Beginning of the end
The Respect national council has declared that 'carrying on as if nothing has changed' is 'not an option'. Peter Manson reports
Unlike the Socialist Party in England and Wales, with its super-optimistic assessment of the May 5 election results obtained by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, the Respect party has been much more sober and realistic.
According to national secretary Clive Searle, “The reality of our results on May 5 was that we had a very disappointing night.” First of all, hopes that George Galloway would be returned as a member of the Scottish parliament were dashed when the Coalition Against Cuts lists he headed could only manage 3.5% in Glasgow.
Then Mohammed Ishtiaq, despite picking up 3,413 votes (38.6%), was unseated in Birmingham Sparkbrook, where Respect previously boasted all three councillors. Right now things do not look good for Shokat Ali next year or even for Salma Yaqoob in 2013. Respect also contested two other wards in Birmingham, where it managed to gain 13.6% and 5.4% respectively. Apart from that, it had three candidates in Rochdale (13%, 5%, 2%) and one each in Manchester (2.7%) and Liverpool (1.1%). As comrade Searle puts it, “In most places our votes were declining or very small indeed.”
Meeting on May 21, the national council discussed “the prospects for Respect”, states comrade Searle. He sums up the NC’s thinking in this way: “It appears clear now, with the exception of Tower Hamlets with its peculiar local circumstances, that the electoral space that we have sought to occupy in recent years has been closing since the final few weeks of the 2010 general election campaign. As voters were faced with a stark choice between Labour and Tory governments, most working people - many of whom had spent the previous few years disillusioned with Blair and then Brown - returned to the Labour fold. With the Con-Dems in power, and viciously cutting essential public services, that process has continued - and is likely to accelerate, as the cuts begin to bite.”
He is quite right. Respect is facing up to this reality in a way that much of the left - not least SPEW - is refusing to do. Workers still regard Labour as a party likely to provide some kind of defence against the Con-Dem attacks and are not about to switch their allegiance to some phantom alternative - especially one like Tusc that virtually ceases to exist between elections.
In a way, it has been easier for Respect to recognise that the game is up. Unlike the Socialist Alliance, Tusc and ‘No to the EU, Yes to Democracy’, to name just three, it was never intended to be a mere banner of convenience under which sections of the left could come together at election time. Respect was aiming to be a big player that could win MPs and get councillors elected. Indeed in the 2005 general election comrade Galloway was returned to parliament as MP for Bethnal Green and Bow and the following year Respect won 12 council seats in Tower Hamlets, becoming the official opposition to Labour. By 2007 it had 18 local councillors across the country.
By contrast, Respect now has no MPs and just four councillors - two in Birmingham, two in Tower Hamlets. Clearly all hopes that Respect could be transformed into a weighty political party have vanished - which is why the national council “agreed that carrying on as if nothing has changed was not an option”.
The NC also agreed that “we didn’t want to risk losing the coherent body of anti-imperialist, anti-racist, pro-investment ideas that have become associated with Respect” and to that end “a number of different proposals were made for the future”. Comrade Searle does not go into what these were, but promises: “The next issue of the Respect Quarterly will carry articles analysing the election and making suggestions for the way forward.” Respect will then “hold a series of regional forums for all members and supporters” and the NC will “discuss the outcome from these forums at our next meeting on September 10. We will then report back to the membership as a whole.”
So what are the options? I understand that at the NC at least four possibilities were mooted. The one that has the least going for it at the moment is that Respect members should join or rejoin Labour. While individuals may simply quit Respect and follow that course, there is no serious proposal that Respect members as a whole should go into Labour as a bloc or apply for affiliate status.
However, the proposal to edge closer to the Green Party is a serious one. Sections of Respect, particularly in Manchester and the north-west, have in the past struck local electoral deals with the Greens and their former national elections coordinator, Peter Cranie, addressed the Respect conference in November 2010. Comrade Searle himself openly admits that the idea of Respect joining or becoming a component of the Green Party is not something he personally would reject. However, despite the departure from Respect of the last organised left group, Socialist Resistance, last year, remaining members who view themselves as part of the working class tradition would strongly oppose any such reorientation.
The proposal that could win out seems to be one that would see Respect transformed into a kind of ‘think tank’, making use of that “coherent body of anti-imperialist, anti-racist, pro-investment ideas” and putting it at the disposal of the whole left. Hmm. I wonder who the innovative thinkers and the prolific theoretical writers are amongst the Respect leadership? I somehow doubt that they would be able to follow in the footsteps of even Marxism Today or Spiked. In truth Respect policy is a mishmash of totally unoriginal old Labourism, greenism and left liberalism.
On the other hand, there are those like national chair Abjol Miah who do seem set on “carrying on as if nothing has changed”. His post-May 5 article on the Respect website emphatically states that “there is a bright future for Respect” - and comrade Miah does not appear to see any reason for Respect to change course.
He writes: “Some may be attracted to the Labour Party because it is doing better in the polls, but ... the party has not drawn the correct lessons of its devastating defeat in 2010 or its humiliation in Scotland ... Labour needs to go back to its old values of standing up for working people and the less well off, defending the principles of public service and promoting equality rather than greed. Instead the debate in the Labour Party today is between those who would follow in Blair’s footsteps and those who want to make the party comfortable for the likes of the English Defence League. This is not a party progressive people will feel comfortable in and quite rightly.”
Comrade Miah concludes: “There remains therefore a huge intellectual space for progressive politics in this country, a space that has been vacated by both the Lib Dems and the Labour Party. We are facing an unprecedented assault on our living standards and an ideological assault on the very foundations of the welfare state. We need organisation and ideas to fight the battles ahead. That is why there remains a pressing need for Respect. I’m here to announce that we intend to build on the referendum success and the by-election we won in December against all the forces Labour could throw at us. We are here to stay and we are here to grow.”
The by-election he refers to saw Respect’s Fozol Miah ride on the success of the newly elected mayor, councillor Lutfur Rahman. Despite being selected as mayoral candidate in a democratic vote by Labour members, Rahman was dumped by the leadership and stood as an independent. When he won, that left a vacancy in Spitalfields and Banglatown, where sympathy for Rahman and antipathy towards the Labour bureaucracy was translated into votes for Respect.
But there is no reason to believe that these “peculiar local circumstances” in Tower Hamlets will automatically result in greater longevity for Respect in the borough: quite possibly the opposite, in fact. Here a combination of ‘community leaders’ and the mosque has been able to lead whole sections to switch political allegiances. While comrades like Abjol Miah, former leader of the Respect group on the council, are undoubtedly left Labourites, I doubt whether they have the following to withstand the basically patriarchal networks.
Despite that, one Respect NC member told me that in Tower Hamlets there is “everything to play for”. Here at least there was every reason to continue contesting elections, while elsewhere there ought to be a “cautious and realistic” approach to the question.
That too sounds like “carrying on as if nothing has changed”.
- See my article last week: ‘Give up on Tusc’, May 26.
- ‘After the election - where now for Respect?’, May 24: www.voterespect.org/2011/05/after-election-where-now-for-respect.html