Clutching at straws
The Respect Party is looking for a revival of its flagging fortunes through the election of George Galloway as an MSP. Peter Manson reports on a low-key conference
Respect has decided to stand George Galloway in Glasgow in next May’s elections to the Scottish parliament - a decision that will mean the departure of the last remaining organised left group still operating within it - Socialist Resistance.
Respect’s November 13 annual conference came at a time when the party has been badly hit by electoral losses - in the general election, despite polling far more votes than the rest of the left combined, it failed to win any of its three target seats. Comrade Galloway could only come third in Poplar and Limehouse on May 6, while Abjol Miah was unable to hold on to Galloway’s former seat of Bethnal Green and Bow - he too was third behind Labour and the Liberal Democrats with a similar share of the vote (17%). Salma Yaqoob was second in Birmingham Hall Green, with 25%.
On the same day Respect lost all but two of its councillors, leaving only Yaqoob in Birmingham Sparkbrook and Harun Miah in Shadwell, Tower Hamlets. Back in 2006 Respect was the official opposition in Tower Hamlets, with 12 councillors.
No wonder, then, that membership has plummeted and demoralisation has set in, with only a handful of branches now meeting - where they exist at all. Only three - Manchester, Brighton and Hove, and Merseyside - put in motions or amendments (the leadership, in the form of the national council, proposed nothing in its own name - just one amendment to a Manchester motion). Likewise Birmingham and Tower Hamlets, the two former jewels in the crown and both still boasting dozens of paper members, had no proposals to put before conference.
According to the constitution, the national council is made up of a maximum of 50 members, up to 30 of which are supposed to be elected at regional meetings. But there are no working regions any more, so it was decided simply to ignore the constitutional stipulation and elect all NC members at conference. Since only 40 comrades had been nominated, all were declared elected.
The demoralisation was also reflected in the attendance - only 80 were present at the South Camden Community School, whose meeting hall holds about 250. Because active members are now thin on the ground virtually anyone who turned up on the day could be a ‘delegate’ with voting rights. But it must have been particularly dispiriting for the 50 or so comrades who arrived on time to survey all the empty seats - the coach from Birmingham had been delayed, which meant the conference began an hour late.
But at least the Birmingham contingent was real enough - unlike Tower Hamlets. What has happened to all those ex-councillors (those who have not switched to another party, that is), including general election candidate Abjol Miah? What about the large businessmen’s wing and those close to the mosque? They were nowhere to be seen.
Clearly Respect is badly in need of a boost - and that is what lies behind the decision to begin recruiting, organising and standing candidates in Scotland. If comrade Galloway headed a Respect list in Glasgow - or, for that matter, stood as part of a coalition or even as an independent - he could well garner the approximately 10,000 votes he would need to pick up one of the proportional representation seats. And, of course, that would do his own political career no harm whatsoever.
The move to initiate this change came in a last-minute amendment to Manchester’s general motion on fighting the cuts. Comrade Galloway and five of his closest followers on the NC - Miah, Carole Swords, Kay Phillips and expelled Socialist Workers Party comrades Rob Hoveman and Kevin Ovenden - proposed undertaking “preparations to contest elections to the Scottish parliament” and “seeking to recruit residents in Scotland to Respect”.
Whereas Respect “has not organised in or contested elections in Scotland in the past because of the hegemony of other parties to the left of Labour”, this “hegemony” has now ended and “there is now an opportunity for Respect”. There is no argument at all about the ending of the Scottish Socialist Party’s dominance - everyone knows it no longer has a chance in hell of getting someone into Holyrood - and the same applies to Tommy Sheridan’s Solidarity, irrespective of the result of the current perjury trial. Quite a contrast to 2003, when six SSP MSPs were elected.
But Alan Thornett’s International Socialist Group - or rather Socialist Resistance, now the “British section of the Fourth International”, into which the ISG has “merged” - does not see things so simply. In its leaflet handed out at the conference SR states: “Underlying this whole issue is an important political question: namely the right of the Scottish people to self-determination, including the right to independence. Therefore we reject the idea of English-based parties organising in Scotland.”
The two sentences form a non-sequitur. Only Scottish nationalists insist on the exclusive right of Scotland-only parties to organise there. The problem for SR, as with so much of the left, is that it regards self-determination and independence as identical. So Scottish workers have no right to opt for unity with their comrades in England and Wales within a single state, then?
This contradiction was well and truly exposed in comrade Thornett’s speech opposing the move. He said that organising in Scotland would represent a big change that should not be pushed through in an amendment without prior debate. Respect has no position on devolution, self-determination and independence, so what would we say on the doorstep? “If George was elected - and he has a good chance - things would shift from Tower Hamlets to Glasgow.” But Respect was “not yet organised in England” and, as a supporter of the SSP, comrade Thornett would be put “in a difficult situation” if Respect stood against that party.
Comrade Thornett seemed to be saying that Galloway should not stand in Glasgow precisely because he “has a good chance” of being elected - and where would that leave the SSP no-hopers? But if thousands of workers voted for an ‘English-based party’ what would that say about comrade Thornett’s perverse understanding of self-determination? Don’t the votes of those workers count for something?
Galloway himself answered this point: “I was a founder of Scotland United in 1992, which campaigned for a multi-question referendum. I would stand on the Scottish people’s right to self-determination.” It is true that Galloway is against independence - in fact, as the poppy he was wearing confirmed, he is a British left nationalist. But his understanding of self-determination is correct: each nation must have the right either to voluntarily separate or unite with others. As a rule, revolutionaries prefer and advocate unity.
