Under the carpet
Mike Macnair reports from the September 25 AGM of Respect Oxford
The Oxford Respect AGM of Tuesday September 25 was addressed by national secretary John Rees, who spoke on 'The future of Respect' - virtually identical to the title of the anti-Galloway factional document penned by himself and Elaine Graham Leigh. Besides comrade Rees, there were 13 present, including Andy Newman of Socialist Unity, who had come with two others from Swindon. In the chair was John Lister of the International Socialist Group and Respect national council.
Since I have been pretty inactive as far as Respect goes in the last year, it was interesting to hear the secretary's report. Though reduced in practice to a small hard core, Oxford Respect has met regularly once a month and engaged in some local campaigning - against turning a local school into an academy, in solidarity with strikes and so on. It has continued to leaflet its 'target ward', Temple Cowley, though less frequently than originally intended, and has had letters published in the local paper. The Student Respect intervention at the freshers' fairs in autumn 2006 picked up a lot of initial interest, but this faded away rapidly.
Keeping this much going has been pretty much of an achievement on the part of the small number of comrades who have been doing it. It has to be said, though, that this is pretty much the usual diet of activity of a left group or of one of the better Labour Party branches before 1997. It is not clear that the particular Respect project has made that much difference in this town, except that Respect organises fewer forces than the old Socialist Alliance branch.
A call was made for comrades who have let their subs lapse to renew; the speaker mentioned doing so by paper form or by web. I said that the national office had proved to be pretty efficient in dealing with renewals by phone. Comrade Rees sarcastically asked for this comment to be printed in the Weekly Worker.
The focal point of the meeting was quite clearly his speech. The Socialist Workers Party leader began with the political situation, which he argued was different from that in which Respect was formed. In the first place, Blair had been driven out by the anti-war movement, the last straw being his support for the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006, which led to resignations from the government and his announcement that he would be gone in a year.
This is a favourable situation for the left, continued comrade Rees. True, the immediate replacement of Brown with Blair has produced some advantages for the Labour Party. Brown is benefiting merely from being 'not Blair' and has made some shifts in spin and rhetoric to promote that; hence the talk of an early general election. But the 'Brown bounce' will not last, for two reasons.
First, on Iraq and the 'war on terror' Brown is just as much as Blair between a rock and a hard place: there is no public support for the war, and even elements of the establishment oppose it, but US pressure keeps the British government in line: troops have been redeployed from Basra to the Iranian border; the British army remains heavily committed in Afghanistan, and the British will undoubtedly line up with the US in a potential military attack on Iran.
Secondly, Brown is in a weaker position than Blair on domestic policy, since he was the real architect of New Labour's Thatcherite domestic policies. He is also facing much more resistance from the trade unions than Blair has ever faced.
The other component of the 'Brown bounce' is the 'Cameron collapse', said comrade Rees. Cameron faces the same problem as previous Tory leaders. The underlying political situation is that the electorate as a whole is well to the left of New Labour. So the Tories, in order to win, need to position themselves to the left of Labour. But as soon as they make serious attempts to do so the 'Daily Mail reading cadre' of the Tory Party snap them back. In Cameron's case the trigger was grammar schools. The result is a Tory leadership crisis.
Overall the political dynamics will undermine the 'Brown bounce'. How fast this happens depends on the level of industrial resistance. This is "not a bad situation for a movement to the radical left of Labour", comrade Rees asserted.
He said that Respect had good local election results in May - partly because of the policy, followed so far, of concentrating efforts in a few areas. This was not a sustainable long-term policy, because it led to distortions in the way the organisation builds itself. Respect needs a turn to a more broad-based policy attempting to sink roots and build a broader geographical base.
It will be problematic if there is an early general election - such an event always squeezes small parties. If so, we will just have to stand as widely as practically possible. The coming GLA elections are the central possibility, since they are the only important elections conducted on a proportional basis, and last time round, when it was just formed, Respect came close to getting a candidate elected. We need to shift to standing as widely as possible and building as far as possible.
This is "not an easy trick to pull off". How best to do it is currently being debated. And, of course, sometimes debates are "bumpy", including at last weekend's national council meeting, but "to the regret of Newsnight and its collaborators" the meeting had passed a unanimous resolution.
In reply to questions, comrade Rees said that in addition to an urgent fund drive the NC had agreed an initiative towards wider left forces. It was possible that the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain might be interested in a common project now that the last remnants of democracy were being removed in the Labour Party - he is to meet CPB general secretary Rob Griffiths next week.
The RMT is considering standing candidates. On past form, this will probably be an RMT slate, but he has written to Bob Crow offering an "accommodation". Bob Wareing has been deselected in favour of Stephen Twigg and has resigned from the Labour Party; he will probably stand as an independent, but Respect should support him. Finally, a few minor organisational changes were made to Respect's functioning, the most important of which was provision for accountability of elected representatives.
In discussion, John Lister referred to the strengths of Respect and said that it was the best chance of a left alternative to Labour for decades, and had to be made to work. But it needed to be openly socialist; in this aspect, electoral literature had been very weak and it needed to be stronger for London; Respect needed to be more visibly democratic; and it badly needed a paper.
