After his Moscow, Rees faces his Waterloo
The leadership of the Socialist Workers Party is not only fighting Galloway and his allies in Respect. Peter Manson shows that there is growing discontent in the ranks of the SWP itself
Finally Socialist Worker has admitted that Respect is in the grips of a profound crisis. In an editorial entitled 'Defend socialism and democracy in Respect' - presumably written by editor Chris Bambery - the paper explains why it has reluctantly decided to come clean:
"Socialist Worker has never been one of those papers obsessed with the manoeuvres of left groups. But the present division in Respect is so important it demands comment. We also have to speak out because Socialist Worker has been approached by two major news programmes who say they are going to broadcast allegations against the SWP over this affair" (October 27).
It is less than a month since comrade Bambery was telling us that all was well in Respect. He was sneering at the media "spin" which claimed the organisation was in crisis, heading his pathetic little article with a reassuring 'Respect national council passes unanimous motion' (September 29).
Of course, Bambery does not acknowledge, let alone apologise for, his previous blatant attempt to mislead his readers in such a futile manner. Instead he goes on to blame the crisis - which he had previously dismissed as a figment of media imagination - entirely on George Galloway. Despite everything the Socialist Workers Party has done to build Respect and defend its figurehead from attack, "Now, in a concerted push which should appal those who want to see a radical alternative to Labour, Galloway has begun to attack the core of the left in Respect. He has decided that the political vision which has sustained the project no longer fits.
"He denounces members of the SWP as unthinking 'Leninists' who listen to nobody but their shadowy and unaccountable leadership - a classic rightwing stereotype of revolutionaries. Inside Respect a campaign has been launched against the SWP in an attempt to drive us out." However, "The SWP is not going to be driven out of Respect."
Just how, I wonder, can the most organised, the largest, indeed the majority component, the component that occupies many, if not most, of the key positions nationally and locally, be 'driven out'? The SWP can now be easily outvoted on the national council, in Tower Hamlets and in Birmingham, but almost everywhere else its members decide everything. Playing the persecuted minority will not wash - not even with a good section of its own membership.
The editorial concludes: "We urge everyone to support our position that we need to defend Respect as a project that has socialism as a central part, that will not make endless concessions in order to win votes, and that stands up for democracy."
It is difficult to understate the sheer, breathtaking hypocrisy of this sentence. Respect was designed (by the SWP leadership) precisely as a formation that did not have "socialism as a central part" - and genuine, working class socialism, as opposed to left populism, did not even get a look in. Under the leadership of the SWP Respect has not stood up for democracy - either internally or in relation to the state - and it has made seemingly "endless concessions in order to win votes" - what the SWP used to refer to as "electoralism". Not just socialism, but gay rights, open borders, secularism, a woman's right to choose an abortion "¦
Talking of which, is it just coincidence that the same issue of Socialist Worker has devoted so much space to the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act? Remember how we were told that abortion was an issue that did not come up on the doorstep, how the word was deliberately not mentioned in the 2005 general election manifesto? But in this issue an introduction to an interview with abortion rights campaigner Dr Wendy Savage notes that one of the "drawbacks" of the 1967 act is that it does not allow "abortion on request". And Elane Heffernan states that "... the right to free and safe abortion is one we must fight to defend and extend as part of our fight for freedom and equality" (my emphasis). Margaret Renn's short piece is even entitled 'Not the church, not the state'.
It seems that the days of pandering to the religious backwardness of those who were previously among the SWP's allies are over.
While this editorial is the first public admission of Respect's crisis (and, by implication, its "imminent demise", which comrade Bambery had been so keen to deny), the SWP has in reality been preparing its members for the break with Galloway and for life after Respect for a good two months. It is this turn that has led to the subsequent crisis in the SWP itself, with the beginning of what looks likely to be a steady stream of prominent expelled members.
Now, Bambery, John Rees, Lindsey German and co are stepping up their internal propaganda war against Galloway and their own dissidents. Comrade Rees - who happens to be Respect's national secretary, of course - has written a letter to SWP members headed 'The witch-hunt in Tower Hamlets Respect', in which he complains of a "a thoroughly McCarthyite attack on the SWP and other socialists" (October 18).
