Carry on regardless

It is time for the SWP membership to call a halt to the leadership's stubborn GLA charade, argues Peter Manson

“The opportunities for a left alternative to Brown’s Labour Party are becoming clearer all the time,” declares the Socialist Workers Party’s latest Party Notes (February 26). That is why “it is important that we stand in the GLA elections and local elections”.

First of all, who is this “we”? True, this first item in the SWP’s internal bulletin is headed: ‘Respect - there is a big space for the left’. But there seems to be a complete merging of Respect and the SWP when it comes to election campaigns, including that for the Greater London Authority. Understandable, of course, since everyone knows it is the SWP that is directing, financing and providing the foot soldiers for the May 1 contest. In fact, so thin on the ground are the non-SWPers in the version of Respect headed by John Rees that it is virtually the SWP under another name.

Secondly, why is it necessary to state, “it is important that we stand”? It is almost as though the decision has not yet been taken. The answer can be found a bit further on: “There is no time for half-heartedness or sitting back and dwelling over the split in Respect - we need to build an energetic, outgoing campaign now.”

In other words, a distinct lack of enthusiasm from the SWP rank and file has been a feature of the campaign so far. You could say that “half-heartedness” is a bit of an understatement, given the numbers who are actually boycotting the whole thing. It is not just “the split in Respect” they are “dwelling over”, but the fact that the leadership has been using them in a totally cynical way - it does not even bother to officially inform them that Respect-SWP is barred from using the name - the right to determine who can stand as Respect resides with Linda Smith of the George Galloway version, Respect Renewal.

It seems that there have been no moves by the SWP to mount a legal challenge against this - moves which would be not only financially prohibitive, but extremely lengthy and time-consuming. Indeed, it is inconceivable that any legal decision could be reached in the short time available before May - it is not as though this area of electoral law is tried and tested.

And I hear that the SWP leadership has fallen silent once more when it comes to negotiations with comrades Smith and Galloway. Having indicated in January that it was prepared to embark upon new discussions to reach an amicable settlement following the decision of the electoral commission that it could not intervene in the dispute over who owned the name, the SWP seems to have had second thoughts.

At the Respect-SWP GLA selection meeting on January 31, SWP leader Lindsey German, Respect-SWP’s candidate for mayor, feigned confidence that the use of the name would not be a problem. She suggested that an agreement could be reached whereby Galloway might stand as ‘Respect Renewal’, while the SWP might use ‘Respect - People Before Profit’. Rather optimistic, I would have thought. Why on earth would Renewal want to do anything that helped the SWP stand a rival list to the one that Galloway himself is arranging for the GLA? But, almost a month later, there have not even been talks where the issue might have been raised. Meanwhile neither the SWP nor its version of Respect mentions the problem of the name in their official pronouncements.

Party Notes continues the pretence that Respect-SWP’s modest return in the February 14 Waltham Forest by-election augurs well for its chances in the GLA poll. Apparently the result in Leyton ward “makes interesting reading”. Despite the fact that the Liberal Democrats made “all the running, Carole Vincent and Respect won 7.3% of the vote and the Greens got 3.7% of the vote. That means that even in a difficult fight the combined vote was over 11%.”

I have news for the SWP comrades: the Greens will be standing against Respect-SWP in the GLA elections, so Respect’s total cannot be magicked upwards by adding to it the Green Party vote. More significantly, why was Leyton a particularly “difficult fight”? It is an ethnically diverse, mainly working class area that has traditionally voted Labour (the Conservatives finished fourth, behind Carole Vincent, on February 14), where the Liberal Democrats have been able to make inroads in recent years in the absence of a viable left-of-Labour opposition. Compared to Greater London as a whole, I would have thought it was favourable territory.

Respect-SWP mobilised as many of its disheartened members as it could for the campaign and no doubt was able to persuade some voters through face-to-face conversations on the doorstep that it really was Respect, even though it could not say so in its election material. What percentage of GLA electors will get that message?

Another peculiarity of the Respect-SWP campaign is the mixed messages being put out about current London mayor Ken Livingstone. At the January 31 selection meeting, comrade German claimed that her standing against the Labour candidate would actually help get him re-elected. Because she was asking all those who voted for her to give their second preferences to Livingstone, “We will gain votes for Ken.”

But in Party Notes there is no such suggestion. What is more, there is no distinction between Livingstone and New Labour: “… a growing number of Londoners are sick and tired of his support for the rich in the City of London and his support for the police … There is a desperate need for a radical, socialist alternative to Brown, Livingstone et al.”

Note also the description of the “alternative” needed. The emphasis has changed now that the SWP has parted company with Galloway and the businessmen’s wing. No longer is Respect an alliance of “secular socialists” and non-socialist “muslim activists” - now it proposes “a radical, socialist alternative” pure and simple: “Respect has to be the voice of the working class and poor.”

And the poor old SWP members are being egged on by their cynical misleaders to organise all manner of “days of action”, leafleting, protests, “walkabouts in shopping centres and markets”, “stunts”, etc, etc. But at least Rees, German and co are honest enough to admit: “And that has to start with the SWP pushing out and driving the election campaign forward.” There is no-one else to do it, after all.

The disastrous Rees-German leadership is stubbornly carrying on with the Respect GLA charade, even though everyone knows it will end in humiliation. Why do they not attempt to retreat in good order? They could try to rally their troops by announcing that an alliance of the right wing and the state has conspired to wreck Respect’s campaign by banning the use of the name: ‘Our enemies may have won this skirmish, comrades, but the SWP will regroup and emerge all the stronger to fight the next battle.’ There is still time to do that, but comrades Rees and German show no sign of edging back from the precipice.

Who will hold them to account? Unfortunately there is no evidence of any brewing rebellion amongst the punch-drunk rank and file members, who seem to have adopted a defensive, laager mentality - those who have not called it a day, that is. As for the political committee, it certainly contains those who mutter against the leading couple, but, Chris Harman’s occasional coded disagreements notwithstanding, they all publicly go along with the duumvirate.

True, national secretary Martin Smith did organise a warning shot across their bows at the SWP conference in January. This came in the shape of a motion criticising comrade Rees for accepting a donation (intended for Respect, but eventually handed over to Organising For Fighting Unions) from a Dubai-based businessman. In the end comrade Rees apologised for his “mistake” and the motion was overwhelmingly carried.

But if this was intended to persuade Rees and German to change course over Respect it had precisely no effect, and neither comrade Smith nor anyone else is breaking ranks over the looming GLA debacle. Perhaps they have calculated that to do so now would deal the SWP a fatal blow.

But this is merely to delay the inevitable - and ensure that when it comes the end will be even more messy.