Exactly how and when Respect will meet its end is impossible to tell, writes Peter Manson. But, judging by what the SWP leaders are saying, it is not long for this world
Relations between George Galloway and the Socialist Workers Party have broken down completely and appear totally irreparable. The SWP has virtually admitted as much in its recently issued internal document, 'The debate in Respect: the SWP response', a document put out under the name of its central committee. This was followed within a few days by a second response to Galloway's criticisms of the SWP, co-authored by SWP leader John Rees and Elaine Graham Leigh, a close ally of the SWP on Respect's national council.
The CC document "with a deep sense of regret" sets out at length the reasons why Galloway must be blamed for the crisis in Respect. Not the SWP. After all, Galloway has been "attacking" the SWP and its best efforts to "widen and diversify Respect's working class support".1
Looking only at the SWP's open publications and website, you might assume that it is business as usual - 'official optimism' is still the order of the day. Respect continues to gain support and prepare for the challenges ahead - blah, blah, blah. But the SWP tops knew perfectly well when they circulated the central committee's damning response to Galloway that it would enter the public domain within hours. Internal SWP bulletins are instantly external nowadays. The SWP leaks like a sieve.
And it seems that the SWP leader himself saw to it that the Rees-Graham Leigh document was posted on the web.2
The first question to ask is, why has the SWP leadership been unwilling to reach a compromise with Galloway? After all, "The SWP has made plenty of compromises and is ready to make more in the future." At its meeting with Galloway on September 4 the SWP states that it "made it clear we were happy to discuss and come to consensus on the three proposals George concludes his letter with - and that remains the case".
In fact Galloway ended his letter to all Respect national council members with two proposals, not three:
The setting up of "a new, high-powered elections committee", where his own supporters would have the majority. This would effectively bypass the SWP-controlled NC.
The creation of "a crucial new post" of national organiser under his tutelage.
The SWP was quite prepared to negotiate. But what it was unwilling to concede was Galloway's hidden, third, and key demand. A demand supported by his big-name allies on the NC, Salma Yaqoob and Abjol Miah, the leader of the Respect group of councillors in Tower Hamlets: What is the third demand? "In the discussion that followed George's introduction both Salma and Abjol called for John Rees to resign, with Abjol calling for 'a complete change of leadership'."
SWP representatives on September 4 - John Rees, Alex Callinicos, Lindsey German and Chris Bambery - "made clear they were happy to discuss George's three proposals, but were not prepared to swallow demands for John Rees's resignation". Interestingly, Galloway did not explicitly spell out his demand for Rees's replacement in his NC letter, but it is clearly there. His proposed elections committee will consist of eight named individuals plus "the national secretary" (unnamed).
But why could the SWP not give way on this? After all, if the Respect project is as important as the leadership claims, why not make another of its "compromises"? (this particular compromise, unlike so many others, would not have entailed the abandonment of any principle). It is not as if the post of national secretary could not be filled by some middle-ranking functionary - for example, Rob Hoveman. Though not a member of the SWP central committee, he was put in charge of the Socialist Alliance and served as SA national secretary. Today he works as a full-timer in the Respect national office.
The SWP's answer is decidedly unconvincing: "The attack is not on John, but on the SWP ... If, say, we were prepared to accept this demand, any replacement national secretary could face a similar ultimatum in event of future disagreements."
Well, yes, if Galloway or any other NC member thought the national secretary was not doing his job, they could move a motion for his recall at national council. All Respect officers are elected by the NC, not by conference. Indeed, there could be a move to sack comrade Rees at this weekend's meeting of the committee, on September 22.
But there is no reason to suspect any further "ultimatum". As the SWP has been reporting to its membership aggregates across the country, Galloway insisted on September 4 that any other SWPer would be acceptable as national secretary. So the question remains - why is the SWP unwilling to budge on what is, after all, an organisational question?
Dead end for SWP
The answer lies in the expectations that the SWP had for the Respect project and the fact that those expectations have not been met. Certainly Respect made a dramatic breakthrough in Tower Hamlets, with the election of 12 councillors (reduced to 11 following the defection to Labour of Waiseul Islam earlier this year). But, apart from three, they can hardly be considered a gain for the SWP (or working class politics in general, come to that).
