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The problem with Respect
JUDY BEISHON looks at the politics and electoral record of Respect, and at its structures, determined by the narrow, exclusive approach of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and George Galloway.
RATHER THAN OFFERING a bold political alternative to New Labour, Respect was founded on the idea that the Socialist Alliance had failed because it was overtly socialist and therefore that Respect should not follow its example. This was connected to the aim of taking more of an electoral orientation. So in Respect’s founding statement the only reference to socialism is hidden in the ‘s’ of the acronym RESPECT, and it is rarely mentioned elsewhere either in writing or verbally.
The founding statement lists goals such as an end to the occupation of Iraq, an end to all privatisation, a raising of the minimum wage and bringing back the railways and other public services into democratic public ownership. Its constitution adds: "Our overall aim is to help create a socially just and ecologically sustainable society", and then mentions the need for "common ownership and democratic control".
However, at Respect’s first conference in October 2004, of the 42 resolutions passed there were no references to common ownership or to socialism as a goal. During that conference, leading SWP member, Lindsay German, argued against a resolution which proposed that Respect should aim for a socialist society. She said that political diversity is needed in Respect, and also that the resolution was moved in ‘bad faith’ – a common argument of the SWP against resolutions it disagrees with.
A composite of resolutions from five branches on ‘press and publications’ merely said: "Respect needs to project an alternative politics that has at its centre a redistribution of wealth in order to fund public services and tackle poverty". Another resolution called only for renationalisation of "the railways, gas, electricity and water industries", and another of "rail and bus services". Many didn’t even go that far, with one branch ending a resolution on student fees with: "The cost of providing education should be met in the same manner as the cost of maintaining defence and other essential services, ie through the tax system". Another simply said: "Respect will campaign to challenge the power of the multinational drug companies".
The lack of willingness to raise the issue of public ownership has not just been revealed on its conference floor. Following the collapse of the Longbridge Rover car plant, Respect initially just called on the government to hand over a Ł100 million loan demanded by the asset-stripping owners, Phoenix. In contrast, the Socialist Party called immediately for the plant to be taken into public ownership.
In general, non-SWP Respect leaders, like Salma Yaqoob, limit themselves to arguing – sometimes eloquently – against the Iraq intervention, ‘social injustice’, and ‘inequality’, which is understandable from people who do not regard themselves as socialists. But SWP representatives, like Lindsay German and John Rees, instead of raising political understanding by injecting some awareness of the need for socialism, just follow in the wake of those like Salma Yaqoob, making no mention of the ‘s’ word.
Reflecting its leadership composition, which includes the non-SWP George Galloway, and various Muslim community leaders, Respect does not have a unified political position on most issues, including on its attitude towards New Labour. It put out a gushing obituary following the death of New Labour’s ex-foreign secretary, Robin Cook, saying that he was a voice for "sanity, reason and peace" and was a "courageous, outstanding figure". It made no reference to the fact that Cook had played the role of foreign secretary for British imperialism and had supported the interventions in Kosovo and Afghanistan.
Despite the anti-working class nature of New Labour, the Respect conference passed a resolution not to oppose left, anti-war New Labour candidates. George Galloway has gone further than the SWP regarding his stance towards New Labour and has, in the past, raised the prospect of Respect possibly helping to reclaim the Labour Party. He was also reported as saying at the Respect conference that people should vote Labour where there was no Respect candidate standing.
Despite Respect being a centralised organisation rather than a genuine coalition, this does not mean that its national committee or even the executive committee has political control over its public representatives. In order to keep its celebrities, religious leaders and its one well-known political representative – George Galloway – on board, its figureheads are allowed to freely express their personal opinions in public. The SWP attempts to be controlling and authoritarian on some issues, such as on who will be in the leadership bodies and who will be election candidates, but decides to emphasise the looseness of a ‘coalition’ when it comes to issues of programme and policy.
As on public ownership and socialism, there are a number of subsidiary programmatic issues that Respect has had great difficulties with, due to its composition and the SWP’s unwillingness and inability to explain what is correct politically and to be honest when a political compromise is necessary. Compromises are not called compromises but are passed off as political principle or are treated with silence. But its silence on a number of issues means that it shares responsibility for the positions taken. For instance, to adapt to the religious Muslim leaders on the executive, any references to ‘secularism’, whether referring to the nature of Respect itself, to workers’ organisations in Iraq or anywhere, or to the education system in Britain, are simply voted down. George Galloway has been allowed to express his views against abortion and voluntary euthanasia with no direct criticism from the SWP.
The SWP has also forced Respect to accept Galloway’s refusal to live on an average worker’s wage. Although the SWP leaders try to present themselves as the theoreticians of Respect, it is George Galloway who sets the policy at the end of the day, because of his relative weight in the media and reputation in the anti-war movement. Galloway’s increased profile internationally as a result of his US senate hearing and his position as a left MP who overturned a significant New Labour majority, has increased his ability to dictate the agenda inside Respect.
