John Rees must be crazy if he thinks Londoners will elect Lindsey German to the GLA
The Socialist Workers Party leadership may have marginalised its internal opposition for the moment. But its strategy has been thoroughly exposed as an unmitigated disaster. Peter Manson reports on the SWP conference and the latest developments in Respect
Respect is alive and well, and the politics we pursued proved to be correct. That is the pathetic message the Socialist Workers Party leaders want people, including their own members, to believe. Yes, John Rees, Lindsey German, Alex Callinicos, Chris Bambery and Martin Smith treat the working class with barely concealed contempt. Under their post-Tony Cliff regime the SWP has not only adopted Joseph’s Stalin’s popular front politics, but also the same utterly cynical attitude towards the truth. SWP conferences are run along Stalinist lines too. Socialist Worker boasts of the January 5-6 gathering: “An overwhelming majority supported the way the party had conducted itself during the Respect crisis” (January 12).
We know, of course, that hundreds of SWPers opposed the Respect turn, refusing from the start to abide by the three-line whip to join the ‘unity coalition’. Most voted with their feet and drifted into inactivity. A form of passive rebellion. However, another minority were taken with Respect. They went ‘native’, seeing it as a principled and worthwhile formation in itself, a way out of the sectarian ghetto and into the big time - not just another ‘united front’, designed to win sympathisers and recruits for ‘the revolutionary party’.
That was certainly the message that came from the mouth of the SWP’s top leader too. As Respect’s national secretary, John Rees claimed that he spoke for the millions excluded from politics, that principles counted for nothing. He clearly envisaged a distinct Respect stage on the long path to socialism. A cross-class Respect government, including SWP ministers presumably, would enact an old Labour programme of social democratic reforms. A progressive form of capitalism. Though he was never so foolish, or honest, to actually theorise it, his line was implicit.
The right-leaning oppositionists raised their voices only once the leadership finally decided that Respect was a dead end for the SWP and provoked a split with George Galloway. Not that they fought on the basis of a fully articulated programme. Their politics were always the politics of Respect. Their rebellion was therefore bureaucratic, narrow and closed. Nonetheless, it resulted in the expulsions of Rob Hoveman, Nick Wrack and Kevin Ovenden, as well as the resignation of dozens more. Instead of having a no-holds-barred fight at conference, the leadership thought better of it. John Rees decided that the best tactic was to pose left and go for a pre-emptive strike against the right in order to smother debate.
That is why, though we have not the slightest political sympathy for Hoveman, Wrack, Ovenden and co, we opposed their expulsions. If a principled left is going to emerge in the SWP it needs the space to fully think things through. It needs open, democratic debate.
Because they imagine, or like to imagine, that the leadership has moved left, the majority of the SWP’s cadre, while grumbling in private about ineptitude, loss of direction and crass opportunism, are prepared to follow the new line out of a misguided sense of loyalty. For them the SWP is the revolutionary party and it is that illusion they are defending. Not comrades Rees, German, Callinicos, Smith and Bambery. So the cadre have formed themselves into a laager and exhibit no wish to conduct even an internal autopsy over the Respect turn, let alone engage in an honest debate. Hence in public at least the cadre go along with the pretence that Respect can look forward to new successes now that the anti-SWP “witch-hunters” have gone their own way.
One of the papers presented to the conference, under the names of John Rees, together with Maxine Bowler, Paul McGarr, Michael Lavalette and Maggie Falshaw, contained the phrase, “Now that the crisis in Respect has been resolved …” (‘Where next for Respect?’). This was too much for Tash Shifrin and Mike Simons, who at least tried to have it deleted - although they did not attempt in any other way to counter the absurdly optimistic SWP spin woven around Respect’s split.
For example, the SWP leadership has been busy exhorting its own comrades and the sliver of others who remain in the SWP wing of Respect that there is an excellent chance of a breakthrough in the May elections to the Greater London Assembly - if only everyone pulls out all the stops. After all, in 2004 Lindsey German came fifth in the contest for mayor, beating the Greens and the BNP, and narrowly failing to get elected to the assembly.
