No respect for socialist principle
The story of Respect is nearing its end. Peter Manson looks back at the saga of SWP opportunism. This article was originally commissioned by the Russian journal Levaya Politika (Left Politics)
As readers will know, the party that succeeded in getting elected one member of parliament and 18 local councillors has split into two rival wings - and both are now looking for greener pastures.
The story began in 2003 with the great anti-war upsurge that engulfed Britain. In February of that year almost two million people joined a huge demonstration in London against the threatened invasion of Iraq. The main organiser of the event was the Stop the War Coalition, set up and led by the SWP - although, of course, this small group of less than 5,000 members was hardly responsible for mobilising such numbers: that was down to the split in the ruling class over Iraq and the unprecedented publicity given by a section of the mainstream media to the protest.
The STWC had been joined by the Muslim Association of Britain in sponsoring the demonstration, following an earlier, much smaller, protest in 2002, when the two organisations agreed to unite their events, called for the same day.
In February 2003, the SWP - together with all the main revolutionary groups, including the CPGB - had been part of the Socialist Alliance, which had stood 98 candidates in England and Wales in the June 2001 general election. Although two SA candidates exceeded the 5% threshold, thus saving their deposits, the average vote was a mere 1.7%.
This result had been a grave disappointment for the SWP. It had analysed (correctly) that there was a vacuum to the left of the Labour Party in British politics, caused by Tony Blair’s success in ‘modernising’ his party and creating New Labour, reducing the influence within it of the trade unions and leftwing activists. While Labour still remains a “bourgeois workers’ party”, to use Lenin’s term, its working class pole is now tiny and the bourgeois pole is completely in the ascendancy.
The SWP - and most of the other groups, too - believed that in order to attract the thousands of workers disillusioned with New Labour it was necessary to put forward old Labour policies. In other words, Labourites must be won as Labourites to the Socialist Alliance. They must be encouraged to break with Labour, but not with Labourism.
It was a severely flawed perspective - and one that class-conscious workers easily saw through. Anyone could see that the SA was merely the revolutionary left pretending to be reformist (only for the most part there was not a great deal of pretence). Instead of standing on their own claimed politics, the politics of Marxism, the SWP and other left groups were almost all agreed that a far better tactic would be to lower their sights in the hope of winning more votes.
It was a dismal failure. Worse, the SA, although it contested elections, virtually shut down in between. It was not a party or any kind of alternative for workers. When the Iraq protests grew, the SA was almost invisible. The SWP, as the largest SA component, mobilised its comrades to sell Socialist Worker, run SWP stalls and recruit to the SWP. It demobilised the SA.
The SWP had already decided that it must broaden its appeal beyond the old Labour target audience of the SA. The problem with the SA was not that it had watered down its socialism, but that it had not watered down its socialism enough.
The anti-war upsurge was seen as an opportunity. Not to win the hundreds and thousands of protesters to the need for radical democracy and working class socialism, but to win them just as they were - as liberals, pacifists, religious believers, etc who were against the war.
The SWP’s next big idea was to form a party (or rather ‘unity coalition’) on the basis of the anti-war movement. An important part of this movement had been the thousands of often young, radicalised muslims who were outraged at what they saw as Bush and Blair unleashing such destruction on fellow muslims in Iraq.
It was Salma Yaqoob, a young muslim with left-liberal, anti-imperialist politics, who drafted much of the initial statement that was to become the basis of Respect’s launch platform. And George Galloway, the Labour MP expelled from the party for his principled call for British soldiers in Iraq to refuse to obey “illegal orders”, was to become the much needed figurehead.
Later in 2003, the SWP, together with its Fourth International allies, the International Socialist Group, won an overwhelming majority at the SA annual conference for a new, “broader” electoral alliance - provided it was “open, democratic and, of course, socialist”. However, when Respect was launched in January 2004, far from fighting for it to adopt a socialist and working class platform, as the SWP and ISG had promised, they specifically called on their supporters to oppose a raft of amendments (proposed by the Socialist Alliance Democracy Platform), which were aimed at strengthening Respect’s draft declaration along working class and socialist lines.
At Respect’s January 24 2004 launch conference, it was Lindsey German of the SWP who moved the original declaration. She said: “To those who ask, why is it not more socialist, I say: because it is built on the anti-war movement, and because there are large muslim communities, and we want to reach out to them as well as the traditional left. If they’d wanted to join the Socialist Alliance, they’d have joined it by now.”
