frontline 13

Respect – an opportunity and a challenge for the left in England

In the run-up to the European and London Assembly elections in June there are new and promising developments on the left in England. Murray Smith looks at where they might lead. This is the full version of the article which appears in an edited form in the print edition of Frontline.

At the last European elections in June 1999, the SSP, which had won its first seat in the Scottish Parliament a month before, got 4 per cent of the Scottish vote. In France the LO-LCR list won more than 5 per cent and had five MEPs elected. In European and national elections, the anti-capitalist left also made progress in other countries such as Denmark, the Basque Country, Holland and Luxembourg. In England and Wales, no anti-capitalist alternative was on offer and in the absence of one it was the Greens who made gains.

This time round the situation is different. There is still no broad socialist party comparable to the SSP in England and Wales. But a new political alliance has been established: Respect – the Unity Coalition (1). This is potentially the most important development on the left in England for decades. The purpose of this article is to look at where Respect has come from and where it might be going. And to come back in the light of these new developments to some aspects of the debate conducted in previous issues of Frontline with John Rees of the SWP (2).

Respect will be contesting not only the European elections but also the elections for the London Assembly. It was in fact on the occasion of the previous, first, elections for this body in 2000 that things began to move on the left in England. What produced the change was the newly affirmed readiness of the SWP to work with other forces. This led to the reinvigoration of the London Socialist Alliance. The results of the London election were encouraging. Socialist Alliances were revived or established across the country and stood about 100 candidates in the 2001 Westminster election. Unfortunately the Socialist Party, which had originally initiated the Alliances in the 90s but left them in limbo, ended up pulling out. But there was room for optimism as to the future of the Socialist Alliance.

Unfortunately this optimism was to be disappointed. The SWP saw the Alliance as a “united front of a special kind” to be wheeled out only for elections. In fact, the SA had some modest successes on the electoral level. But since its main component had no intention of building it into a serious political force, involved in mass campaigning outside election times, its prospects were limited. This was graphically illustrated in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq. As Bush and Blair prepared for war, the task of socialists was clearly to build a mass anti-war movement. The SWP took up the challenge. In September 2002 an internal circular informed its members that the task of the hour was “Stop the War, Build the Party”.

No one would deny that the SWP threw all its forces into the building of a mass anti-war movement, the Stop the War coalition. Of course the massive demonstrations that took place didn’t stop the war. But the anti-war movement and the mass opposition to Bush and Blair that it expresses became and remain an important factor in British politics. They have powerfully contributed to the way that the war and its aftermath still haunt Blair and may ultimately be his downfall.

As for building the party, no doubt the SWP won some recruits through the anti-war movement. But the indications are that Greg Tucker is right to note that “In Britain, even with two million anti-war demonstrators on the streets no revolutionary organisation has grown significantly” (3). Except that he should have said “in England”, because in Scotland the SSP, (which does not of course proclaim itself a “revolutionary organisation” but is nevertheless a class-struggle socialist party) did grow significantly, in terms of members, electoral results and now trade union affiliation.

The fact that the Socialist Alliance failed to develop via the anti-war movement was the result of a conscious political choice by the SWP. In the above-mentioned circular the words “Socialist Alliance” do not appear once, and in the SWP’s perspectives the two dimensions of its action were to build the mass antiwar movement and to recruit to the SWP. The Alliance was put on the back burner from day one. This was an application of fairly classical far-left tactics – build the mass movement and the revolutionary organisation, with nothing in between, in particular no conception of building a party other than by recruitment to the SWP.

This was a lost opportunity. The anti-war movement could have been the occasion for building the Socialist Alliance in a non-electoral, mass campaigning context. That would have represented a real step forward on the road to building a broad socialist party in England. The consequences of this failure were seen in the May 2003 elections. In Scotland there was a credible socialist alternative on offer. The success of the SSP in the Holyrood elections was of course not only attributable to its opposition to the war. But in Scotland it was identified with the anti-war movement. In the local elections held in England on the same day, in the same context of mass opposition to the war, the Socialist Alliance, in spite of some local successes, in particular the election of Michael Lavalette in Preston, had no national profile. The contrast with the BNP is striking. Although the BNP did not present candidates everywhere it came across as a national political force.