The Respect group of councillors is dominated by a solid bloc of businessmen, who have actually mobilised more and more against the SWP. True, Oliur Rahman, Ahmed Hussein and Lufta Begum are now part of the SWP camp. But the abject failure to win a seat for a senior SWP figure became something of a running sore. And now, with the anti-SWP, pro-business wing firmly in control of Tower Hamlets Respect, backed by Galloway himself, clearly the SWP is suffering from a loss of morale and a loss of cadre. The longer it remains associated with such types, the more it will lose all credibility as any kind of a working class organisation.
The Rees-Graham Leigh document all but admits that the Weekly Worker was right all along about Tower Hamlets Respect: "We believe that the constant adaptation to what are referred to as 'community leaders' in Tower Hamlets is lowering the level of politics and making us vulnerable to the attacks and pressures brought on us by New Labour. It is alienating us not only from the white working class, but also from the more radical sections of the Bengali community, both secular and muslim, who feel that Respect is becoming the party of a narrow and conservative trend in the area."
It is the same story in Birmingham and, to a lesser extent, in Leicester and Newham. The very forces that the SWP wooed in an attempt to gain influence for itself have ended up using the SWP for their own narrow, bourgeois interests. Yes, in Preston Michael Lavalette is an SWP councillor and in Sheffield and Bristol SWP members Maxime Bowler and Jerry Hicks have made some progress under the Respect banner. But did that progress come about just because of Respect?
From the SWP point of view, what really rankles is not Galloway's refusal to work with John Rees, but his refusal to intervene on the SWP's behalf in those areas where Respect has had a real chance of picking up council seats. But why should he? Galloway knows he needs the support of precisely the (mainly Bengali) businessmen in the East End in order to be re-elected to parliament at the next election. What votes can the SWP mobilise? Galloway has announced that he intends to stand against New Labour's Jim Fitzpatrick in Poplar and Limehouse, a constituency that borders Bethnal Green and Bow, where he was elected in 2005.
What is more, for Galloway the SWP is becoming a hindrance, with its insistence that Respect must at least nod in direction of things like gay rights. Ever since Lindsey German notoriously referred to women's and gay rights as "shibboleths" the leadership has been under considerable and ever growing pressure from its own rank and file, not least thanks to the relentless campaign run by this paper.
That is why the SWP insisted that Respect should make an impact at Pride this year - and it is also why Galloway kicked up a fuss about the SWP allegedly giving an "instruction" to Tower Hamlets councillors and others to attend and stated that many people do not feel "comfortable" dancing on a float. While, of course, Galloway himself favours gay equality, he sees no reason to alienate a large section of his potential support - the section influenced by the mosque and muslim establishment - which he believes, with good reason, has a rather less tolerant attitude.
Galloway's objections forced the SWP leadership to hit back: ""¦ the criticism of Respect's intervention on this year's Pride seems strange, given that, since the SWP started going on Pride two decades and more ago, Labour, the Lib Dems and major trade unions have been consistently represented on it. The criticism is even stranger, given the slander constantly thrown at Respect by our enemies that because of Respect's support in the muslim community it is somehow soft on homophobia."
Galloway is probably correct when he says that certain "members in elected office" were subjected to a "test of their commitment to [Respect's] equality programme" when they were asked to attend Pride. He would have preferred a "simple encouragement for members to attend - with a logical emphasis on LGBT members and young people".3 Gay rights should not be treated as a shibboleth.
An indication of Galloway's view on how to play this question came last week when gay rights campaigners 'outed' his website. In order to discredit his Labour opponent in the next general election, Galloway listed Jim Fitzpatrick's parliamentary record. He voted against a transparent parliament and for the Iraq war, ID cards, anti-terrorism legislation, replacing Trident, foundation hospitals and student top-up fees. And included amongst these and other similar 'charges' was Fitzpatrick's position on homosexuality: he is "very strongly for equal gay rights".4
After Peter Tatchell contacted the press over this all reference to gay rights were quickly removed.5
Just a clumsy mistake? If so, Galloway made the same mistake when he announced his decision to contest Fitzpatrick's seat on his August 10 Talk Sport radio show. Immediately after reading out the final point from Fitzpatrick's parliamentary record - the fact that he had voted "very strongly for equal gay rights" - Galloway stated: "All these are the reasons why it's going to be the mother of all battles in Poplar and Limehouse." The show containing this statement can still be downloaded from the Talk Sport website.6
This is what the SWP has to say about Respect's key areas of support:
The organisation is "disproportionately dependent on the excellent support it won from muslims "¦ It is the effort of the SWP, in response to this weakness, to widen and diversify Respect's working class support that George and his allies have been attacking."
