his decision to stand again for Westminster, ending all speculation about the Scottish or European parliaments, or about concentrating on his media career.
He announced on his Talk Sport radio show the day after Respect's victory in the August 9 Shadwell by-election that he wants to challenge Labour's Jim Fitzpatrick for the Poplar and Limehouse seat, adjacent to Bethnal Green and Bow (Shadwell ward is now part of the Limehouse constituency, following boundary changes). Or rather he is to "seek the nomination" for the seat.
To get elected in Poplar and Limehouse Galloway will once more need the support of the Bengali businessmen and 'community leaders' who helped him win in Bethnal Green. Remember, before the 2005 general election he began his preparations for the contest by winning support from leading politicians in Bangladesh itself. That is why he has no thought of alienating their supporters by backing the SWP in Tower Hamlets and Birmingham. What does it matter if Bengali businessmen, shopkeepers and localists get elected for Respect? Think of George's career.
It is this tension that lies at the heart of Respect's crisis - and that of the SWP. Chris Bambery railed against Galloway for allowing a situation where earlier this year Respect in Birmingham selected "seven Asian men" and not one SWPer for the local elections - Helen Salmon was outvoted by the supporters of businessman Yasir Idris, who was selected ahead of her as candidate for Moseley and Kings Heath ward. It was this incident that led to the first public murmurings of discontent by the SWP leadership (in the form of a Socialist Worker report). And this is what triggered the bitter falling out with Salma Yaqoob.
Other SWP leaders who addressed the London aggregate contrasted Respect's good internal relations in Preston and elsewhere with those in Birmingham and London's East End in particular. Paul McGarr bitterly complained about how terrible things have become - yes, councillors Ahmed Hussain and Lufta Begum have joined the SWP. However, most of the others just do their own thing. Newly elected Harun Miah - the businessman who secured the nomination for Shadwell in preference to the SWP-backed Sultana Begum - has yet to make an appearance in the council chamber. One month after his election.
Rank and file members too recounted their horror stories, Alex Callinicos sat with his head in his hands, through most of this. John Rees stared stony-faced. Many spoke about the need to "draw a line in the sand" against those referred to by one angry SWP comrade as the "reactionary elements" in Respect. There had been too many compromises. Far too many. One comrade said that, apart from the tiny pro-SWP minority, the only thing Respect councillors were prepared to do for striking postal workers was give them free curries! Another complained of the connections of Respect group leader Abjol Miah with Islamic Forum Europe - an islamist organisation and hardly left-moving.
Shit or bust
The November 17-18 Respect conference will be, in the words of Chris Bambery, "shit or bust". Members were told in no uncertain terms that the SWP must have a large and solid majority. In previous years, the effective SWP majority has been clear enough, but the organisation has facilitated the sizable presence of 'on message' independents. This year the fear is that even previously 'reliable' non-SWPers might overwhelmingly side with Galloway if push comes to shove.
In itself, securing the majority it wants should not be a problem, since, apart from in east London and Birmingham, there is no major branch where the SWP is not in charge. However, a block of delegates (one for every 10 members) from those two areas, plus independents elected from other branches, might lead to an embarrassingly large pro-Galloway showing.
However, if Rees does go for overwhelmingly SWP-dominated delegations, that will have its cost in terms of further resignations and desertions. Already what is left of the non-SWP activists are frustrated by the on-off nature of the so-called 'unity coalition' - in many areas Respect effectively closes down in between elections.
Comrade Rees also stands to lose a section of his own cadre which has been 'going native'. Rob Hoveman, a former SWP full-timer who now works in Respect's national office, defended Galloway at the aggregate. He suggested that the central committee was overreacting, and exaggerating difficulties. Knowing Hoveman as we do, he will stay loyal to the SWP machine. He is not an independent thinker or a likely defector in the mould of Ger Francis in Birmingham.
For many rank-and-filers, however, it was a strange experience to hear first-hand, from their own leaders, about the scandals, the rotten compromises, the alien class influences they have read about only in the Weekly Worker. 'So it's all true' was the conclusion many were reluctantly coming to. They know now that they have been systematically and deliberately lied to. After all, Bambery's Socialist Worker has fed them an endless diet of Respect's successes.
Nevertheless, sadly, the majority of the rank and file remain content to act as parrots. Clearly any effective revolt must begin above. The most frequent phrase of the night was taken directly from Party notes, the SWP's internal bulletin compiled by the loathsome national organiser, Martin Smith. "Keep the show on the road" was the oft repeated trope. But this only serves to highlight the crisis confronting Respect. You get the feeling that not at few amongst the SWP leadership are itching to ditch Respect - there is vague talk of another, bigger, project.
Up until now the SWP political committee has seemed ready to sacrifice almost anything in its desperate attempt to get a few of its own comrades elected into positions of influence. Rees ordered his comrades to vote down women's and gay rights, republicanism, open borders, workers' representatives on a worker's wage, proletarian socialism, etc. All in the name of "making a difference" and getting councillors, GLA members, MPs and MEPs.
The inevitable result is ideological crisis - not only in Respect, but the SWP too. We in the CPGB call upon Respect to rid itself of its islamist, businessmen's, patriarchal wing. November must see the expulsion of all those who refuse to accept secularism, democracy, proletarian socialism and women's and gay rights. But we go further. The SWP must expel all the political committee advocates of Respect as a popular front.
Therefore, we too demand the scalp of John Rees - the Tony Blair of the SWP.