Renewal of populism
The Galloway version of Respect is taking confidence from its common anti-SWPism, writes Peter Manson. But the lack of clarity inherited from its parent means it cannot be a vehicle for working class advance
Around 300 supporters of George Galloway gathered at the Bishopsgate Institute on November 17 to publicly constitute the anti-Socialist Workers Party split known as Respect Renewal.
Unsurprisingly the meeting was totally dominated by the SWP. The ghost in the room. In the words of expelled member Nick Wrack, this was a matter of "catharsis" - a purging of all the frustrations and venting of all the negative experiences at the hands of the SWP leadership encountered at all levels of Respect. Comrade Wrack said that after the split "we have come out strengthened" with a "feeling of liberation that is genuine". By contrast he imagined that in "the other conference" people would be "looking at each other wondering what their leadership has done".
Of course, like the SWP event at the University of Westminster, this was no "conference" - there were not even elections, no votes and no formal decisions taken. Not that this was necessary, since the anti-SWPism on display was the one unifying factor that obscures all the festering differences.
It was comrade Galloway himself who set the theme with his opening speech - delivered with unmistakable anger. The SWP stood accused not only of control-freakery, but of lying attacks on their former Respect comrades. Recalling the "great times" he had spent campaigning alongside John Rees and Lindsey German, Galloway said it would be "undignified" to make "personal attacks on former friends" (although that did not stop him referring to certain unnamed "juvenile dwarfs").
For Galloway, the SWP sums up what is "one of the biggest vices of the British left" - the notion that your "biggest enemy is closest to you but not under your control". Its concept of unity is "Do as we tell you or you're out". He claimed, not without a grain of truth, that its central committee is "prepared to destroy the SWP in order to defend their own positions".
Galloway said he had originally thought that Respect's "poor position" in terms of members, finance and election-readiness was due to a simple "lack of competence". But now he had come to realise that "the SWP never wanted Respect to be a big organisation because it wanted to control everything".
Once the SWP accepted it could no longer do so, it decided to sabotage the whole Respect project. When it "ordered my entire parliamentary staff to resign their posts", it did not even have the decency to inform him first. This was a "declaration of nuclear war".
Galloway then listed all the SWP attacks on senior Respect figures. While Linda Smith had to contend with the "slander of being called a ballot-rigger", Salma Yaqoob was said to be a communalist. But she is "not any kind of communalist - she's a hero". In fact she is "the greatest thing to emerge from the anti-war movement". The SWP "may have tried to airbrush her from Respect, but she's right in front of our banner".
The SWP also had the cheek to call Ken Loach "confused", despite his "long list of film achievements", and victimised union militant Jerry Hicks "dishonest", even though he had led workers in struggle and been sacked by Rolls Royce. He "knows what a witch-hunt is - it's not an email from Linda Smith!" Apparently great film makers cannot by definition be "confused" on any matter, while militant trade unionists can never be "dishonest" in any way.
What really hurt Galloway, though, were the attacks on himself - not least the very notion that he could be described as rightwing. Looking upset and sounding more than a little bitter, George invited us to "ask anyone on the street outside the fantasy world of ultra-left politics" what they thought. Those who believed him to be rightwing must be "so far off the political spectrum they can never appeal to the British people".
For Galloway, the idea that 'right' and 'left' are relative terms is a foreign country. But, being unable to grasp the politics that drives the SWP's control-freakery, he reduces it all to the level of unacceptable behaviour between former partners and personal affront: "After today I never intend to mention the SWP again."
Other national council members continued in similar vein. Salma Yaqoob recalled how "shocking and upsetting it was to hear "the SWP calling for unity, while actively destroying it". She was "so happy we won't have to put up with that kind of hypocrisy any more".
Then comrade Loach told how his eyes had been opened. On the national council he had asked how many members and how much money Respect had, but had never received a satisfactory answer. This inefficiency meant it was impossible to organise properly - "Maybe that was the idea." He concluded: "I can't see how we can work with a group that's basically about asserting its control."
But the lessons he drew were peculiar, though not untypical of those burnt by one or other of the bureaucratic centralist sects: Respect could not work simply because it had "one political tendency dominating it" - ie, it was the comparative size of the SWP, not just its undemocratic method, that was the problem. In fact comrade Loach made it sound like a crime just to be a "well organised, disciplined organisation" like the SWP.