However in the aftermath of the mass anti-war movement, the question of building a political alternative to New Labour began to be posed. It was posed by among others the journalist and anti-globalisation campaigner George Monbiot (4) and the anti-war campaigner Salma Yaqoob. It was posed by the Socialist Alliance at its conference in May 2003, where it called for the creation of a political force that could represent the radicalisation expressed by the anti-war movement. And it was posed by the SWP, which raised the question itself and also encouraged debate by publishing in its press contributions from others on the left (5). The question of an alternative to Labour was also being raised by George Galloway, then in the process of being expelled from the Labour Party for his opposition to the war. At the end of October 2003 a mass rally took place in London addressed by representative figures from the anti-war, anti-globalisation and trade union movements, including Galloway, Monbiot, Salma Yaqoob, Bob Crow and John Rees representing the Socialist Alliance. The process was now under way that would lead to the launching of Respect at a convention attended by 1500 people in January 2004. This development now gives the left in England a second chance to advance along the road to a new socialist party. And not only a second chance, but a very good one, given the breadth of Respect.

There is no point in speculating as to the results that Respect might obtain on June 10. That will depend on the campaign it conducts, the competition from the Greens and many other factors. However unless the result is so dismal as to thoroughly demoralise its participants (and there is no reason to think that it will be) the question of the coalition’s future will be posed. Obviously the better the result, the stronger will be the dynamic for maintaining the coalition and for it intervening outside elections. That would be a major step forward. So let’s look at what are the strengths of Respect and what are its likely weaknesses.

In the first place, what forces make up Respect? Although it is a product of the anti-war movement and involves broader forces than the Socialist Alliance, it is not simply an expression of the anti-war movement. Since it is presenting an electoral challenge to Labour it obviously does not include, apart from the expelled George Galloway, the Labour left. Nor does it include many trade unionists who are part of the “Reclaim the Labour Party” project or who are simply not yet ready to break with Labour. Some are simply being prudent before committing themselves to a coalition of recent creation and uncertain prospects. After all it took five years for the RMT’s Scottish branches to affiliate to the SSP, a solidly established party with parliamentary representation. But Respect already has the support and involvement of trade unionists like Mark Serwotka of the PCS and Linda Smith of the FBU and is winning the support of local trade union branches, in particular but not only in the RMT. Insofar as it proves itself to be a serious political force it will certainly be able to attract broader union support. The Communist Party of Britain is for the moment standing aside from Respect, although the question seems far from definitively settled.

The main organised political force within Respect today, as was the case with the Socialist Alliance, is of course the SWP. Apart from it there are smaller socialist groupings. Some groups involved in the SA have withdrawn, apparently from a mixture of a confused fear of “cross-class alliances” and a sectarian attitude to working with Muslims. There are also a number of independents, many of whom also supported the Socialist Alliance. A vitally important addition, and this is clearly the result of the anti-war movement, is the presence of significant forces from the Muslim community. This is a huge and historic step forward. It is to the credit of the majority of the English left, including the SWP, that it has been able to work together with sectors of the Muslim community, first of all in the anti-war movement and now through Respect. Indeed, the experience could profitably be studied and the example followed in other European countries with large Muslim populations.

Next there is the question of the programme. It has been pointed out that the programme of Respect is not clearly anti-capitalist, not explicitly socialist. Certainly. Nevertheless it is a fairly broad and comprehensive programme. A central axis is of course, as one would expect, opposition to imperialist war and support for Palestine. But it also takes clear positions on other key questions: against privatisation, for bringing privatised public services back into public ownership; for free, quality health and education; for the repeal of the anti-union laws; against all forms of discrimination, etc (6). John Molyneux of the SWP is right to say that Respect is being built on “principles that unambiguously divide it from the leaders of social democracy in Britain, but also internationally” (7). It has been quite some time since social democracy defended those kinds of policies. If the programme of Respect is not – yet - explicitly socialist it is in the first place an adequate instrument for the coming elections, and secondly a good starting point from which to develop a more clearly socialist programme.

