From City Hall to Club Row?
James Turley sees little prospect of future success for Socialist Action and Respect
When the Respect (un)popular front split last autumn, it provided something of a parlour game for the rest of the left - which fragment would collapse first?
The Socialist Workers Party was seriously rocked internally by the nakedly apolitical nature of the split, and Respect-SWP included very little more than itself. The George Galloway wing had legal ownership of the name and almost all of Respect’s elected representatives went over to Galloway’s side.
Respect-Galloway, however, seemed likely to be crippled by the lack of activists and resources. The SWP had provided most of the foot soldiers for the project. Respect Renewal, as it has become known, had only Alan Thornett’s much smaller liquidationist International Socialist Group as a substitute. The SWP took almost all the student section, as well.
Since then, the SWP wing has become ever more ridiculous. A bungled last-minute name change to ‘Left List’ preceded a disastrous showing in the London elections, and now, farcically, its national council looks set to recommend the adoption of ‘Left Party’, aping Die Linke in Germany. All of Respect-SWP’s remaining councillors in Tower Hamlets (one defected to the Tories earlier this year!), including long-time close ally Oliur Rahman, are seriously considering going over to Labour. The spotlight has fallen away from Galloway’s wing.
Some clues to the direction Respect Renewal is taking can be picked up from the latest, fourth issue of its paper, simply titled Respect.1
The most obvious feature of this publication is how typical it is of the left press in general - that is to say, dry-as-dust sub-populist agitational articles recycling truisms for a mass audience, which, if it actually existed, would not be that stupid anyway. This focus starts on the front page, with Gordon Brown wearing an ineptly-Photoshopped Robin Hood mask over the stupefyingly banal headline “Robs from the poor, gives to the rich”.
Perhaps surprisingly for those who expected RR to go ‘off the deep end’ into identity politics and forget the working class entirely, much of the rest of the paper is concerned with reports of trade union struggles, and a full-page article by SWP defector Nick Wrack runs under the headline “Working class people deserve a party to speak for them”. Indeed, most of the 24 pages read like nothing so much asSocialist Worker. No doubt this is due to the substantial input not only from comrade Wrack, but from the ISG as well.
Salma Yaqoob writes an interesting article for the back page, promoting Respect’s opposition to postal voting on demand. Her core argument is that it plays into the hands of patriarchal power structures in Asian communities, with the effect that women are effectively denied a secret ballot and forced to vote a certain way. If she is correct about this - and there is no reason to suppose she is not - there is a certain irony involved, as it was exactly these patriarchal structures whose mobilisation elected George Galloway to parliament in 2005.
Her conclusion is slightly dubious - would not abolishing postal votes simply switch the burden of disenfranchisement onto those who rely on them? - but the simple act of highlighting a democratic question as a key policy platform (apart from the war) is a break from the SWP era.
And Socialist Worker would not run a letters page which actually allowed for serious levels of dissent on two issues. The first is a short missive weighing in against no-platforming the BNP, not a position amenable to most of the left and certainly not to Respect, with its dubious history of supporting state proscriptions on fascism. The second is a longer, more detailed argument against abortion from a proclaimed atheist correspondent (itself a response to an earlier, pro-choice article by the ISG’s Terry Conway).
So is Respect on the way to a healthier internal life at least? Here, our picture must be qualified by turning to student politics.
Rumblings in NUS
Ruqayyah Collector, incumbent black students officer for the National Union of Students, posted on her blog last week an aggressive condemnation of the SWP’s intervention at the recent NUS black students conference. Collector is a member of Student Broad Left and - presumably - Socialist Action, the clandestine Stalinist sect that controls it.