The latest Party notes (October 22), in an item headed 'Respect - but not for the SWP', claims: "Last week George Galloway led a concerted series of attacks on the SWP and attempted to weaken or smash up SWP delegations going to the Respect conference" (not that the SWP itself would ever use underhand means to stop its opponents getting elected to conference, would it?).
This is followed by a series of short reports under headlines like 'Tower Hamlets - Galloway goes on the rampage', 'Birmingham - what a carve up!', 'Newham - when only some Respect members will do!' and 'Student Respect groups - are they going to be banned?'
In Tower Hamlets Galloway is said to have "launched a vicious assault on the SWP and on 'Leninists'. This is a disgraceful attack on the party which defended him during the Big brother episode, played a crucial role in getting him elected and is the backbone of Respect in most parts of the country."
According to Party notes Galloway insisted on excluding SWP members from a meeting of Respect members he wanted to address in Newham. Although a meeting had been arranged for October 19 in the local Respect office, it is claimed Galloway sent in his spokesperson to invite all non-SWPers to a private meeting at a member's house. "This was further evidence of a declaration of war against us."
The SWP is on particularly shaky ground when it comes to the Birmingham "carve-up", though. Party notes states that its comrades were contacted about the November 17-18 national conference by expelled SWPer Ger Francis on behalf of the local Respect officers. Comrade Francis said "he did not want to have a big row like Tower Hamlets Respect, and could we come to an agreement on the number of delegates the SWP would put forward". It was agreed that the SWP would have only three out of 12, reflecting its share of the overall Birmingham membership.
But at the meeting where delegates were elected Salma Yaqoob announced that she planned to claim a delegate entitlement of 17, as there had been a number of last-minute membership applications. The "carve-up" consists of the SWP not being awarded a proportional increase of one extra delegate. This is referred to as an one of several "outrageous attempts to stifle democracy".
According to Francis, in a letter to comrade Rees in his capacity as Respect national secretary, SWP comrades claimed the Birmingham meeting was "unconstitutional" (although no such allegation is made in Party notes). Comrade Francis states, tongue firmly in cheek: "We are also more than happy to recall the meeting if the SWP persist with their allegations that it was 'unconstitutional'. We would not want anybody to think that our commitment to the democratic process inside Respect is lacking."
One place where the "democratic process" has been under strain is most definitely Tower Hamlets Respect, where the fighting between the SWP and Galloway has been particularly intense. Paper membership of Tower Hamlets Respect is around 560. That translates into something like a quarter of conference delegates on November 17-18.
And in Tower Hamlets John Rees's forces were comprehensively routed, not least because of the far greater numbers that Galloway and his allies command. Therefore Tower Hamlets can be said to be where John Rees met his Moscow. The SWP is now in full scale retreat "¦ and haemorrhaging members.
Following last week's chaotic membership meeting, an even more fractious committee meeting was held two days later. Pro-Galloway joint-chair Azmal Hussain had called off the October 16 membership meeting after persistent SWP objections to the Galloway slate of delegates being put to the vote. Hussain had declared that the meeting had remitted the decision on delegates to the committee and led the majority out of the room. But the SWP minority had stayed put and voted through their own slate.
However, all this was nothing, compared to the disorder at the cacophonous October 18 committee meeting. It broke up amid uncontrolled shouting and another walkout - this time by the SWP minority. At one point George Galloway - invited by Hussain to address the meeting - stood on his chair in an attempt to make himself heard.
SWP comrades on the committee insisted that a "fully constituted members meeting" had been held on October 16 to elect conference delegates and if the majority had abandoned it that was their lookout. They had no right to spring a list of over 50 nominees after the meeting had started, when SWP secretary Jackie Turner had included everybody who had told her they wanted to stand beforehand. In any case a fresh meeting could not be called for October 25, as Hussain and co wanted, because two weeks' notice had to be given of any meeting where an election would be held.
The Galloway wing claimed that many members who did not have email had not received the call for nominations because of the postal strike and, in any case, comrade Turner had not given any deadline for their receipt - she had only said "by Tuesday" (ie, the day of the meeting itself) without specifying a time. If the list of nominees read out by comrade Turner had been approved, the SWP would have had over half the delegates, when they constituted less than 10% of the Tower Hamlets membership.
