Monday, 12 November 2007

Respect crisis

Well I guess I now have to say what I think about the crisis in Respect.

First of all I do think it is a crisis. The right-wing media and the sectarian left love the fact that this project might be about to collapse. I have to disappoint them and say that although the project is in trouble it is far from collapse.

Many people, including the New Statesman and the AWL, at the launch of Respect said it was an unholy alliance of reactionary muslims and the authoritarian left. The Guardian's Nick Cohen has described it as being like the British Union of Fascists and compared Galloway to Mosley. All of this was ridiculous then, not to say racist, and it still is now. Others say 'we told you it would never work', even if they said no such thing at the time.

Respect developed organically out of the anti-war movement. That movement, which the SWP was central to building, has had the biggest demonstrations Britain has ever seen. It was instrumental in bringing together a wide range of people from trade unionists to students, from Muslims, Christians and Jews to atheists, socialists both revolutionary and reformist as well as Labour Party members, Lib Dems and Greens, peace activists, lawyers and school pupils. The movement was broad, but it was also radical. It had a clear anti-imperialist analysis, which was not automatic but which had to be argued for but it built the biggest possible opposition to the war.

However, it didn't stop the war. So activists started to ask what might have stopped the war. 3 million people on the streets of London on 15 February 2003 instead of 2 million? Or political representation in parliament? In the public as a whole the majority were against war. But in parliament precious few were prepared to stand unequivocally against war. Sure the Lib Dems opposed until it started (?!) and the Greens called for UN troops to be sent in (big deal) but only a handful opposed it all the way. If we could have built an anti-war opposition inside Parliament, maybe we could have split the ruling class and stopped it.

More than this, activists were aware that the massive gulf between the people and parliament, the so-called democratic deficit, existed on many more issues than simply the war. Selling off council housing, privatising the NHS, bringing the market into education, in short neo-liberalism; on all these issues the three major parties essentially agreed. By vacating the left and moving to the centre ground, New Labour were opening up a massive political vacuum which someone needed to fill. This was all the more urgent given that disillusion with mainstream parties (votes cast for the top two parties as a percentage of the voting public was at a historic low since universal sufferage began) was leading to protest votes going to parties of the far right (UKIP and the BNP).

The plan was to harness both the breadth and the radicalism of the anti-war movement to create a party to the left of Labour. Initially this was quite successful. The idea was that it would be a coalition that would contain everyone to the left of Labour including people willing to break from the Labour Party and its programme would be the maximum acceptable to reformists and the minimum acceptable to revolutionaries. It was unfortunate that Bob Crow's RMT was unwilling to join and equally unfortunate that George Monbiot felt the need to leave. This was because of the failure to secure an understanding with the Green Party. Respect offered a joint slate with the Greens in the Euro and GLA elections in 2004 but it was refused. Respect made the deal better and better for the Greens but still they refused. In subsequent elections they have even refused to organise for us not to stand against each other and in at least one or two cases have stood against Respect in places they had no chance of winning seemingly deliberately to wreck our chances (succeeding in one election, gaining something like 80 votes where we missed out on beating Labour by 20 votes or so).

However the new coalition did pull together significant forces from the anti-war movement including George Galloway who had just been expelled from the Labour Party for his principled opposition to the war. Respect was incredibly close to getting both George Galloway elected to the European Parliament and Lindsey German to the GLA in 2004 and subsequently Oliur Rahman was elected as a councillor. This was followed by election successes across Tower Hamlets, Newham, Salma Yaqoob in Birmingham, Michael Lavalette in Preston (originally elected as Socialist Alliance), Ray Holmes in Bolsover and most importantly George Galloway was elected as an MP for Bethanl Green & Bow in 2005. This was the best result for a party to the left of labour since the Communist Party got someone elected to Parliament in 1945.

However success brought its own problems. In Birmingham, where we had previously stood a range of candidates from various communities and both men and women, it was decided to stand an all male, Pakistani list. Members of the SWP objected that this did not represent the community in the area or within Respect, which is what we are about. This did not stop us campaigning just as hard as ever for Respect candidates once they had been chosen. Similarly in Tower Hamlets, some people felt it was more important to get elected than to fight for that original vision of Respect. In some cases an individual would hand in twenty or thirty membership forms at once, all at the concessionary rate with a wad of cash. These 'members' would then turn up, vote for the individual, and then never be seen again. Moreover, one candidate had been elected as a Respect councillor and then defected...to New Labour!

Galloway has until recently almost always sided with the SWP in disputes at conferences and praised the party for its organisation and dedication. When Galloway appeared on Big Brother without consulting anyone else in Respect, despite believing it to be a mistake, the SWP defended his actions saying he hasn't bombed anyone or invaded a country, it may have been a mistake but he is still a leading figure in the anti-war movement and we shouldn't break from him. This was clearly the right thing to do. It was John Rees that had to convince Salma Yaqoob that we shouldn't break from Galloway.

That fact that he has 'switched sides' now and supports the opportunists mentioned above has, I believe, got not a little to do with the fact that he believed, as we all did, that a snap general election was just around the corner and Respect would have been caught largely unawares, ie. he would not have been returned as an MP. He wanted a swift change of direction towards electoralism and saw these opportunists as a way of gaining support. Galloway knew that the SWP would not ditch its commitment to the long, slow, difficult process of building a coalition to the left of labour for short-term electoral success without a fight. So he wanted to remove the SWP from the leadership whilst still retaining the footsoldiers (the SWP rank and file) to do the dirty work of pounding the streets, leafletting in all weathers, as SWP members have proved themsleves to be good at. He naively believed he could split the membership of the SWP away from the leadership, retaining the membership, ditching the leadership and leaving him with little or no serious opponents in the fight for control of the party.