When Rees told delegates that comrade German was in touching distance of success, she looked more than a little abashed. Everyone, surely - including the dimmest of SWP members - knows that comrade German does not have a chance in hell. Even if we were to assume that Respect-SWP, rather than Respect Renewal (the Galloway split), won the legal right to the name, where would the votes come from? In 2004 a united organisation won support from the (mainly Bengali) muslim areas of east London, thanks to the mobilising power of Galloway and the patriarchal network of businessmen and ‘community leaders’. That support has now been switched off like a tap.
But the main question is precisely the name, whose legal ‘owner’ is Respect Renewal chair Linda Smith. It seems that, after weeks of ignoring invitations to discuss a resolution of the conflict, the SWP has now agreed to enter talks. Previously Respect-SWP brazenly wrote (on November 30 2007), blithely requesting that Linda Smith cede ownership to Oli Rahman - a request that was politely declined.
The result can be seen clearly in the way Respect-SWP has been forced to contest two council by-elections on February 14. Its website announces that “Respect is backing Carole Vincent for councillor in Leyton ward, Waltham Forest, London” and “Barry Hill for councillor in Tulketh ward, Preston” (my emphasis). Nowhere are we told that the two SWPers are Respect candidates. The same omission jumps out from their election material. In fact there is no party (or other description) listed against the name of either candidate on the relevant council websites.
I do not know if Respect-SWP has appealed to the electoral commission to grant comrade Rahman legal ownership. Since any voluntary change must be notified to the commission within 14 days, it might be assumed that the same 14 days would apply in the case of disputed ownership (in which case the SWP would have had to inform the electoral commission by December 1 2007, two weeks after the Respect-SWP conference that formalised the split with Galloway/Smith).
Even if an application for change can still be made, through whatever legal channels, Respect-SWP does not look to have a good case, which would surely hinge on the legitimacy of its November 17 conference (Respect Renewal held a rival rally, also dubbed a ‘conference’, on the same day). There certainly seems to be a good deal of evidence that not all delegates were constitutionally elected (Tower Hamlets, students, etc) - Respect-Galloway is clearly confident that in any court battle the SWP’s conference would be declared unconstitutional.
Any SWP legal challenge would not only be financially prohibitive and virtually certain to fail (especially as possession is nine-tenths of the law), but could be hugely damaging in terms of potentially embarrassing revelations regarding past practice. No wonder the SWP has now decided to talk to Renewal.
But, in the meantime, Respect-SWP is going ahead with its “GLA election launch” on January 31. London Respect members are informed: “In April 2007 Lindsey German was selected unanimously at a 300-plus-strong GLA selection meeting. We now need to select more list candidates to complete our team of candidates” (Respect-SWP website).
Just in case you were unsure about the likely composition of the January 31 gathering, the latest edition of the SWP’s Party Notes urges its members: “We are calling on all London comrades to attend this important meeting” (January 22).
This is how Party Notes tries to whip up enthusiasm: “The campaign for the GLA elections begin now. Every London Respect group need to be getting out on the campaign trail right away. That means we need to be organising mass leafleting sessions on every high street/railway station/tube station and market in the capital. We also should be encouraging Respect groups to hold monthly public meetings. And don’t forget we are going to need money to mount a serious election campaign: that means every group has to organise fundraisers.”
The SWP rank and file are not even told that Respect-SWP does not own the right to the name, let alone that the SWP leadership is secretly preparing to announce it has ‘reluctantly’ decided to withdraw from the GLA poll (assuming some remarkable compromise is not reached with Renewal).
Talking of Renewal, comrades may have noticed that there is no mention of any GLA campaign on the Respect-Galloway website. Yet it is well known that Galloway is more than keen to stand candidates for the GLA. However, I hear that talks with Bob Crow and a number of other interested parties are proceeding reasonably well and it quite possible that they will announce a common list. Another reason why the SWP will not stand, I would have thought.