A number of ex-SWPers (or soon to be ex-SWPers) came to the microphone to tell us that "a lot of members of the SWP are not like their leaders". One said that many were relieved now to be able to "do their own thing without an undemocratic centralist organisation" telling them what to do. Another said she had been a member for 35 years and could confirm that the SWP's "calls for unity are false and fraudulent"
This was music to the ears of Galloway and the other 18 national council members who had led the anti-SWP split. But, in order to demonstrate that, compared to their rivals, Respect Renewal was going to be a tolerant, pluralistic organisation, the two chairs, Linda Smith and Nick Wrack, called two leading SWP loyalists to speak from the floor. (This gesture would have been more convincing if any of the CPGB comrades had been called to speak.)
While Weyman Bennett's contribution was so vague and unclear that I noted nothing meaningful in his speech, the other central committee member, Michael Bradley, was rather more lucid. He complained that his organisation had been "vilified" - Galloway had called the SWP "Leninist" and "Russian dolls". Absurdly he said: "Here you have to leave your SWP card at the door." Even more absurdly he claimed that "the vast majority at the other conference are non-SWP".
This at least gave the audience something to chuckle over. It is, however, a testament to John Rees's leadership that his 'party' is so widely ridiculed and detested by so many who have recently been working alongside the SWP.
Comrade Bradley said he wanted a Respect that "remained committed to radical socialist politics" (remained committed, did he say?) and one that did not seek "false unity, where you pretend there's no differences". And I thought it was Lindsey German who said that Respect could not be "just socialist", but must extend a welcome to all those at the sharp end of New Labour's attacks, whether or not they were "committed to radical socialist politics".
It is also pleasing to hear that the SWP is now against "false unity, where you pretend there's no differences". This paper has consistently reported how the SWP watered down its own "radical socialist politics" in order to "pretend there's no differences" with Respect's right wing, in the shape of Galloway and the mainly muslim 'community activists' and businessmen.
But, of course, now the SWP, for its own reasons, has done an about-turn and hit out at those it had encouraged to join Respect and promoted as election candidates. In the process of doing so it has borrowed some of the most ridiculous terms and accusations of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty.
Speaking from the platform Salma Yaqoob indignantly said: "I resent accusations of communalism", which had been bandied about by the SWP. She told of her work in Birmingham that was specifically aimed at uniting people of different ethnicities. She is, she said, "a champion of all sections". She is for "human rights and equality, not communalism and separatism".
There are many things Yaqoob can be accused of, but "communalism" is not one of them. She is certainly no socialist, but a left-leaning, liberal anti-imperialist. "Around the world," she said, "another world is not only possible - it is being built". She specified in particular Venezuela, as well as other South American countries.
Ghada Razuki said she was "disgusted" with the SWP because of its accusations against Yaqoob - "They might as well join the queue of people attacking muslims." And Galloway, for his part, rejected the notion that Respect is "just a muslim party", recalling how Oswald Moseley had called the communists the "Jews' party": "We are proud to stand alongside immigrants - to be a 'muslim party'," he said.
Perhaps a quarter of those present were muslims, but most of those who spoke claimed to be of the left. For example, Newham councillor Hanif Abdul Muhit, despite being a former secretary of the Liberal Democrats, said he was a "Labour man - I want a party to fill the vacuum left by New Labour."
In similar vein, Abjol Miah, leader of the Respect group of councillors in Tower Hamlets, said: "We are the original Labour." He wondered: "Why did the SWP think I was a threat to them?" This was the "first time, as leader of the Tower Hamlets opposition, I have been given a platform at a Respect conference."
However, the businessmen who now run Tower Hamlets Respect for the most part stayed away (although Tower Hamlets chair Azmal Hussain did make a brief intervention). They had no reason to be present. For them the important thing is having people from their own network elected to the council, not wasting their valuable time at talking shops.
Undoubtedly the large majority of those at the 'conference' were soft lefts. I got the impression that only a minority of them were former members of the left groups. Most seemed to share a green, pacifistic, 'human rights' kind of anti-capitalism, of the type that is forever looking for leaders to follow and progressive change to emulate elsewhere.
So it was not surprising that Francisco Dominguez from the Venezuela Information Centre was warmly applauded when he told us that "something wonderful is happening in Venezuela". He spoke of the "two types of support" that were being offered to Venezuela and the type he did not approve of was that which involved "telling the Venezuelan people what to do. We don't need advice." Of course, this philistinism was well received.