Needless to say this has not happened. Once he realised the SWP leadership would not go quietly he upped the ante, forcing the SWP to fight back harder until even though the threat of an election had disappeared the thing had taken on a life of its own and Galloway would clearly not stop until either the SWP leadership or he had left the coalition.

The logic of this led them to Respect Renewal.

The thing that sickens me the most about Respect Renewal is the arrogance of it. Their 'conference' is endorsed by 18 members of Respect National Council. So what? Do they think that just because they have signed a piece of paper we will all come running? Activists joined Respect in the first place because of its principles and because it was a necessity in british politics today not because a few 'famous' or 'important' people said we should. As I understand it branches all around the country have been sending in the names of their delegates and observers to the real Respect Annual Conference and passing motions supporting the conference. Only one branch has voted to cancel conference. And there the vote was passed by 1. And that one person happens to be a member of Socialist Action, Ken Livingstone's secret organsation that infiltrates the Labour Party and who only joined Respect when the crisis began, presumably to help its supposed demise. Most people on the blogosphere are saying that the SWP has been isolated and no-one will come to 'their' conference. I am willing to bet that the official Respect Annual Conference will be much bigger than the Respect Renewal rally.

The fact is, all the reasons for the importance of Respect's existence that I mentioned before are just as valid today if not more so. Just as John McDonnell, the last great hope for the Labour left, dies a death, so new opportunities are opening up to build the left even bigger and better than before. The RMT in London are backing Lindsey German for Mayor and are looking to stand anti-privatisation candidates for the GLA. Bob Wareing, the anti-war MP has been deselected by Labour and is standing as an independent. And the Communist Party of Britain/Morning Star are talking about the need for a new mass left-wing party in Britain.

I sincerely hope this coming weekend will be the end of the divisive split in Respect. I believe after that we can all get on with the business of re-building the left in Britain. Why not join us?

8 comments:

  1. I agree with your analysis of the Respect crisis. The Galloway video at Marxism 2007 only 4 months ago is highly significant. I was also interested in your comments about the Rossites (Socialist Action). I did not know that they had joined Respect. I think their role in its split should be fully exposed. I know that they were putting pressure on Lindsey German not to stand against Livingstone last Spring. And I note that Galloway was indecently anxious to "deselect" her by email. Can you shed any more light on this issue? Has Galloway done a deal with Livingstone in relation to the Mayoral and GLA elections? That is. not to stand against him?

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  2. The honest answer is I don't know. It certainly isn't inconceivable. There have been a number of people joining Respect since August (more than usual). My initial feeling was that people that had an interest in wrecking Respect smelled blood over the very public dispute and joined in an effort to make the possibility of collapse a reality. However the possibility of Livingstone's people doing a deal with Galloway that involves not standing against him for Mayor certainly makes sense. Livingstone has been courting Salma Yaqoob for over a year. And Salma now finds herself on Galloway's side despite privately calling for him to resign over Big Brother. Salma could conceivably have been the conduit. However this is all speculation and I prefer to deal in verifiable facts.

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  3. What makes you think that Salma might have been a conduit to Livingstone? Does she have a history of political relations with him?

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  4. Yes, Salma has been quite close to Livingstone for a while. She has been invited to speak on numerous platforms alongside him in the last couple of years, even asking her to be his partner in this high-profile debate in London with two well known neo-cons:

    http://www.pickledpolitics.com/archives/973

    She did not want Lindsey German to stand as Mayor because of this close relationship, and I am told she wrote to the NC to specifically request that Respect did not challenge Ken.

    I know of at least one member of Socialist Action that joined Respect in the week leading up to the emergency branch meetings, and who then went along to the Southwark meeting to vote with the Galloway faction, (they won the vote to postpone conference by one vote). He is quite well known and so would have stood out - no doubt there were others who did the same who weren't as easily identified as being from Socialist Action.

    And this was in the Morning Star recently:

    "Respect MP George Galloway backed Mr Livingstone’s support for the progressive Venezuelan government and warned that it would end if the Tories won the mayoralty next year. ‘Boris Johnson has promised that, if elected as mayor of London, he will sever links with Venezuela’, Mr Galloway said. ‘There are many reasons for hoping that Ken Livingstone beats Johnson at the ballot box next May and this is certainly one of them’."

    It's certainly a change of tune from George, who usually makes no secret of his disdain for Ken (remember the nickname 'Blair's Mayor' that George coined and repeated endlessly).

    The Mayoral issue does indeed seem to be a driving factor in all of this and George really can't afford to upset Salma now that his circle of friends has reduced quite dramatically.

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  5. Surely not Bob Pitt? Or isn't he rather just someone who pushes SA's line without actually being a member? Not that it would be very easy to find out.

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  6. It's been said on quite a few blogs now, including on Lenin just now - apparently it was Peter Learhy.

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  7. Tonight a good friend of mine said there were only four students at a recent Respect Renewal rally...and three of them are in Socialist Action (I presume he was the fourth).

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