So it is conceivable that there will be no candidates using the Respect name contesting the GLA elections - and it is even possible that it will never again be seen on a ballot paper. But SWP members are being cynically used by their leadership - urged to put valuable time and resources into a campaign that is virtually certain to be aborted. Members are being treated like sheep.
But this is par for the course. When has the leadership ever been honest about Respect? Even when it was clearly heading for the rocks in late summer 2007, the SWP tops claimed that all was well and reports of a crisis were just “media spin”. Before that Rees and co told the members not a word about their doubts over such questions as the Tower Hamlets ‘community leaders’/businessmen wing.
Yet in Pre-Conference Bulletin No3 (December 2007) the central committee gave some new information about “worrying developments” it had noted way back in 2005. For example, “Local millionaire restaurateur and property developer Azmal Hussein became a key figure” in Tower Hamlets Respect, while Mohammed Zabadne, “a millionaire building contractor, was invited to speak at the victory rally” following the success of George Galloway in the general election. And why is council group leader Abjol Miah for the first time described as “a young member of the Islamic Forum Europe”? Not islamophobia, I hope.
In two lengthy contributions in this final Pre-Conference Bulletin the central committee repeated all the arguments - sometimes word for word - already deployed in No2 (see Weekly Worker December 6 2007). However, whereas the second Bulletin in particular carried a number of fiercely anti-leadership contributions, the opposition had been successfully squeezed out by No3.
Apart from Peter Smith (Swindon), who grumbled incoherently, Andy Wynne and Sabby Sagall (both Central London) came over as loyal oppositionists. Comrade Wynne does not like the leadership’s “triumphalist” ‘official optimism’, while comrade Sagall questions the “tactical wisdom” of barring Nick Wrack from accepting the national organiser post in Respect and wonders whether the expulsions of Kevin Ovenden and Rob Hoveman could have been “delayed” until conference.
John Molyneux is a former oppositionist who now writes as a loyalist. For example, on Respect he claims that, without the SWP, Renewal will be “forced, especially as its overriding concern will be to get Galloway and Yaqoob elected, into dependence on muslim ‘community leaders’ - ie, small businessmen - and will therefore cease to be a working class-based organisation”.
Comrade Molyneux has adopted some of the terminology of the Weekly Worker - only a good few years too late. It was this paper that pointed out from the start that the SWP’s “overriding concern” was to “get … elected” and that its alliance with precisely those “community leaders” and “small businessmen” marked Respect out as a popular front, not an unproblematic “working class-based organisation”.
Comrade Molyneux responds to an oppositionist contribution in No2, which had noted that “the approach of ‘You’re for us or against us’ … is not helpful, and … outside the real traditions of democratic centralism”. He comments: “I must confess to a wry smile when I saw the name of Julie Waterson as co-author of these words.” Comrade Waterson had previously been regarded as one of the leadership’s most loyal hacks - phrases like “You’re for us or against us” might well have been uttered by her not so long ago.
Perhaps she and comrade Molyneux have now swapped roles. He assures members: “The SWP does not expel people for disagreeing with the CC - I think I am in a slightly better position to know this” (than people like comrade Waterson). I cannot believe that comrade Molyneux is persuaded that the leadership has now been won over to an open, democratic culture. But he does like the left pose.
As already noted, by the time of the SWP conference, oppositionists were few and far between. That left the way clear for the leadership’s lying apologetics and absurd ‘official optimism’.
Conference was divided into several sessions, each informed by a central committee-appointed ‘commission’. The ‘Commission on building the SWP’, consisting of Martin Smith, Janette Maiden, Cecilia Hutchinson and Raimi Keiran, promised: “2008 is going to be an exciting year for the party.” How come? Well, there are the Preston and Leyton by-elections, GLA elections, the March 15 Stop the War demonstration - oh, and don’t forget the Love Music, Hate Racism carnival later in the year … I wonder what a bad year for the SWP would look like.