Recently, divisions resurfaced on the issue of terrorism. A Respect conference resolution on Iraq made no qualification when it called for support for the ‘Iraqi resistance’, a position the SWP ran into difficulties with in the Stop the War Coalition. But more recently, tensions in the Respect leadership were evident following the 7/7 London bombings, when George Galloway was vociferously condemning the bombers, calling them ‘monsters’ and suchlike, while the SWP was trying not to use the word ‘condemn’ at all in relation to the attacks.
The electoral record
IN THE 2004 European elections, Respect’s first national electoral outing, George Galloway got 4.84% of the vote (91,175 votes) in the London Euro seat (a slightly lower, but similar, percentage to the vote of Irish Socialist Party member and TD – member of the Irish parliament – Joe Higgins in Dublin). Then, in the 2005 general election, concentrating on the Muslim anti-war vote, Respect won the Bethnal Green and Bow seat putting George Galloway back in parliament, and came second in Birmingham Sparkbrook, East Ham and West Ham with 27%, 21% and 20% of the vote respectively. They stood in 26 seats altogether. Lindsay German, in the June edition of Socialist Review compares this favourably to the Green Party, which stood 200 candidates, with their best result being in Brighton Pavilion where they came third with 20%.
However, the SWP leaders of Respect are highly selective with their comparisons, writing out of their history books the existence and achievements of the Socialist Party and its forerunner the ‘Militant tendency’. For instance, Lindsay German, in the same Socialist Review, says that the 2005 general election "marked the revival of the left electorally in Britain", and in the next sentence says that the votes of George Galloway, Salma Yaqoob, herself and Abdul Khaliq Mian (from the Muslim Alliance) "have not been seen since 1945 when Communists Phil Piratin and Willie Gallagher were returned as MPs". So the parliamentary victories achieved in the 1980s by Militant’s Dave Nellist, Terry Fields and Pat Wall, who stood on Marxist policies, are deliberately ignored. The Respect leaders also gave no recognition during the general election campaign to the Socialist Green Unity Coalition (SGUC), which stood a slightly higher number of candidates than Respect, including Socialist Party member Dave Nellist, who received 1,874 votes in Coventry North East.
The Socialist Party welcomed George Galloway’s victory in Bethnal Green and Bow and recognises it as an achievement for Respect. Galloway succeeded partly because of his reputation as a leading anti-war figurehead, which he built up over years, mostly prior to Respect’s existence. It is also the case that Respect’s best votes were achieved by orientating to anti-war Muslims. However, this was not done on a class basis, with equal emphasis on social and economic issues to that of Iraq, but largely as an ‘anti-war party’, and partly through religious leaders. Where they stood in areas without high Muslim populations, their votes were significantly lower.
Working-class Muslims have moved against New Labour as a result of the Iraq war and, as one of the most oppressed sections of society, are important to win to the labour movement. However, this must be done on the basis of a class-based appeal and not an opportunist one resting on religion and culture in the way that Respect has swung towards. At times, Respect has portrayed itself as ‘the party for Muslims’ and Galloway as a religious man who is personally against drinking alcohol, abortion and voluntary euthanasia. At a recent Respect meeting for students in Leicester, he even said that he was fasting for Ramadan – despite the fact that he is not Muslim himself.
There are significant dangers with this approach, particularly of creating potentially dangerous divisions between working-class people from different backgrounds and communities. The task should be not just to attract Muslim votes and allegiance, but to take the starting point of the radicalisation and anti-New Labour mood of Muslim youth and workers and take it further, by introducing the need for class unity and socialist ideas that can show a way forward.
The problem with Respect’s approach towards Muslim organisations, is not in the main what has been said and written, but what has not been said and written. While it is possible for socialists to oppose the war on Iraq in alliance with organisations like the Muslim Association of Britain, or in an electoral alliance against New Labour, it is not acceptable for them to never write or speak a word of analysis or criticism on the political solution those organisations offer to the problems faced by working-class people, including Muslims. However, the SWP is silent on these issues, trying to paper over political chasms to avoid offending its allies and friends in Respect.
When the Socialist Party works with others in coalitions and alliances, whether in a majority or minority position, our stance is always to put forward a programme and strategy to advance the struggle and consciousness and to try to win the others involved to that strategy. For example, we were in a minority on Liverpool council in the 1980s battles with the government, but we won majority support on the council and among workers in Liverpool on the basis of putting forward a strategy to advance the struggle. And while paying great attention to the detail of strategy and tactics, we do not hide our belief in the necessity for socialism, and are always prepared to critically analyse the views and aims of other organisations in our own material. Even though the SWP form a majority in Respect, instead of putting forward a programme and strategy to advance campaigns and political consciousness, it appeals to the lowest common denominator in the arguments and positions it puts forward.
Centralism not democratic federalism
IN ITS CONSTITUTION, Respect calls itself "broad, open and inclusive", and "politically pluralistic". The constitution states: "Members of other parties, organisations, or faith groups who join Respect are entitled to keep their identity as members of these organisations or groups whilst participating fully within the structures and activities of Respect… Trade unions at the national, regional or local level may affiliate to Respect. They will have the right of representation at annual and other conferences". And: "Any group of at least 20 members will have the right to organise within Respect and to present resolutions to conferences – consistent with the agenda of the conference".