If Respect meets with the success that it deserves to, the question of it becoming a party will be posed. Indeed it has already been clearly posed, for example by Ken Loach at the founding convention of Respect when he called for “a real left coalition that becomes a party and finally sees us to victory” (8). That is exactly what is needed. What are the chances of it happening?

What will determine the future of Respect is not only its broad base or its programme, nor even electoral success. What will be decisive for the future of Respect will be the attitude of the forces that make it up and in particular the main component, the SWP.

In International Socialism 100 John Rees has written an important article, entitled “Socialism in the 21st century”. In this article John gives an excellent description and analysis of the economic, social and political effects on British society and the British working class of more than 20 years of neo-liberal policies. He moves on to the question of resistance to the neo-liberal offensive in Britain and internationally. He correctly makes the link between the development of the anti-globalisation movement and the anti-war movement. He is also correct in pointing out that “these movements would be unthinkable if they did not rest on the wider and more diffuse rejection of the neo-liberal model, the fat-cat culture and the privatisation mania of the last 25 years. It is this deep resonance in the wider society that has given these movements their durability”. The anti-globalisation and anti-war movements are one expression of this “wider and more diffuse rejection”. Among other expressions are the wave of revolt against neo-liberalism that has swept Latin America over the last four years and the movement of May-June 2003 in France.

John Rees gets to the heart of the matter when he points out that the questions that are raised by broad movements “can only be answered by political organisations that are more precise and defined than the movement as a whole”. He deals very adequately with the illusory idea of reclaiming the Labour Party. No way forward there. And he states that “there remains the question of providing a general political alternative to New Labour” and “there are larger forces moving is society than any of the existing left organisations. We must (…) cut a channel that can allow these forces to build a new left”. In terms of posing what is necessary, there is nothing to disagree with. So where do we go from there?

John Rees comes back to the debate that has been conducted in previous issues of Frontline. As he points out “there is much common ground in our analyses”. The discussion has certainly allowed us to clarify a number of questions, showing agreement on important questions. But of course some differences remain – on the nature of the Labour Party, the united front and on what kind of parties we should be building today. What is important is not just where we agree or disagree but what are the practical consequences of such disagreements. I see no reason to modify my criticisms of organisations like the Anti-Nazi League and Globalise Resistance. But the Stop the War coalition is a real and effective united front. No one is saying that we shouldn’t engage in united action with Labour Party supporters and the Labour left in Scotland or England. In France the LCR routinely includes the Socialist Party in its calls for united action. But that is hardly the united front of 1920. It is really quite surprising to see John Rees affirm that the links between Labour and organised workers are stronger today than in the 1920s.

There are two big differences today compared to not only the 1920s but even the 70s or 80s. First of all, today workers still vote for social-democratic parties, but they don’t actively support them as they did then. They voted for the PSOE in Spain on March 14, and massively on March 28 for the French Socialist Party and its allies, who for the first time since 1981 won more than 50 per cent of the vote. But there is absolutely no comparison between 1981, when millions of workers saw the Socialist Party as a real political alternative, and 2004. Today they vote Socialist to hit back at an unpopular government. The other difference is the changed relationship of forces between these parties and the radical or revolutionary left. John writes that “the Stop the War coalition shows a greater degree of participation by the traditional organisations of the labour movement than anything the far left has ever initiated”. (My emphasis). Precisely – the anti-war movement in Britain and in most other countries was initiated by the far left, or to be more precise by forces outside the traditional workers’ organisations. But because of the echo they got they were able to draw “the traditional organisations of the labour movement” – essentially the unions – into the movement. The participation of social democratic parties, in particular of what is left of their left wings, may help to bring the unions on board, but it is the dynamic of the movement that is essential. Even when they are part of the movement, the capacity of social-democratic forces to mobilise workers is extremely reduced.