This commission paper suggests that, “Every comrade who joins the organisation should be encouraged to pay subs.” Encouraged? Isn’t it a condition of membership? Not really. There are, after all, two categories of membership - “registered” (those who pay dues) and “unregistered” (those who stop paying but are kept on the books for two years to ensure, in the words of comrade Smith, that “we do not write people off too quickly”. So much for Leninism and the Bolshevik tradition!
According to Alex Callinicos, who was called upon in Pre-Conference Bulletin No3 to rubbish the previous contribution of Mark Steel, the central committee “now publishes regular reports on the membership figures” and “party membership (registered and unregistered) is hovering around the 8,000 mark. This is where it has been, more or less, since it slipped back from the high point of 10,000 briefly reached in 1994-95.” The “unregistered” membership is said to stand at “around 1,700”, while just under 6,000 paid up members are claimed. However, soft oppositionist Peter Smith clearly does not believe those figures, referring obliquely to a “party of less than 5,000”.
One thing that is apparent is the clear resurfacing of the demand for a woman’s right to choose an abortion. This is an integral part of the leadership’s ‘left’ turn. During the Respect period, of course, it was one of those “shibboleths” that had to be quietly dropped, so as not to alienate all those muslim ‘community leaders’ and businessmen.
For example, in his speech to conference on building the SWP, Martin Smith declared: “Branch meetings must be places where we organise the party’s interventions, but they must also be where we take on big ideological questions - like those raised by the crisis in Pakistan and Kenya, or the danger of an economic recession, or the need to defend abortion rights” (Socialist Worker January 12).
The January 22 Party Notes makes clear that the campaign against any new legislation further restricting abortion rights is now an SWP priority. A London caucus was held on the question on January 23. At conference, “Delegates talked about the urgent need to build Abortion Rights campaigns in their areas” (Socialist Worker January 12).
Yet, according to the same report, one leftover from Respect’s moralism still persists: “A lively session was held on women’s liberation. Judith Orr argued that there had been a rise in ‘raunch’ culture, but that there is now a new mood to fight against this.” The SWP wanted to line up alongside imams, patriarchal businessmen and other muslim ‘community leaders’ on pickets outside various strip clubs.
So will the SWP now apologise to its members for having declared that abortion was “not an issue” and having acceded to Galloway’s demand to keep the word ‘abortion’ (along with gay rights) out of the 2005 general election manifesto?
One thing comrade Rees did apologise for at conference was his “mistake” in accepting a donation from a Dubai-based businessman with links to companies involved in privatisation in Britain. Originally it had been meant for Respect, but Galloway smelt a rat and warned against accepting it. However, Rees had had no qualms about handing over the cash to Organising For Fighting Unions.
The Tower Hamlets motion criticising the acceptance of the donation - carried overwhelmingly - was the only one critical of the leadership in any way.
So is the cadre satisfied? Hardly. They know they are being lied to and they know that Respect has been a catastrophic failure. What a waste of four years - all thanks to the disastrous misleadership of John Rees. The organisation he heads has been wildly zigzagging since the death of Tony Cliff. First he dabbled with the Socialist Alliance, then at a not inconsiderable political cost he closed the SA down in favour of throwing everything into Respect and “making a difference” by riding the spontaneous wave of anger generated by the anti-war movement.
And what sort of difference has been made? Nothing positive. If truth be told (which it will not, if the leadership gets its way) the SWP has lost a great deal of ground. At least 500 members have gone over the last year and, more to the point, virtually nobody on the left is now prepared to work with the SWP in another unity project after its behaviour in Respect. What a record.
All this is known by SWP activists. Few dare speak out, though. Not until they leave or are expelled anyway. John Molyneux, in a previous incarnation, was right when he pointed to the organisation’s awful culture, where critical voices are resented and frozen out.
Underlying it all is the SWP’s crisis of programme - but under Rees this has made the SWP a laughing stock. There has been no principle that the SWP has not been prepared to water down or betray in pursuit of his ambitions.
It cannot go on indefinitely. Unless the members take matters into their own hands, the SWP faces terminal decline. SWP democrats, anti-opportunists and genuine Marxists must rebel, before it is too late.