Galloway just will not muscle in to ensure the selection of SWP comrades in winnable seats: "In Tower Hamlets it was important Respect had councillors elected from the muslim community - representatives of the most oppressed community in Britain - but it would have been good to have returned other candidates too, who reflected the totality of the working class in the East End." Like John Rees?
The SWP statement goes on: "What we fear is a withdrawal into the electoral common sense that only particular 'community leaders' can win in certain areas. In Birmingham in the seven target seats in May's local elections, those with the greatest chance of achieving election, the candidates selected were all men from the Pakistani community. Helen Salmon was voted out of being the candidate for Moseley and Kings Heath ward."
The statement continues: ""¦ we fear that what is being demanded of us now would amount to the subordination of the socialist left within Respect and would therefore drastically undermine Respect's nature as a genuine coalition."
And it concludes: "A retreat into a party whose elected representatives are overwhelmingly male and muslim would be to retreat into the caricature of us drawn by our opponents. It would be also unacceptable not just for socialists but for so many who come from the trade unions, from Labour backgrounds and from the anti-war, women's and so many other movements."
So the fact that the majority of Respect members in certain key areas decide not to select an SWPer as their candidate amounts to "the subordination of the socialist left within Respect". Hardly. The "subordination of the socialist left" was explicit from the beginning. At Respect's founding convention of January 24 2004, comrade Rees called on his SWP comrades to vote "against the things we believe in" in order to "reach out to the people locked out of politics" and "make a difference": ie, get elected.7
From the beginning the SWP sought allies amongst the very "community leaders" - usually pro-mosque or pro-business - it now resents. It is the followers of those, often localist, "community leaders" who are slamming the door in the SWP's face. What a surprise.
In order to "reach out" to those below, the SWP went to the top - a short cut to nowhere. And the price was the dumping of a whole range of socialist principles, which the SWP knew such types would not countenance.
It was not only the downplaying of gay rights - deliberately omitted from the 2005 general election manifesto on Galloway's insistence - but a whole range of other issues. In exchange for leaving out gay rights, the SWP insisted that the manifesto should contain reference to the right to an abortion. But the word itself was not used. All that was left was the following bullet point in the five-point definition of "social justice": "The fight against, and ultimate abolition of, racism, sexism and all forms of discrimination. Defend a woman's right to choose."8 A "woman's right to choose" what? To don the veil?
At conference after conference Rees mobilised his troops to vote "against the things we believe in" - open borders, republicanism, secularism, proletarian socialism itself. But that, of course, is the nature of popular front politics. As comrade Rees himself has pointed out, "The fault of the popular front was that it subordinated the radical forces to the political priorities of the most conservative forces in the alliance."9
That is exactly what occurred in Respect - it was what the SWP consciously accepted as necessary to "make a difference". But the immediate problem is, the SWP has not been able to "make a difference" with Respect and, now more than ever, it is clear that it is the "most conservative forces" who will benefit from the continuation of the so-called coalition.
So, yes, these are the "compromises" - compromises over socialist principle - that should have been regarded as completely unacceptable. By contrast agreeing to the replacement of John Rees could have been conceded. If Respect were a worthwhile project, that is.
Respect's demise is absolutely certain. The SWP is desperately looking for a way out. Meanwhile, Galloway is attempting to mobilise every ally he can. Barrels are being scraped. The November 17-18 annual conference will almost certainly be akin to high noon. However, the opening salvoes will be exchanged at this weekend's national council meeting.
Up to now the SWP's domination of the NC has looked unassailable. But in actual fact it does not have a majority on the 50-strong body. It has always been able to win any vote because of its own solid voting bloc and the absence of any coherent opposing force. I calculate that the SWP has 17 of its own members on the NC. It has, though, been able to rely on the more or less consistent support of half a dozen others. In view of the poor attendance of more than a few NC members (the total absence in some cases), it has always been easy enough to ensure an SWP victory in the event of a dispute.
But Galloway's letter has acted as a catalyst. It has pulled together an anti-SWP bloc on the NC. In fact Galloway has constructed an alliance stretching from Salma Yaqoob to Ken Loach. Galloway is also snapping up other talents. Expelled Birmingham SWPer Ger Francis and Glyn Robbins, chair of Tower Hamlets, appeared as part of his delegation at the unsuccessful September 4 meeting with the SWP tops. John Rees was visibly mortified.