Student Respect (which was never much more than the Socialist Workers Student Society, and went over to the SWP side of the Respect split entirely) had put up non-SWPer Assed Baig for black students officer, the post Collector currently holds. Ruqayyah claims that Baig and SR entered into a bloc with the ‘Organised Independents’, a motley crew of liberals, Tories and christians and one of the two serious factions on the NUS right. This “unprincipled” bloc is a threat to “the maximum, principled unity of African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean people”, and will play into the hands of those who wish to push through the anti-democratic governance review.2
Assed Baig, for his part, hit back with a long list of criticisms of SBL’s “corruption” - and claimed that “Student Respect’s line was to transfer to Bell [Bellavia Ribeiro-Addy, SBL candidate and now black students officer elect] despite Ruqqayah’s [sic] undemocratic methods”. However, “we decided to let delegates choose for themselves between the corrupt Broad Left and Salima [Lanquaye, Organised Independents candidate]” (I assume this apparent contradiction implies that SR members second-preferenced Bell without agitating for others to do the same).3
The arguments are circular and often laughably hypocritical, but there are two symptomatic sentences which we should note. Collector refers to Baig as “the SWP/Left list candidate standing fraudulently as Respect”; Baig, before his bullet-pointed list of accusations against SBL, declares: “We can no longer remain publicly uncritical of the way the Broad Left have run our campaign” (emphasis added).
“No longer” indeed - since the SWP has enjoyed a long and ‘productive’ period of on-off alliances with Socialist Action. The latter, as is now infamous, provided bureaucrats to Ken Livingstone during his tenure as London mayor, and SA and the SWP between them ensured that the 2004 London leg of the European Social Forum was dominated by Livingstone-friendly voices and rendered as always an inert talking shop.
And earlier this year, in a sectarian power-play against the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s student front, Education Not for Sale, during talks for a united left slate for the NUS full-time positions, SWP/SR insisted on two spaces on any slate for SBL and only one for ENS (none at all, of course, for Communist Students). Communists can only laugh at Assed Baig’s sudden ‘discovery’ of Ruqayyah Collector’s lukewarm opposition to the governance review (given SA’s parlous record on democratic questions in general, one imagines that its only real objection is that it does not get to enforce the review), since it was Baig and his SWP supporters who provided left cover for it in the run-up to conference.
What could have caused such a happy relationship to turn sour? Collector, in her accusation of “fraudulent” use of the Respect name, gives us our answer - Socialist Action has, since its ignominious ejection from City Hall, changed its base of operations completely to Respect Renewal.
This highlights an interesting process which is only now beginning.
The total immersion of Socialist Action into Respect Renewal is not, yet, making its effects fully felt. Certainly, a publication edited by these bureaucrats would not feature such a wide selection of voices from the different RR factions, never much more than allies of convenience.
The paper, it will be remembered, was created effectively on the initiative of the ISG, which even suspended publication of Socialist Resistance for a time in order to put more resources into Respect’s paper at its Club Row headquarters. Its editorial board was appointed before SA began fishing around for influence, and when the ISG represented the largest and most influential organised left grouping within RR -which is why the paper today bears the ISG’s fingerprints in its workerism-plus-identity-politics political approach.
In the short to medium term, we can expect some kind of struggle between SA and the ISG, then, effectively in competition for the Galloway ‘contract’ - the right to take a hegemonic role over the day to day activity of the grouping.
Until recently, the smart money would be on Socialist Action emerging victorious from this process - but that was because SA was drawing a number of ‘smart’ pay cheques from City Hall (not to mention exercising something like Ken Livingstone’s royal prerogative), some running into six figures. Those resources are gone, and only one or two full-timers in the NUS and CND remain in similar gainful employment.
There are three possible outcomes, then: firstly, the marginalisation of Socialist Action might be desirable for Respect’s political character, but it would leave it in the same overstretched/undermanned boat it currently occupies; secondly, the rise to dominance of SA could precipitate a split with (or even in) the ISG, with Respect coming to be a ginger group influencing Labour leftists; thirdly, some kind of compromise between the two forces would leave it better off organisationally, but (even more) strategically directionless.
None of these possibilities point towards the serious prospect of future success. One thing is for sure: the beast that emerges from this struggle will be every bit as strategically infantile as the forces that brought it to birth.
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