Without repeating all the arguments, my position remains that the Labour Party has become a bourgeois party - with certain particularities linked to its origins - but a bourgeois party and not a “bourgeois workers’ party”. That is not John Rees’s position - though in my opinion he actually provides additional proof for it in his article. Nor is it the position of Alan Thornett, who makes a contribution to the debate in the latest issue of Socialist Outlook (9). But what is the actual consequence of this disagreement? If the consequence was that we refused unity in action with the Labour Party, that would be serious, but it is not the case.

The basic disagreement we have with the SWP is not over the nature of the Labour Party or the united front. It is over what kind of party we need to build. But this does not in fact flow automatically from the analysis of the Labour Party. In the article already mentioned, Alan Thornett says that my idea of the party flows from my analysis of the class nature of the Labour Party and similar parties. Well, it does, in the sense that it is the evolution of these parties that has created the space for new parties. It is not just the fact that we are witnessing an upsurge of struggle and radicalisation. There was a huge wave of struggle and radicalisation after 1968, bigger than anything we have so far seen in the current period. Although the far left gained, the masses went to the reformist parties, not only voting for them but joining them in large numbers – precisely because they were still proposing reforms and were seen as representing a socialist alternative. Today these parties carry out counter-reforms and workers vote for them as a lesser evil – as John Rees himself admits. There has been a change in the role of these parties and in the relationship of workers to them. That is what makes it not only necessary but possible to build new parties. Clearly, the stronger the popular resistance to neo-liberalism and war, the easier it will be to do so.

So the conclusion that new mass socialist parties are possible and necessary of flows from the analysis of the change in the nature of social democracy. But it is not necessary to entirely share this analysis in order to come to that conclusion. In my opinion it is more coherent to characterise these parties as bourgeois. But the fact of not having drawn (yet) this conclusion does not prevent, for example, Alan Thornett or the majority of the LCR from drawing the conclusion that we need to build broad new anti-capitalist parties – a central theme of the Fourth International World Congress in 2003. Alan Thornett has consistently argued within the Socialist Alliance, and will no doubt argue within Respect, for building exactly the kind of party we think is necessary. The LCR now poses the question in the same way. These comrades see the evolution of the reformist parties. The fact that they don’t consider that a qualitative change has yet taken place is in practice secondary.

Alan Thornett also says that it is John Rees’s analysis of the Labour Party that leads to his position on new parties. As I have already written, I am not entirely convinced of that (10). It seems to me that in many of his articles John Rees largely agrees on how the Labour Party has evolved, though of course he still characterises it as a workers’ party. There is no overwhelming reason why he should not draw the same conclusions as Alan Thornett. But it is certainly the case that so far the SWP is not in favour of building new socialist parties. In Scotland its comrades of the SWP joined a party which had already been built by others, against their initial hostility. In Italy their co-thinkers work in the PRC. But in England the SWP is not in favour of building a broad socialist party. Nevertheless, the question of such a party will not go away. And the SWP will be confronted with it precisely because it has taken such an active role in launching and building Respect. Respect is at present an electoral coalition. We have argued that it can be the point of departure for a broad socialist party in England. If that is not the perspective, then what is? If that is not the perspective, why has Respect launched a campaign to recruit 10,000 members? And if that is the perspective, it has several implications.

In the first place, Respect’s present programme is sufficient to contest the June elections. But to create as John Rees puts it “a real political alternative to New Labour”, something more substantial is needed – a programme that starts from the struggles and issues of today and poses the perspective of socialism. It is neither necessary nor desirable to impose at the outset the classical revolutionary programme of a far-left organisation. It is in France, the country where the anti-capitalist left is represented on the electoral level by an alliance of two far-left organisations, that we can most clearly see the inadequacy of these organisations as a political response to the crisis of the workers’ movement, and the need for a new type of party. This doesn’t mean that we should build a “broad workers’ party with a non-revolutionary programme”, as Alex Callinicos mistakenly says is the aim of the SSP (11). Parties will evolve through experience and debate, as the SSP has, and the role of Marxists is to help this process. This is not compatible with an attitude of limiting the party’s programme and range of activity because the real revolutionary party is elsewhere. An attitude that Alan Thornett has described as “a model by which revolutionary organisations affiliate to the broad party/organisation but continue to function fully as public organisations, prioritising their own publications and reserving a range of campaigning activities to their own party profile” (12).