September 22 will probably see the biggest ever attendance for an NC. Which way chair Linda Smith moves could be a crucial factor in who wins out. Alan Thornett and John Lister of the International Socialist Group have adopted what amounts to a fence-sitting position. They welcome Galloway's opening of the debate, on the one hand, and, on the other, are putting forward a detailed list of proposals aimed at 'revitalising' Respect - including, pointedly, measures to improve the accountability of elected representatives.
Clearly this weekend's NC could be the setting for a coup. If it decides to replace comrade Rees as national secretary that would provoke open civil war. Falling short of that, the NC could sneakily decide to 're-interpret' standing orders for conference in a way that reduces SWP influence. Galloway knows that, as things stand, the SWP's majority of delegates will not only be workable but absolute. Does he have any leeway for boosting the influence of sitting MPs and councillors, for instance? Is there a way (constitutional or otherwise?) of increasing the proportion of non-SWP delegates?
Whatever happens at conference, disintegration looks certain. An SWP victory would be Pyrrhic. Galloway, Miah and Yaqoob are set to rebel. An SWP-led Respect shorn of its East London and Birmingham bridgeheads would be an empty shell. If, on the other hand, Galloway is able to use his position as an MP and media personality to deliver a defeat upon the SWP, Rees will not hesitate to look elsewhere. And where will Galloway find replacement foot soldiers?
Funnily enough, a couple of rats are coming back on board the sinking ship. Socialist Resistance supporter Liam Mac Uaid has already announced that he has rejoined Respect. Then there is Andy Newman of the Socialist Unity Network. He says he will follow suit, depending on the outcome of the September 22 NC.
This 'constituency' is encouraged that questions of organisation, structure and democracy have at last appeared on the agenda, thanks to Galloway's criticisms. While such comrades are not banking on Galloway seeing the democratic light, they believe there is now the space in Respect to argue for a rejuvenated left and a more welcoming halfway house formation. They will have to be quick.
What of the SWP? It may be about to pull the plugs on Respect, but it has most certainly not abandoned its own version of the halfway house - one where it pulls the strings - as the current model for working class organisation.
The central committee writes: "We have always understood the deep Labourist tradition within the British working class will not just be swept away with one blow. Respect has the potential to become a long-term home for traditional Labour supporters who are in revolt against their leadership's pro-war and neoliberal policies."
This was part of the argument against Respect appearing to be too muslim-orientated, but it is a continuation of the thinking that was evident in the Socialist Alliance. Labour supporters must be won over as Labourites and be offered "a long-term home".
As, in common with the rest of the economistic left, the SWP does not believe that there is any possibility of winning the masses to Marxist politics, the best that can be achieved is a Labour Party mark two. (Except it can't.)
The next glimmer of light at the end of the post-Respect tunnel is Bob Crow and his talk of candidates in next year's Greater London Authority elections. There is much silly chatter about another trade-union-based reformist party. That is certainly attractive to the Socialist Party in England and Wales, the International Socialist Group and the flotsam and jetsam that inhabits the disorganised left. Galloway himself has hinted at some kind of lash-up with the RMT.
In the meantime the SWP is in the business of preparing for an orderly retreat from the debacle of Respect. It must cohere its membership against those who have lashed it from the left. Crucially the CPGB and the Weekly Worker. That necessitates instilling collective amnesia among the rank and file.
Ditching Respect will be generally popular but, if the SWP's membership aggregates are anything to go by, the leadership will not have things all its own way. In the first instance there exists a sizable minority opposed to the steer away from Respect. These aggregates have not taken the usual form of the leadership rallying the troops, with comrade after comrade simply getting up to echo the new line. There has actually been some real debate. A good number have excused Galloway and defended the old line of building Respect. So there will be losses.
But where will the SWP head next? Perhaps there is a clue in the CC document:
Galloway is quoted as stating: "The conditions for Respect to grow strongly obtain in just the same way as they did when we first launched the organisation and had our historic breakthrough in 2005." In response the SWP's CC writes: "Well, the answer is yes and no. The war remains central, but other issues have gained in importance.
""¦ there is growing unrest over pay, with Brown trying to police his public sector pay limit. On the post and Metronet picket lines we saw the wider politicisation filtering down, as activists were open to the need to mount a radical challenge to New Labour in a way that wasn't true two or three years ago."
So perhaps there will be a ditching of electoralism and a return to rank-and-filism.
One thing is certain: wherever the SWP leaders head, we will not let them forget their betrayals in Respect. Nor should SWP members. Demand the names of all those on the political committee who supported popular frontism. Expel the popular frontists, beginning with John Rees.