Two Respects, two dead ends
John Rees has achieved what he set out to do in provoking a split, writes Peter Manson. But it is a pyrrhic victory, leaving the SWP more isolated than ever
The split could not be more absolute. Just six weeks after Respect's national council unanimously agreed a series of measures to end the divisions and Chris Bambery denied in Socialist Worker that the 'unity coalition' was facing any crisis, let alone its "imminent demise", there are now two rival Respects.
On the night of November 2-3 George Galloway had the locks changed on the national headquarters, thus barring national secretary John Rees and all staff who were members of the Socialist Workers Party. Within hours the SWP had seized full control of the website and immediately began using it as a factional weapon.
While both sides have a copy of the membership database, it is not clear who controls the finance and who is receiving membership dues. National chair Linda Smith, who has been circulating the Galloway camp's factional missives, has called upon the SWP to "seek to resolve outstanding legal and organisational questions through further negotiations, in the hope that these matters will not have to be resolved elsewhere" ('Renewing Respect', circular to members, November 3). However, with both sides claiming that it is the other that has split, it seems inevitable that it will be the bourgeois courts that decide who is entitled to the Respect name and any assets.
November 17 will see two rival 'conferences' - 'rallies' is a more apt description. The SWP has taken over the University of Westminster venue for the official fourth annual conference, while Galloway, Smith, Salma Yaqoob and 16 other NC members have organised a 'Respect Renewal' event at the Bishopsgate Institute.
Comrade Rees and co were keen that the SWP version should have all the trappings of the official conference - branch delegates, motions, leadership elections - in order to emphasise that this is the genuine article. However, the "conference arrangements committee" (ie, comrade Rees) has reduced the gathering from the usual Saturday-Sunday affair to a single day and ditched most of the original agenda, leaving only elections, constitutional changes that the SWP hopes will reinforce the legitimacy of its own control and motions on organisation. These include the September 22 NC's unanimously agreed 'Building Respect for the future', which will be transformed via SWP amendments into an official anti-Galloway declaration.
Ironically, however, the seven motions in the organisation section - the only ones that will not be "remitted to a further conference to be held in the first six months of next year" - contain two from the CPGB! (circular, November 6). Presumably this is a deliberate move to stress the SWP's tolerance and commitment to plurality and open debate - although this image will be tarnished somewhat if we are not permitted to move them (SWP members saw to it that no CPGB delegate was elected from any branch).
In fact it is unclear whether the SWP will stick to the practice of previous years that only delegates may move and speak to motions. In order to maximise numbers and compensate for the absence of a sizeable bloc of members from the Galloway camp, the "conference arrangements committee" is urging "all members "¦ who have not been delegated to attend as observers ... we are arranging overflow space so that everyone can participate". Clearly the intention is to cram the venue with every SWPer and anyone else who can be mobilised. But what is meant by "participate"?
The SWP is torn between two stools. On the one hand, it wants to follow established procedure as far as possible in order to strengthen its claim as the true heir of Respect. On the other hand, it needs to create the illusion of a vibrant, democratic event that pulls in the overwhelming majority of Respect members, with a large number of votes being recorded. Perhaps this dilemma can be resolved through the secondment of official 'substitutes' for missing pro-Galloway delegates. And no doubt the CAC could help by 'discovering' extra entitlements and in general upping branch quotas.
The CAC has also called for emergency resolutions, which will seek to cement the SWP version of events that led to the split as the undisputed truth.
As for the Galloway-Smith-Yaqoob faction, its statement that the University of Westminster event "will do no more than confirm that the SWP leadership is hijacking Respect for its own factional purposes" is not without an element of truth - although, of course, it has to be said that the Galloway camp has been complicit in this "hijacking" by deciding to stay away.
The 'Renewing Respect' document justifies this boycott by claiming that there "can be no confidence in the legitimacy of the forthcoming Respect conference", since the "entire democratic process in Respect has been corrupted". Again, there is an element of truth in this - although the SWP by no means has a monopoly on the bureaucratic and undemocratic delegate-stacking that has taken place over the last month or so. The Galloway faction gave as good as it got in Tower Hamlets, for example.
The truth is, however, even if the SWP had bent over backwards to be fair; even if it had allowed the Tower Hamlets Galloway/businessmen-dominated slate to go forward and agreed a much reduced delegation from Student Respect; it would still have had a clear conference majority. So there is also truth in the SWP claim that Galloway and co boycotted the conference because they knew they would be outnumbered.
But how secure would the SWP majority have been? It is not just a question of simple mathematics. The Respect crisis has become an SWP crisis in a big way, with senior members who had 'gone native' expelled or resigning and a minority of the rank and file more than a little unhappy with their leadership's about-turn. Such comrades would have been susceptible to appeals from the likes of Rob Hoveman and Nick Wrack, the liberal reason of Yaqoob and even the oratory of Galloway.