It is clear that neither side was interested in arriving at a reasonable outcome, but only concerned with maximising its own quota of delegates. The SWP knew full well that a delegation packed with SWPers would not be acceptable, yet Turner deliberately left the process vague, while ensuring that her own comrades had handed in their nominations in advance. For his part, Hussain produced a hand-written list of 56 names at the meeting, making it impossible for anyone to take them in or to check they were genuine. This was the 'take it or leave it' slate system gone mad.
In actual fact conference standing orders make no provision for the election of a slate of delegates - it specifies "exhaustive election", which implies several rounds of voting for individual nominees. To put it mildly, neither side was ready to countenace such a procedure - or any other open and democratic method, for that matter.
At the committee meeting, Galloway arrived 15 minutes late, but when he was invited to speak it was as if he was telling all the little boys and girls to behave themselves, as he had heard they had been very naughty. He had been "appraised of the farce" of the October 16 meeting, which had made Respect "look a joke". But his solution was simply to support the call for two rival slates to be put to the vote at a fresh membership meeting on October 25.
He said that Respect is a "pluralist organisation" and no one section should dominate it. There was a place for "Leninists" within it, but not if they tried to run it as their own property. The SWP were like "Russian dolls", but they cannot control Respect through Russian doll means.
Members from both camps tried to show how the proposals of the other side was unfair. For example, councillor Rania Khan, who is close to the SWP, was not included on Hussain's slate (and, of course, there was no way an individual name could be voted on) She asked what she had done to be excluded. This provoked an angry response from an observer: "You are incompetent. You say nothing in the council." The heckler stormed out, but Rania Khan was visibly shocked and upset.
The SWP's Shaun Doherty was getting more amd more irtate. He repeated the SWP mantra that the meeting to elect conference delegates had already taken place and another meeting would be unconstitutional - to which Galloway responded, without looking at Doherty: "I'll see you in court." At this point, according to one witness, comrade Doherty was "frothing at the mouth like a rabid dog, with eyes bulging and neck veins throbbing".
In the end the motion to put both slates to another membership meeting on October 25 was carried by 12 votes to 10 (or 12-11, if you include Rania Khan - her status as a councillor on the committee was disputed).
The meeting descended into uproar, with both sides hurling abuse and some SWP comrades threatening to take the matter to the national council (which, unfortunately for them now has a clear pro-Galloway majority). Azmal Hussain said he had no confidence in Jackie Turner as secretary and that he wanted her out. "Witch-hunt!" responded the SWP. "Undemocratic!" yelled an apoplectic Shaun Doherty, as he led his troops out to Galloway's taunts. According to SWP accounts, he called, "Off you go!" and added: "Fuck off, fuck off, the lot of you!" But non-SWPers at the meeting said they did not hear the last remark. The meeting was abandoned.
However, a hurriedly arranged recall committee meeting took place in a totally different atmosphere on October 23, where it was unanimously agreed that a single consensual list of delegates should be drawn up for the October 25 meeting. A formal surrender by the SWP? I am not sure. Three leading SWPers - Jackie Turner, full-timer Ayesha Ali and Shaun Doherty - were not present and the SWP team was led by Paul McGarr, who is regarded as a Respect patriot. Either the SWP has decided to cut its losses and negotiate a compromise or comrade McGarr has become the latest pro-Galloway defector. We will soon know.
In an openly factional anti-SWP document, national chair Linda Smith has written to all national council members advising them she has recalled the NC for Sunday October 28 against the wishes of the SWP-dominated officers group.
Comrade Smith is outraged at the decision of the national officers group meeting, "at which one component part of the coalition - the SWP - had an absolute majority", to "frustrate the will of the national council over the proposal for an interim national organiser". She also wants to take the conference arrangements committee away from SWP control through the addition of two members - one of which is the former trusted hack Ghada Razuki.
Comrade Razuki is currently circulating a petition to Respect members, which alleges that "the actions of the SWP leadership imperil the very existence of Respect as a broad, pluralistic and democratic left alternative to New Labour". The three initiators of the petition are comrades Smith, Wrack and Galloway, and comrade Razuki is given as Galloway's contact.
Comrade Smith alleges that John Rees has charged current members of the CAC (appointed by him) with "drawing up major constitutional changes to be voted on at conference". These will certainly include the direct election of officers, so that the SWP majority of delegates he is expecting to garner can ensure there is no mistake and he retains his national secretary post. Currently the NC appoints its own officers and, if the current balance of forces is replicated, comrade Rees will most certainly be out on his ear.
