SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today No 80 - February 2004

George Galloway’s ‘Respect initiative’

‘TWENTY-FOUR hours to make or break Tony Blair’, is how the tabloid headlines have described the looming parliamentary dramas of January 27-28. The first date is when parliament will debate the introduction of deeply unpopular top-up fees for university students, which are widely understood as being a qualitative step towards a US-style university system, with elite institutions charging exorbitant fees.

The following day will see a debate on the Hutton inquiry into the events leading to the suicide last summer of the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) expert, David Kelly. Whatever Hutton’s exact findings are, not even the capture of Saddam Hussein has cut across the increasing unpopularity of Blair’s decision to go to war and the deep-seated perception (reinforced during the inquiry’s hearings) that he lied over WMDs in order to go ahead with the war in the face of mass opposition.

In other circumstances all these factors would make it a betting certainty that Blair would be forced to resign. But while this is an increasing possibility, Blair has two great advantages – a large parliamentary majority and, most importantly, the lack of any mass socialist alternative standing to the left of New Labour. If such a party existed it would be able to channel the anger of workers – on top-up fees, privatisation, low pay and the continuing occupation of Iraq – into a powerful opposition. But there is as yet no mass workers’ party, or even a ‘pre-formation’ on the road to a new mass party, that could begin to provide an alternative for the millions of workers and youth who are disillusioned with all the capitalist politicians. Unfortunately at this stage none of the new left-wing trade union leaders have made a clear call for such a formation, and a majority are still arguing that it is possible for the working class to reclaim the Labour Party, despite all evidence to the contrary.

The latest initiative to try and step into this vacuum is the Respect – Unity Coalition, set-up by George Galloway MP, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and others. George Galloway was expelled from New Labour last October for his stand against the Iraq war and Respect’s first, and primary, goal is to contest the European elections in June (under a proportional representation system) with the hope that he could be elected in London.

The Socialist Party supports candidates standing in elections who put forward a clear socialist alternative in opposition to New Labour, or clearly represent a step towards a new mass workers’ party. At this stage, unfortunately, Respect does not put a clear socialist position and it is also far from certain whether any electoral successes it may achieve (and these are far from guaranteed) would be used to advance the case for a new workers’ party.

Respect’s central slogan is opposition to the occupation of Iraq and "any further imperialist wars". This, and many of its other demands, are very good – for an end to privatisation, the return of the railways and other former public services to democratic public ownership, opposition to tuition fees, and so on. They fall short, however, of a socialist programme that provides a real alternative to the capitalist system that is responsible for attacks on education, the health service etc – and, of course, imperialist wars. Possibly this is because the Guardian journalist George Monbiot and Salma Yaqoob (chair of the Birmingham Stop the War Coalition), who are not socialists but were two of the eight ‘founding initiators’ of Respect, opposed an explicitly socialist content. If that is so, it was a mistake to dilute the programme of Respect in order to win the support of a few ‘prominent individuals’. It was certainly not necessary to do so in order to fulfil the central aim of the Respect founders, of winning electoral support from amongst those sections of society that took part in the anti-war movement, including the Muslim community.

It is, of course, vital to try and capitalise on the massive anti-war movement which shook Britain. The best way of doing this would have been for George Galloway (and the other leaders of the anti-war movement) to have launched the call for a new party at the time of the million-and-a-half strong February 15 demonstration, while the movement was at its height. Nevertheless the potential still exists to win large sections of the anti-war movement, including Muslim workers and youth, to a new left formation. But it is not sufficient to appeal to Muslims as Muslim voters in elections. Socialists should instead appeal to the class interests of Muslims and anti-war activists, as with other ethnic and religious groups and the working class as a whole. George Galloway makes a mistake when he says Respect will win "the bulk of progressive opinion in the country" (Morning Star, 12 January). Not only because there is no evidence for this but also because ‘progressive opinion’ is too vague a description of who a new formation should be aiming to win. What does it mean? Don’t the ‘anti-war’ Liberal Democrats for example, whom the Muslim Association of Britain backed in last September’s Brent East by-election, claim to appeal to ‘progressive opinion’ also?

In Britain today it would be possible to win the support of broad sections of the working class on the basis of at least the main outlines of an explicitly socialist programme. In this sense Britain, where the working class has the experience of Labourism, is still different to the USA, for example, where even a left non-socialist alternative, such as Naderism, could mark a significant step forward.

In the future, it is true, a new formation in Britain might decide, after discussion, to compromise on the socialist content of its programme. This might be necessary, for example, in order to enable a significant section of the working class, such as a trade union, to join the new formation (this was the case with the founding of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, the forerunner of the Labour Party) – although in those circumstances socialists would still have a duty to argue for their ideas within the new formation. Such a situation, however, is very different to the current position, where a relatively small group of individuals, predominantly socialists, have decided not to raise socialist ideas, perhaps to keep one or two ‘prominent individuals’ on board, and certainly with the hope that this might win broader electoral support. In fact, it will guarantee neither.

Moreover, even dramatic electoral victories are only a step forward if they inspire thinking workers and young people to join the political fray to fight for the interests of the working class, in other words if they mark a step towards the foundation of a new mass workers’ party. This is not guaranteed. One particularly important task for a new formation, today when the working class is deeply cynical about capitalist politicians, is to prove that its representatives are completely different to the money-grubbing ‘career’ politicians. In this regard it is unfortunate that Respect is not committed to its elected representatives taking only a workers’ wage. In the past Dave Nellist, Terry Fields and Pat Wall, three Marxist Labour MPs who supported the Militant Tendency (predecessor to the Socialist Party), all took the average wage of a skilled worker. This meant they remained in touch with the working class communities they represented but also that it was clear that their ‘hands were clean’. Joe Higgins, currently a Socialist Party TD (MP) in Ireland, does the same.

It is also vital that any new formation is democratic, open and welcoming to new layers of workers and youth. Unfortunately, in England and Wales there have already been two failed attempts to launch a left alternative to New Labour – the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) and the Socialist Alliance. In both cases the undemocratic and top-down approach of the leadership of these organisations (Arthur Scargill in the SLP and the SWP in the last three years of the Socialist Alliance) was a major factor in their inability to gain real influence.

Unfortunately Respect, whose major component is once again the SWP, appears to be making the same mistake. With no genuinely open pre-discussion on how to build a democratic, inclusive electoral coalition, Respect is being launched at a national rally in January. Nonetheless, the Socialist Party will engage in any discussions that may take place. Socialists must stand for the maximum possible unity of the left and be prepared to work with others, including in the electoral field. However, it also vital to fight to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated and that future formations are developed on a healthy and democratic basis.

Hannah Sell


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