Rival Respects go head to head in London

Peter Manson sorts through the election offerings

On May 1 voters will have the unenviable choice between two sets of mutually loathing candidates claiming to be backed by Respect in elections to the London assembly. The Socialist Workers Party-led version announced on March 10 that Respect-SWP had been forced to contest as the Left List, because the ‘ownership’ of the name resides with Linda Smith of Respect Renewal. Then last weekend it became known that Renewal itself is also to stand - as Respect.

I say “became known”, because as yet there has been no official launch or public announcement. However, at the March 15 anti-war demonstration the latest issue of Respect, the George Galloway version’s newspaper, was being sold, containing a London election pullout and the names of Renewal’s “lead candidates”. As I write, the organisation’s website has not yet announced the decision - although visitors who download the paper may stumble across it there.

Galloway’s original intention was to head a broader, “progressive” coalition alongside other leftwing forces, but talks with the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and the RMT union came to nothing. The CPB opted instead to mount its own Unity for Peace and Socialism challenge on May 1, while the RMT decided that Bob Crow’s desire for the union to back some kind of anti-privatisation electoral alternative was a non-starter.

So far Renewal has chosen only four candidates - the committee appointed to select the whole list will announce the others shortly - and they are comrades Galloway and Smith, veteran actor Harry Landis - who is currently president of Equity, the actors’ union - and Newham councillor Abdul Karim Sheikh.

These four names provide a taster for what we can expect when the full list is declared - a combination of working class, leftwing and union activists and muslim ‘community leaders’, hopefully augmented with a sprinkling of minor celebrities like the 78-year-old Landis (a leftwinger in his own right, of course).

Who is Abdul Karim Sheikh? He is a member of the central working committee of the Muslim Council of Britain, where he represents the London and Southern Counties Council of Mosques, and is also president/chair of Newham North Islamic Association and general secretary of the Alliance of Newham Muslim Associations.

A former businessman, he joined the Labour Party and was painted in the colours of a working class partisan by Socialist Worker back in the days when the SWP was upholding Respect as an alliance of “secular socialists” and “muslim activists”. He was interviewed following his election as a Respect councillor in May 2006 and is quoted as saying: “… in 1970 I started working for the Ford motor company, and I worked in the Dagenham car plant for 22 years. There were strikes in the early 1970s. I was in the T&G trade union the whole time. Although I wasn’t elected to a position, I helped to coordinate things, bring people to meetings and translate things” (May 20 2006).

Yes, Sheikh was once a worker, but his ideology is islamist, not that of the working class. The SWP may once have promoted him and his ilk, but no longer. “Muslim activists” do not feature in Respect-SWP’s Left List, which, unlike Respect Renewal’s election campaign, was announced with what passes for a fanfare.

Before that not even SWP members (apart from those in the loop) had been told that their Respect campaign would not be able to use the name. Even though the decision to stand as Left List had been revealed, not least in these pages, a week earlier, the rank and file were officially left in ignorance. For instance the SWP’s internal bulletin, Party Notes, published on the same day as the Left List launch, does not even hint at it and still refers to the Respect GLA campaign.

Immediately after the launch, the members (of both the SWP and Respect) were finally informed of the change. The March 10 Respect-SWP email bulletin was “confident that voters will turn out in their tens of thousands to vote for the only left of centre organisation remotely capable of mounting a left challenge to the old parties”. Unfortunately a “loophole” in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, explained the bulletin, prevents a political party from “democratically changing its nominating officer without the old nominating officer signing a form ratifying the transfer to the new nominating officer”. Of course, we all knew this from the very beginning of the split in Respect. The Galloway wing would have the name - if they wanted it - and the SWP would have to call itself something else.

SWP leader and Respect-SWP national secretary John Rees said of the new Left List logo: “The red and green star design is both unique to us, but also refers to the affinity that Respect’s Left List has to the European Left Party and the highly successful Left Party in Germany.”

The following week’s Party Notes reassuringly informed SWP members: “Rebranding a party is not that unusual - all the mainstream parties have done this over the last 15 years.” Perhaps hinting at what the SWP leadership is intending for its version of Respect, Party Notes also carries one mysterious reference to the “Left List/Left Party” - a formation that would no doubt be part of the reformist, ‘official communist’ milieu which comrade Rees’s remarks about the logo point to.

Looking at the names on the Left List, one might conclude that the new name is more accurate than the old one would have been. As well as SWP members Lindsey German, Rania Khan, Pat Stack and Tansy Hoskins, there are a range of comrades from a leftwing background who have worked with the SWP over recent years. These include Oliur Rahman, the first elected Respect councillor, Respect-SWP national organiser and “green Marxist” Elaine Graham-Leigh, Unison militant Pat McManus and former Militant Tendency member and Tower Hamlets Respect chair Glyn Robbins.