Andy Newman - who has, of course, just announced his decision to rejoin Respect following what he considers to be the September 22 NC - made a rather similar intervention, though focussing on what Swindon socialists (who had not been affiliated to Respect) had been doing. He talked about the need for networking and bringing the broader left together. A unitarian attitude to the Greens was important.
I made the point that the 'personalistic' debate at leadership level was an attempt to avoid political differences in the development of Respect. The left needed to offer a radical alternative to the consensus, but Respect's literature, except for over the war question, is more or less part of that consensus. In response to comrade Rees's Newsnight sneer, I said that the CPGB, like the SWP, was in favour of using the bourgeois media to get our views across, but the argument for not doing so on this occasion - keeping internal differences secret - was a Stalinist one.
One non-SWP comrade said that the fundamental problem with the old Socialist Alliance was factionalism, and Respect represented a "great step forward" because of its "unity". We need to stick to the project and sink roots in the localities and campaigns. However, the SWP branch secretary warned that sinking roots was a "slow business" - the branch had done lots of work over the past year, and he did not want to see it all "thrown away in a faction fight". We needed to "be tight" and get on with long-term work.
In replying to the debate, comrade Rees said that Respect was now three and a half years old. When it was founded, it was necessary to hammer out a high degree of consensus on policies at leadership level before it was possible to move forward. Time passes, conditions change and the original consensus needs to be redebated. If this was a permanent process, it would be debilitating, but you have to have it at transition points in politics.
The debate has to be managed so as to avoid personalities and focus on issues. Because the trade unions are beginning to go into action, Respect will need to move towards a more traditional left and labour movement form than in the past. This was the basis of the Fighting Unions initiative, which he thought was a success. It let Respect get onto labour movement platforms which would not have been possible otherwise. The lesbian/gay issue was similar. It was not just that Respect was constantly attacked over the question, but that, whatever its merits, lesbian and gay rights is "a mainstream labour movement issue".
There is no difference in principle about the question of socialism within Respect, said comrade Rees. But it is important not to exclude people who "support socialist policies" - no privatisations and so on - but do not want to call themselves socialists. Better to have them in the tent - this is a sensible and successful model. However, added comrade Rees, there is a legitimate argument whether the balance is correct - John Lister and his ISG comrade Alan Thornett "may be correct" that it needs to be shifted. But there is no question of Respect being part of the consensus.
As to the balance of electoral material, in London, we are fighting against Livingstone; who is anti-war and anti-privatisation, but has a pro-business agenda - most clearly seen in the "class cleansing" of east London around the Olympics project in the interests of property developers. This was the basis of the big battle in Tower Hamlets and the intense pressure on Respect councillors there to go over to Labour.
As far as democracy in Respect is concerned, it is possible to "open up the structures" somewhat. But the real thing firing debate is the need to make big strategic decisions. Respect's democratic character is shown by the fact that no-one on the NC is saying that they are being forced to think in a certain way. It is a sign of strength that the large majority did not want to risk being "sliced up by the media". Comrade Rees said that he, Galloway and several others (including comrade Lister) had been asked to comment on Respect's "differences" by Newsnight but declined to do so.
He wound up with an upbeat story. In the village of Corsham, near Chippenham, where he grew up, a BNP councillor had been elected unopposed. A first anti-fascist picket against this individual attracted very few locals. But the second was attended by 400 locals. That level of mobilisation in a country village said something about the political possibilities before us.
There are two possible interpretations of Rees's extraordinary attempt in his speech to sweep under the carpet the violent debate within the Respect leadership. The first (and I think more likely) is that the SWP leadership has genuinely come to a deal with Galloway and his immediate supporters - if only to pass an anodyne resolution and hope that the present Respect project can be 'transcended' (perhaps with Griffiths and co) before it explodes due to its political contradictions. In that case we can expect the return of the 'unanimous' platform at the next Respect conference and anyone who has rejoined in the hope of seeing Respect adopt a new course, including more open debate, will be disappointed.
The second is that the SWP leadership may have become so used to the regime of false unanimity, secrets and lies that they operate within their own party that they have deceived themselves into thinking that September 22 gave them an agreement. In that case, the factional battle will re-emerge in short order.
Either way, it remains true - as Galloway said in his original letter - that Respect's membership has shrunk and many of its branches hardly exist. The underlying reason for this is that it is blindingly obvious that the SWP is evolving rapidly towards 'official communism': both in its Stalinist unanimity and attempt to keep political differences top secret, and in its pseudo-anti-imperialism which in fact consists only of supporting those neo-colonial dictatorships that happen to be the current targets of US aggression.
The unpopular-front Respect project accurately reflects that evolution. Hence if, by some weird chance, the SWP leadership and George Galloway took political power, the regime they would create would be at best a replica of the old USSR. Whatever the illusions of SWP members, the working class knows better than to attempt to repeat that experience. Precisely because that is the case, Respect is incapable of organising the undoubted mass sentiment for an alternative to the neoliberal consensus which Rees described.