Maintaining the pretence
Posing left, pretending to be a victim, but talking only to itself, the SWP's rump of Respect could not raise the tone of its rally-cum-conference beyond the banal. Not only has the SWP lost around 500 members, writes Jim Moody, but its leadership has learnt nothing from the Respect debacle
Over 300 delegates and observers packed the Old Cinema at the University of Westminster on November 17. This first cinema to show moving pictures to a paying British public (in 1896) may have been witness to the last conference of Respect. Numbers were bumped up by having representatives of Respect student societies as delegates, something that had been a bone of contention with Galloway and his supporters before they slid away to form Respect Renewal.
Although Respect national secretary John Rees rallied the faithful at the opening and the closing of the truncated event, his railing at a supposed witch-hunt of the SWP was truly risible and ridiculous. He and subsequent speakers who lined up ritualistically to damn the "the witch-hunt" failed signally to explain how the SWP majority were being witch-hunted by the minority.
As comrade Rees's grasp on reality slips, so his and the leadership's control over the SWP membership weakens. The Respect "experiment" has resulted in a haemorrhaging of members, culminating in expulsions and resignations over the split. Judging by the numbers signing its anti-Galloway petition, it seems that the SWP has lost up to a third of its comrades, bringing its real membership down to around 1,000.
Comrade Rees was keen to point out what had changed up to the split. Whereas in the early days of Respect the organisation "had to hunt around for people willing to stand for us", once relative success was in view - in Tower Hamlets, for example - "tens of people put their names forward". He claimed that many of them did not come toward Respect because of what it stands for.
He then berated MPs who succumbed to unspecified "temptations and pressures", arguing that "sometimes George Galloway has resisted, sometimes he hasn't." 'Accountability' is now the buzzword, which blithely ignores the fact that it was the SWP that had voted down all attempts to make Respect representatives accountable to the members.
Rees also claimed less than convincingly that Respect's participation in Pride countered "a lie, a constant theme" that it had played down gay rights. Yet, as we all know, Rees was stung into getting Respect to have a presence this year precisely because of justifiable criticism - after all it was Rees who agreed to Galloway's demands to drop gay rights from the 2005 general election manifesto.
Rees tried to get the crowd going by denouncing the practice of signing up 'pocket members' by the SWP's opponents in Tower Hamlets: ie, the businessmen's wing. A point on which Tower Hamlets leading light Kumar Murshid, a former advisor to Ken Livingstone and new member of the national council, backed him. Lindsey German took up the point, too, denouncing votes obtained on the basis of "community politics".
Of course, the SWP was happy to pick up support on exactly that basis so long as it believed it could control or ride on the back of such support to see its own senior comrades elected. It was only when the businessmen's wing of Respect in places like Tower Hamlets decided they would rather back people from their own network than deliver votes to Rees and co that the SWP leadership's strategy started to unravel.
That is why comrade Rees decided to cut his losses and provoke a split. However, because he did not want to cede the Respect name to Galloway, he now has to put in a lot of time and effort keeping "the show on the road", when the intention is to close down the whole thing at a convenient moment.
But the SWP is having the greatest of difficulty persuading others to stay with it. There are now no 'big names' on the new NC elected by the conference; and, with only 46 nominees (one of whom dropped out at the last minute) for 50 places, the organisers were struggling to maintain the pretence that its version of Respect is much more than the SWP itself. Of the NC names that I recognise, more than half are SWP members.
SWP plus "¦
Despite SWP claims to the contrary, an overwhelming majority of delegates and observers at the conference were also SWP members; the conference arrangements committee struggled hard to present a speakers' list throughout the day that belied this, and managed to produce a line-up of not quite a third non-SWP speakers. Quite an achievement.
Most of those called from the floor did not address any set motion, but merely went to the microphone and maundered on about what wonders their Respect branch had achieved. With the panoply of guest speakers and John Rees's two keynote speeches, there was no real debate at all. Only eight of the original motions submitted were not remitted after the SWP decided to reduce the conference to one day. These were augmented by three emergency motions.
There were only the rarest of challenges to the SWP version of events leading to the split. One came from Amina Mangera from Lewisham and Greenwich, who declared: "Both sides on the national council have behaved reprehensibly." She did not "accept that there is a left-right split" and hoped that all branches could continue to work together (even those that were with Renewal).
The main motion, 'Building Respect', was carried massively after conference agreed an amendment objecting to "witch-hunting socialists or socialist organisations within Respect". All the emergency motions went through on the nod.
Sadly, but not unexpectedly, two motions from the CPGB (submitted under the 20-member rule) were resoundingly lost. Only one CPGB comrade, Simon Dowdeswell, made it to the conference as a delegate, given that the SWP was intent on ensuring that only friendly faces would be there.
Our first motion outlined the subordination of the socialist left in Respect to an often phantom right wing by abandoning principled positions on open borders, representatives on a skilled worker's wage, abortion on demand, gay and lesbian equality, abolition of the monarchical system and working class socialism.
