Attempting to retreat in good order

Respect's terminal crisis is spreading acute tensions into the SWP, writes Peter Manson, with the leadership expelling three more prominent dissidents

The expulsion from the Socialist Workers Party of senior members Rob Hoveman, Kevin Ovenden and Nick Wrack has confirmed yet again that the crisis of Respect is hitting the SWP hard.

With the Respect national council now split virtually along the lines of the SWP versus everyone else, it is hardly surprising that comrades already tempted to 'go native' should have decided to go over to George Galloway, whose supporters now make up the NC majority. Comrade Wrack is a member of the NC, while Ovenden and Hoveman are long-time party apparatchiks who were directed by the SWP to work in the Respect office.

Wrack had been nominated by Galloway for the newly created post of national organiser - a post dreamt up mainly to counter the power of SWP leader John Rees, Respect's national secretary. The SWP eventually agreed to the new position - only to learn that its own comrade was the nominee of the other side. As the organisation's internal bulletin states, "The SWP made it clear that we didn't think Nick should accept the job because he had publicly disagreed with the line being put by the party about Respect" (Party notes October 16).

No doubt Galloway was fully aware of that 'crime', but, of course, nominating comrade Wrack would give him the best of both worlds: on the one hand, proposing an SWP member could be regarded as a conciliatory gesture; on the other hand, Wrack was now in reality first and foremost a Respect man.

Within days just about every major non-SWPer on the NC had cottoned on and signed up to a letter nominating Wrack - including the SWP's arch-enemies, Salma Yaqoob and Abjol Miah, leader of the Tower Hamlets group of Respect councillors. But significantly the list also included two SWP members who had broken ranks, Jerry Hicks (former Rolls Royce Amicus convenor in Bristol) and Rita Carter of Lewisham.

For Wrack, who at first had agreed to accept SWP discipline and decline the post, this surge of support proved too much and he announced he would after all be the first national organiser of Respect.

As for comrades Hoveman and Ovenden, the SWP central committee had, according to Party notes, "come to believe that it was impossible to have two comrades working for someone who has openly attacked the SWP in recent months" - especially as the central committee had already "raised major concerns with the way both these comrades worked in Respect. We believe that they were more concerned with promoting George Galloway's line in Respect than the SWP's position." Allegedly they had both "denounced the SWP to individuals and organisations outside the party".

I attempted to speak to comrade Hoveman to get his side of the story, but he, like comrade Wrack, was unwilling to talk to me. I was unable to contact comrade Ovenden. Nevertheless it does seem that the SWP leadership assertion - "the three comrades have not been expelled because they disagreed with the central committee. It is because they failed to accept party discipline and worked against the nationally agreed SWP line" - is accurate, at least in formal terms.

So the response to the expulsions by the pro-Respect soft left - liberal outrage - is, to say the least, misplaced. For example, Andy Newman of the Socialist Unity website asks rhetorically: "Do you want to be part of an organisation where any questioning of the line is met by expulsions and purges?"

Well, no, but on this occasion it seems clear that all three had indeed refused to abide by SWP discipline. The point, however, is that SWP discipline is not operated in a consistent way in the pursuit of principled working class ends, but always to serve the political committee's opportunist and sectarian purposes.

Change of course

In this case, the three were actually following the old line, before Rees and co decided that Respect was unlikely to be the vehicle to satisfy SWP ambitions after all. Not only had the local businessmen and 'community activists' in Tower Hamlets and Birmingham declined to fall in behind the SWP and ensure leaders like Rees got elected as councillors: a significant minority of rank and file SWPers were actually starting to believe in Respect's populist politics - while another section, disgusted at their leadership's rightism, began to vote with their feet and drift into passivity or simply away altogether.

Decisive action was called for. So now Galloway is no longer beyond criticism and now the businessmen's wing of Tower Hamlets Respect is described as a "reactionary" force. The SWP leadership, in order to prevent further disorientation and loss of membership, has been forced to change course. Respect will soon be abandoned and without its SWP foot soldiers it will simply disappear in most places (whatever the optimistic hopes of the small band of soft left loyalists).