That is why the SWP leadership - despite the demand to 'save our conference' and 'let the members decide' - was delighted when the Galloway wing pulled out. It had deliberately provoked the split, including by organising the breakaway from the Respect group of the four SWP councillors in Tower Hamlets. In a letter to the Morning Star, comrade Rees tries to make out that, despite his presence at the October 29 breakaway press conference, the move was nothing to do with him, and even claims that his "earlier intervention delayed the councillors' action" (November 3). But he does not actually deny that he was behind it. How can he?
Had Galloway believed in the power of his politics rather than backroom manoeuvring, he would have called the SWP's bluff and gone into the annual conference knowing that Rees would have a formal majority. Further defections from the SWP would have been virtually certain and its political committee would have had the utmost difficulty in keeping its troops in order. If Galloway had lost the vote he would nevertheless have been in a stronger position to win more support for his version of Respect.
Now, however, by referring to the SWP event as the "forthcoming Respect conference", comrades Galloway, Smith et al have ceded a large amount of ground in the credibility stakes to the SWP - especially as their own Respect Renewal event does not even pretend to be more than a rally. It will have no elected delegates, no previously submitted motions and no elections.
Clearly, then, the SWP tactic of provoking a split and strengthening its claim to the Respect name has worked. But what about the bigger picture? Where does the SWP go from here?
The actual aim of the political committee is to close Respect down in the short term. Its strategy of riding on the backs of 'community activists' in places like the East End and Birmingham in order to win recruits and gain a foothold in the council chambers has rebounded. Yes, it has won over a thin layer of Respect members and (for the moment) has four councillors in Tower Hamlets, but it never had a hope of using the network of businessmen for its own ends. Now that network has been wielded as a weapon against the SWP, ensuring that none of its comrades will retain their council seats in the Tower Hamlet's 'breach head'. In short, Respect has proved to be a huge and costly dead end.
Yet after its 'triumphant' rally on November 17 the SWP will hardly be in a position to dispense with its 'united front' altogether. It will have to "keep the show on the road" for a short time - presumably at least until the May 2008 Greater London Authority elections. But, deprived of the solid block of support from east London that it was able to muster in 2004, Lindsey German's vote will almost certainly be reduced to the level that the left traditionally gains.
What is more, the SWP has managed to alienate just about every former ally of any significance. Only half a dozen or so non-SWP members of the national council will stay on board its version. Leaving aside the inactive NC members, all the rest are now with Galloway. That is the situation across the country as well. Now the Respect John Rees has inherited really will simply be the SWP under another name. It will be a liability.
What of the Galloway version? At first sight it seems to have more going for it. It represents a varied bloc of mainly leftwing figures which is held together by opposition to the SWP. With Alan Thornett of the International Socialist Group acting as its reformist 'theoretician', this grouping might look like an attractive partner for those like the RMT union, the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain and even the Socialist Party who are contemplating some kind of new electoral alliance.
It is possible that this wing will find a home in some broader formation, but one thing is certain: on its own, without the foot soldiers provided by the SWP, it is going nowhere. The split will leave the Galloway wing without any effective organisation in whole swathes of the country. Galloway will be left with a handful of functioning branches.
More importantly the new offspring will inherit all the instability of its parent, with the mainly muslim businessmen pulling in a completely different direction to the unorganised soft lefts and the ISG.
SWP rallies its troops
In an attempt to justify its blatant provocations inside Respect, the SWP has pulled out its big guns, with Alex Callinicos having the gall to pen an editorial in the latest Socialist Worker that likens the Respect debacle to the 1903 Bolshevik-Menshevik split.
While the real arguments are often clouded by bickering, writes comrade Callinicos, "behind such splits there is always something political at stake - a left-right division below the surface that explains the crisis breaking out at an organisational level" (November 10). The question of revolution or reform, he says, is what lay behind the split over the Russian Social Democrats' constitution in 1903.
Callinicos tells us: "The split in Respect is no different from this historical pattern. On the left are those who hold fast to the original vision of Respect as a radical grassroots political project with appeal across the working class "¦ On the right are those who would subordinate or blunt the radical elements of Respect and confine it to being an electoral machine that supports a few big names in a few localities."
So we are meant to believe that Respect's very own "Bolsheviks" had all along been upholding principled working class politics, but in the end the right wing, led by Galloway, just would not go along with it. Of course, it was not a question of revolution or reform in Respect, which is a "united front".
This is spelled out in the SWP document, 'The record: the Socialist Workers Party and Respect', which last weekend was overwhelmingly endorsed by an SWP party council and can be read on the SWP website (www.swp.org.uk/respect_cc.php).