SWP hack Maxine Bowler was put up to oppose it and no-one else was called for or against. Comrade Bowler, claimed that she felt she had not subordinated her politics; her main objection, however, seemed to circle fuzzily around the motion's "abstract slogans" and "abstract propaganda" and the statement that Respect was a unity coalition, not a revolutionary party. Not exactly withering criticism, but she got her dutiful applause.
Comrade Dowdeswell also moved the second motion, against "violence and anathematisation in the working class movement". He himself had been physically attacked by SWP national organiser Martin Smith at the organisation's Marxism 2007 event in London on July 7 (see Weekly Worker July 12). Comrade Smith was amongst those listening from the floor. Comrade Dowdeswell drew parallels with the recent violence meted out to Respect's new chair, Oliur Rahman, which numerous SWP speakers had condemned, while remaining silent on it own thuggery.
The speaker wheeled out to oppose the motion was Jackie Turner, another SWP hack, who asserted (without explanation) that Respect conference was not the correct forum for the motion. While she conceded, "Of course, we condemn violence", she did not deign to give even the briefest of arguments against the motion, but instead spent her time praising Respect comrades for their tolerance despite provocation during the split. It goes without saying that comrade Turner's cynical display was well received and the sheep dutifully voted the motion down as instructed.
Part of the SWP leadership's presentation of their 'pluralistic' version of Respect was to elect Elaine Graham Leigh, the capable former treasurer, to the newly created post of national organiser, one of the three posts directly elected by conference under the new voting system. Now, it seems, slates are bad and out; single transferable votes are good and in. It must have been a bit of a let-down, then, that there were no electoral contests on which to try out the new system. Everyone was returned unopposed: not only comrade Graham Leigh, but also Oliur Rahman as chair, John Rees as national secretary and all those nominated for the NC.
One much sought after imprimatur, that of PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka, was forthcoming. No wonder he got standing ovations before and after his speech. He spoke of trade union struggles and unity in much the same way that he has on numerous occasions, but when he dealt with what had happened in Respect he was categorical: "I have refused to speak at the Renewal event." Just as he had backed the Socialist Alliance and the Scottish Socialist Party, so he had been "happy to support" Respect. But for Serwotka, there can be no unity with those who "attack and witch-hunt other socialists". Was this the high point of the day for the SWP?
Perhaps the speech that epitomised the bankruptcy that pervades this version of Respect (just as it did within the united organisation) was given by Preston Respect councillor and SWPer Michael Lavalette. Comrade Lavalette insisted that Respect's policies were in "contrast with how the main parties operate". For Respect "No issue is too small," he said, waxing lyrical over the issues of "bins, rats, housing, asylum". Somehow, these could easily be related to national and international matters.
If any of the SWPers present were getting restless at the uniformity on show they did not show it. Some light relief was presented when Stalinite Andrew Murray, national chair of the Stop the War Coalition, took the humorous approach. He failed to take sides in the Respect split and indeed made exactly the same speech at the Renewal event. Because he holds a full-time union post, is STWC chair and a member of the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain, "I don't have room for a personal opinion." Weasel words indeed.
Another guest who spoke at both events was Derek Wall of the Green Party, who recommended that the Respect comrades read Marx, especially on environmental questions. He touched on the meaning of use-values as opposed to exchange-values under capitalism, and concluded by encouraging them to "agitate, educate, organise". It said a lot that a Green, albeit a self-described Marxist one, could bring more Marxism to the conference than all the SWPers who spoke put together.
Epitomising where the SWP has gone wrong, in Respect as elsewhere, John Rees had the last say. Comrade Rees, in his usual dead-pan manner, declared he was fed up with "all the emails, the documents" that had circulated about the split - all that nasty business should be put behind us. We should all look forward to the December 1 World Against War international conference in London, when we will be able to "hear people from Hezbollah".
Bravado aside, and despite the gloss that SWP members might publicly put on Respect, the SWP's leading figures did not at all appear over the moon at the prospect of soldiering on alone in what is a husk. No-one of any note outside their ranks, apart from Serwotka, has given them the time of day. How can anyone trust Rees now? Maybe they can hang on until the May elections and get some derisory votes. (But you have to ask: why?) In reality, the Respect project is over for the SWP; it just has to implement as face-saving an exit strategy as it can cobble together. But where will that leave the few non-SWPers who have hitched their wagons to this Respect? The next few months will see who jumps where.
It is only a matter of a time before the SWP finds a way of getting shot of this version - which could provoke the departure of yet more disillusioned members. Once again, the SWP leadership is found entirely wanting, its strategy utterly exposed, and guilty of squandering the revolutionary elan of its members. The whole left is degraded by these misleaders. Unless the real revolutionaries in the SWP stand up to its leadership, even greater damage will be done.