The SADP proposed that Respect should be committed to the abolition of Britain’s constitutional monarchy, that all its elected representatives should keep only that part of their MP’s or councillor’s salary that was the equivalent of the wage of a skilled worker, and that it should favour freedom of movement and open borders. All three were principles that the Socialist Alliance itself had accepted, even if none had been to the fore of SA propaganda.
“I’m no monarchist,” proclaimed Jo Cardwell of the SWP, in opposing the first call, “but I don’t think that not having a monarchy takes you forward ... The majority here are republicans, but to make it part of our declaration would distort the coalition which founded Respect.” Many of the hundreds of thousands of anti-war marchers actually support the monarchy, after all - that was the implication.
Paul Holborrow (SWP) opposed the workers’ wage amendment: “I don’t believe that there is anyone here who would not aspire to the principle of a worker’s pay for MPs, but Respect is not a socialist organisation. This would be exclusive of the people we might otherwise attract. What are we to say to George Galloway? Are we to say that it is a condition that he takes a worker’s wage?”
On border controls the SWP’s Elane Heffernan confessed: “It makes me sad to vote against something I agree with. But even the most dedicated activists don’t agree on every point, and we have to win votes … if we pass this, we’ll have to face down arguments from people who don’t understand.”
At the end of the conference SWP leader John Rees summed up the SWP’s behaviour in this way: “We … voted against the things we believed in, because, while the people here are important, they are not as important as the millions out there. We are reaching to the people locked out of politics. We voted for what they want.”
At subsequent Respect conferences the SWP voted against other “things we believed in” - a woman’s right to choose an abortion, the democratic principle of secularism - ie, separation of church and state and the equal treatment of all citizens, irrespective of religious belief or lack of it - and even the SWP’s own definition of socialism (despite the fact that the word ‘socialism’ is part of Respect’s name: ‘Respect’ is an acronym of ‘Respect’, ‘Equality’, ‘Socialism’, ‘Peace’, ‘Environment’, ‘Community’ and ‘Trade Unionism’).
The CPGB’s report of the launch concluded with the prediction: “… Respect will fail to improve on SA results, because socialism was never the problem (Weekly Worker January 29 2004).
Success and failure
We were wrong. Respect’s results were much better overall. In the May 2005 general election George Galloway was elected MP for the east London constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow; and in May 2006 Respect won 15 council seats in east London and one in Birmingham (Salma Yaqoob).
But how were these representatives elected and by whom? Before the 2005 election Galloway went to Bangladesh for discussions with Bengali establishment politicians and other contacts. The idea was to win them to recommend a vote for himself. Meanwhile the SWP was approaching the mosque and muslim establishment in London and Birmingham for support.
Galloway unashamedly promoted himself as ‘the muslim candidate’. Sure, he himself is a Roman catholic, but his election material stressed his devout religious beliefs. He insisted that certain of Respect’s policies, which he (correctly) stated would not go down too well with the mosque, be omitted from the election manifesto. The SWP reluctantly agreed to leave out any mention of gay rights, while “a woman’s right to choose an abortion” was reduced to the ambiguous “a woman’s right to choose”. In the light of the French school ban, it could have meant the right of a muslim woman to choose to wear the veil.
When it came to the successes in the local elections the following year, the same process was at work. Every single one of Respect’s new councillors was from a muslim background and elected by largely muslim voters. As for the SWP, it stood some of its leading comrades in east London, including John Rees, but all were defeated, usually by a narrow margin.
The majority of those elected were not socialists (although two did join the SWP). Indeed several were wealthy businessmen, euphemistically known as ‘community leaders’, who used their patriarchal networks to garner votes. The SWP had hoped to ride on their backs into the council chamber, but it soon became clear that the boot was on the other foot. The SWP began to be consistently voted down internally in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets, where Respect with its 12 councillors became the official opposition to Labour. It soon became obvious that no SWP comrade would ever again be selected as a candidate or for any other major post in Tower Hamlets.
That was the SWP’s failure within Respect’s success. It was clear that working to elect a gang of businessmen was hardly an efficient use of the time and effort of hard-working socialists - especially if the socialists themselves could always be voted down by the patriarchal networks.
While this was the situation in east London, Birmingham and a few other places, in most parts of the country (where there was no large muslim population), when Respect stood for election its votes were every bit as bad as those of the Socialist Alliance had been. The minority of branches that functioned in a real sense (leaving aside those like Tower Hamlets, Birmingham, etc) were typically run by a handful of comrades - a combination of increasingly frustrated non-SWP members who still believed (or hoped) Respect could be built as a leftwing alternative; and SWP cadre who were either allocated by ‘the party’ to the organisation or ‘going native’ within it.