The central committee document explains: "Our approach was that of a united front. We agreed on a minimal set of points that were the maximum that our allies - and many thousands of people activated by opposition to the war - would accept, but which were fully compatible with our own long-term aims. Hence the name which was given to the new organisation, Respect - the Unity Coalition, was less than the full-blooded socialist position we would ideally have preferred, but which would have put off other people who wanted some sort of anti-war, anti-racist, anti-neoliberal alternative to New Labour."
Not only did Respect's name represent "less than the full-blooded socialist position". Its politics were much "less than" even the very basics of working class principle. In what way can voting against open borders, a woman's right to chose an abortion, workers' candidates on a worker's wage, secularism and even the idea of working class socialism be considered "fully compatible with our own long-term aims"?
In reality the SWP acted in a way that was far to the right of the Mensheviks in 1903. And its farcical interpretation of "the method of the united front as developed by Lenin and Trotsky" will lead it to do exactly the same again. Genuine revolutionaries never keep quiet about or water down their politics in a united front. On the contrary, we put them to the fore at every opportunity.
However, while admitting that "ideally" it would have preferred something more "socialist", the SWP leadership claims that the original platform - argued for and promoted vigorously by itself - was principled, leftwing and "radical". This is in contrast to the course upon which George Galloway wants to embark - "a course markedly to the right in some areas to that at the time Respect was launched four years ago". That is why Galloway now feels obliged to "besmirch the name of the Socialist Workers Party, thereby damaging our capacity to play a part in any united campaign of the left".
It goes without saying that Galloway's claims about the SWP's behaviour are totally without foundation. Everyone knows that the SWP has a "reputation" for "fighting unity and open, honest argument". While "there have been times when people have attempted to throw mud at us as revolutionary socialists", the mud "has never stuck because we have no interest in manipulation".
No doubt that is why the SWP now finds itself awash with so many allies.
But what was Galloway's 'right turn' all about? Strangely it does not manifest itself in any change in the type of politics he proposes - or none that the SWP leadership mentions in any case - and the central committee does concede that "Galloway was still capable of letting us have occasional glimpses of his old skills at denouncing imperialism." Occasional glimpses! What dishonest rubbish. Galloway has never stopped "denouncing imperialism". Nor has he changed the social democratic/Stalinite/third worldist terms of such denunciations.
What changed, however, according to the SWP leadership, was that "Galloway "¦ drew the conclusion that the only way to win seats was to follow the methods which had begun to take root in Birmingham and parts of Tower Hamlets. There was no future in appealing to workers on just class or anti-war arguments "¦ and there had to be a shift towards courting 'community leaders'. The Socialist Workers Party was resisting such a turn, and so it had to be attacked."
Do you know that "opportunist electoral politics began to dominate Respect"? That there were "even cases when people said that if they could not be Respect candidates they would stand for other political parties"? For such people "their model of politics was that increasingly used by the Labour Party in ethnically and religiously mixed inner-city areas - promising favours to people who posed as the 'community leaders' of particular ethnic or religious groupings if they would use their influence to deliver votes."
This just will not wash, comrades. Right from the beginning the SWP was prepared to follow exactly such a "model of politics". It was the SWP that courted and promoted defectors from New Labour, the Liberal Democrats and even the Tories! So long as they were "community leaders" with access to local networks they would bring their supporters in tow. Supporters the SWP leadership believed it could either win over or at the very least use for its own purposes.
It just so happens that the SWP's 'discovery' of this unfortunate practice within Respect coincides with its realisation that George Galloway was not prepared to allow his party to determine how he used his MP's salary. In fact he had "achieved the dubious record of being the fifth highest earning MP "¦ with £300,000 a year". The CC comments: "Some tribune of the people!"
This truly dire document concludes with the question: "Do we try to build a political home for all those who are disgusted from the left with New Labour? Or do we allow it to shrink into an organisation for promoting a few political careers - and one media career - in a couple of localities?"
The truth is, neither Galloway's politics nor his political methodology has changed. But the SWP is not concerned with the truth. It is concerned with ensuring that its latest change of line does not result in too much damage in terms of membership loss.
Its website reports that when 'The record: the Socialist Workers Party and Respect' was put to its November 3 national council, "The statement was passed by 157 votes to two, with three abstentions" (www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=13463).
A large majority, but one that disguises the degree of discontent within the organisation. Unfortunately what we have seen up to now has been the unorganised opposition of individuals and a series of defections to the right. The left needs to wake up. It needs to hold its leadership to account.
Those responsible for Respect's left populism, its ditching of working class principle and its rightist electoralism are not George Galloway and Salma Yaqoob. Those responsible are John Rees, Alex Callinicos, Chris Bambery and Lindsey German. They are not fit to be leaders of a revolutionary socialist organisation.