In this milieu Alan Thornett's International Socialist Group was in its element. Comrade Thornett was described by Galloway - in what was supposed to be a compliment, I imagine - as "one of the most respected Trotskyists of recent years". He and comrade Wrack were "two of our chief theoreticians".
Some theoretician. Comrade Thornett, with his call for a new "broad party", is to Galloway what the Eurocommunists were to New Labour. And, like the Euros, the ISG - despite John Lister's ironic comment that he is a "member of a Leninist organisation" - is set on a course that leads to liquidation.
In a speech that was warmly received, comrade Lister announced that the ISG was prepared to "suspend production of Socialist Resistance" and "make its financial and editorial resources available" to Respect. Nick Wrack, in thanking "the ISG comrades for the offer", made it clear that the national council (or to be more precise, the 19 NC members who chose Galloway over the SWP) had gratefully accepted it and would now appoint an editorial board. Hopefully the first edition of the new Respect paper would come out in time for the December 8 climate change demonstration, said comrade Wrack.
Comrade Thornett himself said that the "left in the trade unions", the CPB, etc would "only come to us if we are pluralist and democratic". I have news for you, comrade Thornett: the trade union bureaucracy, whether left or right, will only join forces with the likes of you in an organisation that is not democratic. Bob Crow, for example, will want guarantees that any new party would be bureaucratically controlled - and you would be prepared to give him those guarantees to achieve your cherished "broad party".
However, for the moment at least, things are going well for the ISG. It has tapped into the mood for a proto-party to the left of Labour, which it - along with the overwhelming majority of the organised left - would regard as a halfway house: a step towards a revolutionary party led by themselves.
The mood in Respect Renewal is that, freed from the suffocating stranglehold of the SWP, the organisation can now start to make strides. Of course, it is "not the finished article", but there is optimism that a bigger, better alliance/party can now be achieved.
Salma Yaqoob called for Respect Renewal to be "open, honest and work with all sections of the left", while John Nicholson said it should "look wider - to the green left, the communist left, the left". For his part, Andy Newman hoped for an "open dialogue" with everyone to the left of Labour, from the Green Party to the Socialist Party: "In 10 years time, let us replace Labour."
Galloway later remarked that comrade Newman is "an outstanding figure - he should be in our leadership". He even suggested that comrade Newman's one-man Socialist Unity Network should be represented alongside the RMT union, the Green Party and the Communist Party of Britain in talks Respect Renewal was hoping to hold in the search for a "new broad party for working people".
According to Chris Searle from Manchester, because for three and a half years "we have been held back", Respect now has only "the bare bones, the skeleton of an organisation". Comrades Wrack and Thornett implicitly admitted that there were now only a handful of functioning branches - it goes without saying that most had been run (on a minimal level) by the SWP. So it was not possible to talk about using existing local organisations as building blocks.
Instead comrade Wrack promised "a series of big meetings across the country" in order to recruit and Galloway said the aim should be an organisation with 10,000 members in two years time. He talked of contesting local elections in 2008 and European elections the following year, and reported that a fighting fund of £100,000 had been set by the NC. Just over £2,000 was raised at the conference.
As a result of this recruitment drive (to run alongside negotiations with others) there would hopefully be "a properly organised founding conference in the spring", announced comrade Thornett. This talk of a "founding conference" did not sit well with the claims that "We are Respect", while the SWP version had no legitimacy. Nevertheless, comrade Wrack was "confident" that Renewal would retain the Respect name: "We are committed to negotiate with the SWP to avoid an acrimonious divorce." However, if the SWP refused, the battle would be "fought out in other arenas". Presumably the law courts.
In his closing speech, George Galloway managed to encapsulate both the confidence and the fundamental political weakness of Respect Renewal. He spoke of creating an organisation that would fight for "a Britain where inequality narrows, where all can walk tall without fear of violence or hatred, where people who pack shelves at Tesco can have a better share of Tesco's profits, where our own country doesn't invade other countries and murder people around the world. We are Respect!"
To the SWP he said: "You can book cappuccino bars and we'll book big halls. And we'll fill them - that's a promise." And he concluded: "This is the last time the letters 'SWP' will ever cross my lips".