In practise, however, there are great limitations to the extent to which other political organisations – other than the SWP – can keep their identity within Respect. Respect’s 2005 general election candidates had to be selected by majority vote at local level and approved by the national council. In most cases the SWP can mobilise their members to achieve an SWP ‘majority’ for such selection meetings. If a candidate from a minority organisation within Respect gets through this process, it is then the SWP’s position that no organisation can be part of Respect and stand in an election under its own name and determine its own election campaign politically or organisationally.
So it is impossible for any organisation or group of workers to be part of Respect without placing its election campaigns under the direct control of the SWP. This is the same situation as when the SWP controlled the Socialist Alliance. Groups of workers or organisations were told they had to give up control of their own campaigns and stand in the name of the Socialist Alliance. Worse still, if they refused to submit to this control, the SWP declared that the Socialist Alliance would stand against them, as it did on more than one occasion, including when the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation stood for the London Assembly, with the support of a majority of branches of the rail workers’ union, the RMT, in the London underground.
The right of "any group of at least 20 members" to organise within Respect is at the discretion of the SWP, as no such right was granted regarding delegate attendance and contributions at Respect’s first conference. At that event, all resolutions that were backed by the SWP were carried, and all those opposed by the SWP were defeated. A resolution for the right of political platforms to exist was defeated, as was one asking for the right of existence of groups such as the disabled, black members and lesbian/gay members. The national council is elected by the conference through a slate system. As the SWP had a significant majority, they were able to choose which slate became the leadership body. Although a minority of members of the present national council are in the SWP (ten out of 48), the SWP decided who will be on the council – ie others are only there at the SWP’s grace and favour.
Reflecting weakness in the trade unions, only seven national council members have a trade union position mentioned next to their name on Respect’s website. Around ten on the council are Muslims, with some of them being members of either the Muslim Association of Britain or the Muslim Council of Britain. There is no provision in Respect for significant minorities or non-union affiliates to have representation on the national council – this is entirely at the discretion of the SWP majority.
SWP member and Respect national secretary, John Rees, in May’s Socialist Review, declares the intention to create a "mass left-wing alternative to New Labour". But you will search in vain for encouragement to build democratic branches and to engage in democratic debate and discussion of political ideas to strengthen Respect politically. Instead, rally audiences are urged to join up to ‘help Respect win in the next elections’ and SWP and Respect members are urged to build "a network of supporters and activists in every area". (Socialist Review, June 2005) Most Respect rallies are characterised by an absence of any political discussion or debate, with usually no questions or contributions being invited from the floor. The Respect conference too had no real political debate, with resolutions only having one speaker for and one against.
This approach will not succeed in recruiting, retaining and politically developing young working-class people, or workers of any age and background for that matter. In this period, where an increasing number of people are moving in an anti-capitalist direction, there is a demand for accurate analysis of events, information about socialism and Marxism, and democratic discussion on the way forward. The SWP’s approach will not satisfy these demands. The lack of democracy and debate that exists in their own party is taken into Respect and other organisations under its control.
None of the lessons of the demise of the Socialist Alliance have been learnt by those in Respect’s leadership. The SWP was completely unwilling to compromise on the Socialist Alliance’s constitution, to retain an element of federalism in order to keep all participants on board. The Socialist Party proposed a federal constitution that would have made it a genuine alliance and maintained the maximum possible degree of unity. But in the event of this not being accepted, we were prepared to stay in the alliance on the basis of a proposed variation of a ‘status quo’ constitution, or even on the basis of a simple limit on the representation of any single organisation in leadership bodies, as was also proposed.
However, the SWP refused any compromise and forced through its own ‘one member one vote’ constitution with 52% of the conference vote. This meant that any organisation or group staying in the Socialist Alliance would have to accept the dictates of the SWP. The Socialist Party was unable to remain in on that basis and other groups, organisations and individuals who remained involved also came to realise that the SWP’s approach was intolerable. It ultimately caused the demise of the Socialist Alliance. For alliances or coalitions to be attractive to a fresh layer of workers, they will have to be inclusive, democratic and arrive at a way of working and constitution that prevents participating organisations from feeling they are not fully involved. Especially now, in the post-Stalinist era, there is great sensitivity on the issue of democracy, with people being repelled by any situation that smells of manipulation or dictates beyond their control.
In the Socialist Party, we will continue to help to propagate socialist ideas and socialist unity in the labour movement as a whole. As well as seeking agreements with other left organisations to avoid us standing against each other in the May 2006 elections, we are also continuing to work as part of the Socialist Green Unity Coalition, which came into being before the May 2005 elections. In particular, however, we look forward to participating in future developments towards a new mass workers’ party, the creation of which is now an urgent task for workers in Britain. We intend to play an active role in helping to initiate steps towards that vital goal, which will include proposing the necessity of a fully inclusive, democratic, federal constitution.