While many rank and file SWP members had voted with their feet and shunned any active participation, it was also undeniably true that the principal reason for this failure is that the SWP - the main, indeed the only, substantive force within Respect - treated it as it had treated the Socialist Alliance: as an on-off electoral front. You may have been hard-pressed to find a Respect stall, but Socialist Worker was still being sold outside Sainsbury’s on a Saturday.
This was always going to be the case once the SWP rejected the idea of ‘doing an SSP’ - unlike Scottish Militant Labour, which dissolved its own organisation and threw all its resources into the Scottish Socialist Party. In a way it was a perverse decision not to follow SML’s example - after all, if it really is the case that the only type of left formation able to make an impact in current circumstances is some kind of ‘broad party’, or halfway house, like Respect, then surely it must be necessary to work wholeheartedly and exclusively to construct such a formation. Instead the SWP tried to ride two horses at once - and there is no doubt as to which took up most resources in terms of time, money and people: the SWP itself.
In August 2007 matters came to a head when George Galloway wrote a highly critical letter to members of Respect’s national council. The membership was in “steep decline”: Respect officially had only 2,160 members in 2006, compared to 3,040 in 2005 - a loss of almost 30%. What is more, “Whole areas of the country are effectively moribund as far as Respect activity is concerned. In some weeks there is not a single Respect activity anywhere in the country advertised in our media … This has left a small core of activists to shoulder burden after burden without much in the way of support from the centre, leading to exhaustion and enervation.” As a result, fundraising is “all but non-existent … We have stumbled from one financial crisis to another.”
Galloway’s answer was to try and bypass SWP lethargy (SWP comrades were running Respect’s national office, with John Rees as national secretary) by the appointment of a new national organiser answerable to a committee headed by Galloway himself.
Instead of responding in a calm, considered way, the SWP, in Galloway’s words, declared “nuclear war”. The SWP leadership accused Galloway of moving to the right and launching a “witch hunt” against socialists. It also began to adopt some of the criticisms made by the left, including the Weekly Worker: Some areas of Respect were dominated by “community leaders” and “businessmen”. Galloway was unaccountable and, far from acting as a “people’s tribune”, was one of the highest paid MPs.
Things escalated very rapidly in the build-up to the annual conference, due on November 17 2007. It soon became clear that the national council was divided along the lines of the SWP, on one side, against virtually everybody else, on the other. Both wings fought to win a majority of delegates using bureaucratic means, with the biggest battle being waged in Tower Hamlets, whose huge paper membership entitled it to around a quarter of all delegates at conference. Both sides claimed that their slate of candidates had been elected, not the other’s.
Galloway and his supporters accused the SWP of dirty tricks through its control of the conference arrangements committee and demanded that the Student Respect ‘delegates’ be disallowed because they were not elected by full and proper members.
In a cynical SWP move designed to provoke a split just three weeks before the conference, the two Tower Hamlets councillors who were members of the SWP, along with two others who were close supporters, announced at a press conference attended by Rees that they had resigned the Respect whip and would no longer take instructions from group leader Abjol Miah, who headed the businessmen’s wing of Tower Hamlets Respect. They said they had formed the Respect (Independent) group of councillors.
This was the final straw for the Galloway camp. They announced that the November 17 conference would be rigged and illegitimate and called a rival ‘conference’ (it was actually a rally) on the same day.
So now there are two Respects. The SWP controls the original website, but Galloway had the locks changed on the national headquarters and his people are now in occupation. Galloway’s version, known as ‘Respect Renewal’, is also the registered owner of the Respect title, which means that the SWP version is barred from contesting elections under the Respect name.
It seems clear to me that the SWP provoked this split in order to close Respect down. However, it cannot just dissolve its version and leave the path clear for Galloway. So the SWP is continuing the elaborate pretence that the true Respect is still making strides and has a good chance of getting their Lindsey German elected to the Greater London Authority in May.
There are two major problems with this, though. Firstly, the SWP is banned from using the name. Secondly, the huge block of mainly Bengali votes that almost saw German elected four years ago has already been turned off like a tap. I expect the SWP to announce within the next couple of months that it has been forced to withdraw.
In the meantime, Respect Renewal has been involved in talks with others on the left, most notably Bob Crow, leader of Rail, Maritime and Transport (a trade union disaffiliated from the Labour Party), about standing in the GLA elections. It is likely that a joint leftwing slate will be announced and there will be no candidates standing as Respect in London.
Where does all this leave the SWP? In truth its Respect turn has proved a disaster. It has lost several hundred members and, more importantly, also lost most of its allies. It abandoned principle after principle for what it perceived as short-term gain, but ended far worse off than when it began.