If this scheme fails, the SWP will be forced to stand a slate of its own candidates and allies for the national council in opposition to the slate proposed by the outgoing NC. However, as the current NC has demonstrated, SWP allies are not always reliable - comrade Smith herself was once included among their number - as Rees, German et al have a remarkable knack of alienating them.
A third area over which comrade Smith expresses "serious concerns" is the election of conference delegates and in particular those from Student Respect groups. Nobody, it seems, has any record of who among Respect's student periphery is actually a member of the party, as opposed to a member of a Respect student society. So there will be "serious questions over any student delegation" to what will be a "highly significant" conference.
'Why all the fuss?' asks the SWP. As Party notes explains, "It was decided at the Respect officers' meeting of Monday September 3 that for the purposes of this year's Respect conference, members of Student Respect would be treated as members in terms of constituting branches in each college and university, and sending delegates and motions to conference. No opposition was voiced to this proposal. Furthermore, it follows the precedent from last year's conference where the arrangements were identical."
Yes, that would explain the slight disagreement last year about how many student "members" Respect had - Galloway claimed a ridiculous 10,000, much to the disapproval of Nick Wrack, who hinted at the anomaly. But last year no-one was bothered about a couple of dozen students having a vote. After all, everybody was on the same side in those days, weren't they?
This year, student delegations are not required by Galloway to swell the numbers - especially since most of them will be in the SWP. So his supporters on the leadership - not least expelled SWP member Nick Wrack - are insisting that student delegates are properly accredited this time round.
According to Party notes, students were given just three days' notice to comply: "On Friday evening we were told that all Student Respect groups must send the names, addresses and emails of all members declared for the group by today (Monday). Student Respect have sent a statement, expressing concern over the potential exclusion of student members from the democratic structures of Respect, which is being signed and sent to the office by student groups across the country. This is an attack not only on a radical layer of Respect but on the genuine democracy of the organisation as a whole."
The faction fighting in Respect is continuing to be reflected inside the SWP itself, with a minority expressing sympathy with those recently expelled. Now some have themselves fallen foul of the SWP political committee, which has declared the circulation of the petition they are circulating "undemocratic".
This is how the reasoning goes: "These comrades did not raise the petition in their branches, but instead approached a select group of comrades to sign. Neither did they inform the CC they were launching a petition. This is an undemocratic method of winning a position inside the party and alien to our method of operating.
"Comrades in the SWP have always aired their disagreements at district meetings, aggregates or branch meetings. If they feel they need to launch a petition, it should be raised and debated at any of the above meetings and that gives all comrades the right to debate the issues in an open manner. It gives all comrades the right to sign or not sign as the case may be."
Did anyone follow that? The implication seems to be that if dissident comrades propose the circulation of a petition through official structures that would be fairer, as members who wish to sign their opposition to the leadership might not get to see the petition otherwise. So the SWP bans unofficial petitions in order to be fair to dissidents!
Mind you, the majority can mobilise support for its own positions in any way it chooses. Party notes reports that the October 20 aggregate of SWP members in Scotland were treated to an opening by Chris Bambery on the crisis within Respect. "After discussion "¦ a motion to endorse the decisions made by the central committee over the Respect crisis was passed unanimously."
And the next step in mobilising support for the leadership south of the border will be the emergency SWP national meeting "to discuss the latest developments in Respect" on Saturday November 3. This is to be followed by a series of pre-conference aggregates across the country during November as part of the build-up for the SWP's own annual conference to be held over the weekend of January 4-6 2008.
However, before that, the leadership has the Respect conference to contend with. It has become increasingly clear that the political committee is having to fight on two fronts beforehand. It must mobilise as many of its own members as possible to ensure it has an overall majority despite the likely loss of student delegates and the big anti-SWP delegations from Tower Hamlets and Birmingham. But it must also try to ensure that the SWP delegates elected are onside, not more potential defectors to Galloway. Otherwise there is a real danger of Rees meeting his Waterloo on November 17-18.
It could well be a close run thing. If, say, 60% of delegates are SWP members, they will come under enormous pressure from Galloway and their own former leading comrades (Nick Wrack, Rob Hoveman, Kevin Ovenden, Ger Francis "¦) to put the 'interests of Respect' before the sectarian needs of the SWP.