True, the SWP is still hoping to get Lindsey German elected to the Greater London Assembly in May, and will try to "keep the show on the road" until then. But in truth that possibility now seems more and more remote - an organisation engaged in a full-scale and increasingly public civil war is hardly likely to win the confidence of many voters.

The November 17-18 annual conference will be the scene of a big showdown between the SWP and Galloway, with both sides jockeying for position over the next four weeks. Comrade Wrack, now firmly in the Galloway camp, is demanding yet another recall national council to ensure that conference arrangements are not left in the hands of Rees and co.

Respect's national secretary had hoped to put in place an SWP-leaning conference arrangements committee, but Wrack is now calling on the NC to take control of the CAC. Meanwhile he has accused his former leader of giving a "highly tendentious, inaccurate and incomplete description" of a meeting of the Respect officers' group - ie, of lying about it to the national council (letter to all NC members, October 17). He also claims the SWP has been withholding or delaying the circulation of emails it disapproves of and is now preventing a national organiser from being appointed. It is "intent on kicking the proposal into the long grass".

In order to ensure that the key officers' posts will be filled by SWPers or their allies it seems that Rees wants to change the method of electing them. Whereas up to now the officers have been elected by the 50-stong national council - itself elected as a 'take it or leave it' slate at conference - comrade Rees is hoping to pull off a constitutional coup next month, so that at least some officers will be directly elected by conference, where the SWP is certain to have a majority. That would leave the day-to-day running of Respect in SWP hands, even if the national council continued to have a non-SWP majority (as would be necessary if only for appearance's sake).

Comrade Wrack claims to have got wind of this plan even though it has not been discussed on either the NC or the officers' group. No doubt the Galloway camp will argue that a constitutional change agreed at one conference cannot come into effect until the next.

Tower Hamlets chaos

The civil war on the NC is being fought with particular intensity in Tower Hamlets. The October 17 membership meeting at the Club Row offices was meant to agree conference motions and elect delegates. But the whole thing ended in chaos. SWP branch officers attempted to force through a slate of delegates whose nominations had been received in advance and refused to accept an alternative, handwritten list from the Galloway-businessmen wing.

The composition of the Tower Hamlets delegation is of no small importance, since the borough's paper membership of 550 entitles it to 55 delegates - who could account for over a quarter of the total. True, the SWP will still have an overall majority, but a sizeable bloc of hostile non-SWPers could spoil the party.

With both sides realising the importance of Tower Hamlets, the pre-conference meeting saw neither willing to give ground. The SWP had managed to put forward as delegates just about every one of its own members - around 25 of the 46 nominations that secretary Jackie Turner said she had received. The rival list drawn up by the anti-SWP co-chair, Azmal Hussain, gave the SWP just a handful.

Hussain and the businessmen's wing had a clear majority at the meeting and he claims that is why the SWP would not agree to a vote, although comrade Turner and Chris Nineham say that it was not known if all those nominated by Hussain were genuine members. Subsequently the SWP alleged that several were indeed not fully paid up, that some had given only their first names and that one was a member of another Respect branch.

In a move the SWP said would break the deadlock, comrade Nineham proposed a 15-minute recess to enable the committee to draw up a compromise list. However, since the majority of the committee present were pro-SWP, Hussain, backed up by Abjol Miah and a number of other businessmen councillors, insisted that the decision on delegates and motions be deferred to a full committee meeting two days later.

The businessmen say that this proposal (to remove the right of the membership meeting to take decisions relating to conference) was agreed, while the SWP says it was not even put to the vote. At this point the meeting broke up in acrimony, with the majority walking out. Comrade Turner states that the remaining 30 members then calmly completed the business of the meeting and voted through the SWP-led slate.

Since Galloway has put his name to an email drafted by Hussain, I cannot see a compromise being reached unless the SWP backs down. Will there be two rival Tower Hamlets delegations at the conference?

One thing is certain - there is now not the slightest chance of a show of unity on November 17-18.