Furthermore, Galloway was surprised at comrade Thornett’s view - that “a man of his stature believes my election would damage Tower Hamlets. If I win we’ll have three bases, not two! I will raise the money for the campaign and recruit people.”
According to comrade Hoveman, Respect would attend “unity talks” with the other left groups in Scotland, but, he insisted, “unity won’t happen”. What is more, the SSP has “discredited itself by associating itself with the Murdoch press” in the Sheridan defamation hearing and perjury trial and, meanwhile, Respect has been “inundated with hundreds of people urging George Galloway to stand and wanting to join.” I wondered if Rob was being just a little economical with the truth, but comrade Ovenden said the same thing: Respect was being “bombarded from Scotland by people saying we should stand”.
Stuart Richardson for the ISG/SR persisted with the nonsensical concern about misdirected “resources”: the 30 people in his Birmingham branch “should be involved in the anti-cuts campaign” - he claimed Respect had not taken part in recent mobilisations in the city - “not in support of George Galloway in Glasgow”. But Salma Yaqoob retorted that “George winning in Scotland would inspire people” and bring in fresh blood everywhere. “Where’s the chance we would split the vote so a reactionary party wins?” Confessing, “I love George”, she concluded: “To be honest, it’s a no-brainer. Go, George!”
And that is how the membership saw it too: apart from the 15 comrades of the SR bloc and one abstention, everyone was in favour and the amendment picked up 59 votes (it was the only time there was a count). This was by far the most interesting and hotly contested debate, but no-one put forward the principled working class position: the whole left should unite around a Marxist programme for working class independence, extreme democracy and internationalism. None of the current sects has any automatic claim to seek workers’ votes unopposed.
SR now states that the decision “makes Socialist Resistance’s position inside Respect untenable” socialistresistance.org). Which means that with SR’s departure Respect’s activists will now consist overwhelmingly of the soft, or liberal, left (including former members of revolutionary groups). And that applies to party leader Salma Yaqoob and her Birmingham followers too.
Yaqoob’s keynote speech for the most part could have been made by any SWP or Socialist Party leading comrade. Just as imperialism is to blame for wars, she said, it is “the logic of capitalism” - for which “crises are inevitable” - that has brought about the current attacks on our class. The “economic elite” are taking the opportunity to try to “smash solidarity” and the trade unions, but public sector workers are not to blame for their crisis. Britain’s borrowing was not historically high and far lower than other leading countries, but if you really wanted to eliminate the national debt you could raise £800 billion just by taxing the rich.
So far, so standard. But where Yaqoob differs from other left leaders is in her vision of an alternative (or rather lack of it). The most you can say about her desire to “make the world a better place” is that it is a form of ethical socialism. There was no attempt either by Salma Yaqoob or by any other Respect leader to paint a picture of what that “better place” would look like. Obviously, then, as the destination is not spelled out, there is nothing resembling a programme mapping out the route to get there. Nor was there any attempt to propose a strategy for the anti-cuts movement, let alone the working class as a whole.
Merseyside’s motion, proposed by NC member Diana Raby, held up the example of the “Latin American Alba group of nations” - Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Dominica, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Antigua and Barbuda - as the “most promising concrete alternative anywhere in the world” based on “anti-capitalist principles of social justice, fair trade ..., solidarity and ecological sustainability”. Not exactly working class socialism, then. But the membership voted to “actively support all forms of solidarity with the Alba countries” and “disseminate information” about their “progressive policies” with just one vote against (at least SR had the decency to abstain).
Respect’s understanding of “progressive policies” was further revealed in its invitation to Peter Cranie of the Green Party as one of three “guest speakers.” The other two were actually Respect members: Liam Mac Uaid (SR and now ex-Respect, representing the Campaign for a Million Climate Jobs); and Jerry Hicks, (rank-and-file candidate for Unite general secretary).
Of course, Respect is now completely different from the organisation it was when it was led by the SWP. In the words of Mark Perryman, formerly of Marxism Today and Eurocommunist notoriety, “We don’t sell papers on a Saturday morning, thank goodness.” In a sense, however, despite the dire nature of the motion quoted above and the participation of such turncoats as Perryman, you could argue that Respect has moved to the left. It was the SWP that consciously and deliberately kept out those elements of the working class programme that Muslim ‘community leaders’ might disapprove of. After all, Respect back then was an alliance of “Muslim activists” and socialists, and it needed a programme that both could live with.
That in turn meant that ‘democracy’ had to be carefully controlled - with the help of the SWP block vote. Today, the leadership bends over backwards to facilitate all points of view (admittedly, it is easier to give more time to debate when there are so few motions), leading Yaqoob to comment: “This is what real democracy looks like. Our conferences are not stage-managed like other parties.”
But the organisation is going nowhere. Its politics is an eclectic mix of left soundbites and well-meaning platitudes. Comrade Galloway was reduced to clutching at straws: apart from his own election in Glasgow, things were looking up in other ways. Along with himself and Yaqoob, Respect now has a third internationally renowned figure in Kevin Ovenden of Viva Palestina (one of the elements which has made Respect a “leading force not only in Britain”). Comrade Ovenden recently addressed a 500-strong meeting in Brooklyn.
Then there was Tower Hamlets. Yes, Respect may have lost all but one of its councillors, but, thanks to its canny positioning in supporting Labour reject Lutfur Rahman, the new mayor, it is well placed to “win big” (Rob Hoveman) in the December 16 by-election in Spitalfields and Banglatown - the seat vacated by Rahman, where the Labour leadership has imposed a candidate on the local party.
In making this point, comrade Hoveman remarked: “I notice the Weekly Worker is in the audience.” In other words, don’t forget to mention the Spitalfields by-election in your report, Peter. A pleasure, Rob.