The all-London list also includes a variety of leftwingers from different backgrounds who have been selected to ensure that the slate has the right ethnic mix. These are Indian Workers Association leader and long-time Southall militant Salvinder Dhillon, Kurdish activist Sait Akgul, Iranian anti-war campaigner Mujgan Kazeroonian, Bengali socialist and former race-equality adviser to Ken Livingstone Kumar Murshid, ex-Ford worker Berlyne Hamilton, and black and LBGT activist Paul Fredericks.

Then there are a couple of more dubious candidates. Carole Vincent is a former Big brother contestant (a fact not mentioned in the initial Respect-SWP release) who “wants to release a BB cookbook and make a sex education video with host Davina McCall” (Daily Star September 7 2007). Vincent was so eager to star on the show that “she auditioned for it eight years in a row”. And she once sang in a band called Fancy Footwork.

However, she has also long been associated for a number of leftwing causes, including Stop the War and Greenham Common, and has campaigned to save her local hospital. She was a Respect candidate in 2006, before her appearance on Big brother. Carole Vincent is joined on the list by youth worker Katt Young, a self-appointed spokesperson for black people who believes that “The way forward is through love”, according to a Respect-SWP video.

Mukul Hira is a Bengali Workers’ Association activist in Camden, but his leftwing credentials are also uncertain. Writing on a Bangladesh discussion blog, he states: “I personally welcome the government’s crackdown on corruption ... The people of Bangladesh have long waited for law and order to be in place. Hopefully it will under this government” (www.bangladeshnews.com.bd/2007/03/08/tarique-rahman-arrested-raid-on-sudha-sadan). The remaining candidate, Sultana Begum, is, like Hira, from a muslim background, but cannot remotely be described as a “muslim activist”.

In addition Respect-SWP intends to contest each of the 14 GLA constituency seats and will be fielding candidates of a similar pedigree. It is aiming to raise £30,000 within the next week to pay the deposits and finance serious campaigning.

As far as the declared policies of the two rival groupings are concerned, they are, at this stage, virtually identical. Belying the SWP’s claim about increasing rightwing influence, Renewal is sticking to Respect’s original left populist launch declaration. However, whereas Respect-SWP is standing Lindsey German for mayor, Renewal is making a point about its backing for Ken Livingstone. The argument is that, unlike 2004 when Galloway and co backed comrade German as Respect candidate, Livingstone is now under real threat from Tory Boris Johnson and therefore must be supported.

A number of Ken fans in the shape of Socialist Action supporters have added their own particular pro-Livingstone twist to the Renewal campaign. For example, the new Respect Renewal organiser in Lewisham and Greenwich is one Richard Abendorff, who posted this contribution to the BBC London website following a debate between the two main candidates for mayor: “What a great account Ken gave and what a contrast to Boris yesterday. Ken knows the facts, has clear policies and is taking London forward. He has also shown he can respond appropriately to any event - like the horror of 7/7. He must continue as mayor!” (www.bbc.co.uk/london/content/articles/2008/01/14/borisjohnson_studio_video_feature.shtml).

To put it mildly, neither wing of Respect can be held up as an example of shining working class principle. But it is clear that, of the two, Respect-SWP has abandoned the particular popular front model epitomised by the “secular socialist”-”muslim activist” alliance. In fact SWP leaders have recently taken to hypocritically using this term against Galloway, who is accused of putting together a “coalition of interests more resembling a popular front” in places like Tower Hamlets (Socialist Review December 2007).

This writer has been forthright in condemning the SWP leadership’s cynicism in continuing the Respect charade, when its intention, ever since it provoked the split, had been to dump the ‘unity coalition’ and retreat in good order with as little damage as possible in terms of membership loss. That remains my view.

However, given the choice on the left between Respect-SWP’s Left List, Respect Renewal and the Morning Star’s Unity slate we think that the best option is to give critical support to the former on May 1. Peter Taaffe’s Socialist Party in England Wales might be standing candidates in London too. But when I rang them on March 19 they refused to either deny or confirm that they would be running. Either way, that there are three or four left lists competing against each other is quite frankly farcical. On balance, however, the SWP’s Left List seems the least objectionable.

As to the 14 first-past-the-post seats they need to be judged concretely. Back the best placed working class candidate, but not islamists, businessmen or so-called ‘community leaders’. On the mayor it is also a matter of choosing the least objectionable. Given the STV system, that means: German first and Livingstone second preference.