Secondly, the centre of gravity of the party has to be outside Parliament, in the workplaces and neighbourhoods. Respect may start as an electoral coalition and hopefully get people elected, it can’t stay there. To build a party, practice is as important as programme. History is littered with examples of parties who started off with a revolutionary programme and developed a reformist practice.

Thirdly, the party has to be pluralist. This is not incompatible with a real revolutionary socialist party. As Greg Tucker has put it “the mass revolutionary party of the future is going to be a heterogeneous pluralist democracy” (13). Now I know that is not how the SWP sees it, as Alex Callinicos among others has frequently argued. But it is the real Bolshevik tradition, as I have tried to argue (14). We will certainly have the occasion to discuss that further. Furthermore, this pluralism is particularly important today, when it is a case of building new parties with forces coming from different political trajectories and traditions.

Fourthly, for the forces concerned, there has to be a subordination of the part to the whole, a willingness to be a current within a broader party. This what the ISM did in relation to the SSP, it is what the DSP is doing in relation to the Socialist Alliance in Australia, it is what the LCR has announced its readiness to do in France. Concerning the SWP, it is difficult to disagree with Greg Tucker when he writes, concerning the experience of the Socialist Alliance, of “the reluctance of the Socialist Workers Party to invest in the Alliance any role which could be seen as an obstacle to their own interests” (15). That is clearly the sticking point. Unless we want to conclude that the SWP is simply putting the interests of its own organisation above the needs of the class struggle, we have to ask why. It seems to me that there are two reasons. One is the argument that a disciplined revolutionary organisation can act more quickly and decisively than a broader party. That is a moot point, but in any case a revolutionary Marxist current in a broader party can help the party as a whole to act quickly and decisively. Secondly, there is the pertinence of the opposition between reform and revolution, on which the SWP constantly insists. As we have previously argued, this opposition may be fundamental in the final analysis, it is not the fundamental dividing line at every stage and it is not the basis on which to build class-struggle parties today.

John Rees expresses doubts about the possibility of making a broad party evolve towards revolutionary positions, but he does not explain why it is impossible. Nor does he really come to terms with the SSP experience. He writes that “the ideological profile (of the SSP) is by definition, weaker”, and says that this is “evident” in Scottish Socialist Voice. That begs a whole discussion on the role of a socialist newspaper today and what its “ideological profile” should be. The SSP’s newspaper is one of the key elements in building the party today and its profile is perfectly adapted to that role. As for the other points John Rees makes, there is no doubt that the range of the SSP’s publications is less than the SWP’s and that the annual Socialism events draw fewer people than the SWP’s Marxism. But you have to look at where the SSP has come from and how far it has come in a short time. What the SSP does produce is of very high quality – for example, in two very different registers, the book Imagine and the 2003 election manifesto. What John Rees says about the anti-war movement in Scotland is more than contestable. What he says about the unions would merit a discussion that is well outside the scope of this article. There are probably some differences of opinion there. But fundamentally, the rise of the SSP cannot be reduced to “its electoral success and its ability to communicate broad socialist ideas to a mass audience”. The SSP’s project is to build a mass socialist party rooted in the workplaces and neighbourhoods. Its electoral success is a reflection of the extent to which it has succeeded in doing so. In that sense, it is not comparable to even the most successful of traditional far-left organisations.

To come back to Respect: in a recent article in Socialist Review John Rees quotes approvingly George Galloway that “it is time to start building a united left alternative to New Labour”(16). In the same article he writes that “we need to be clear among ourselves that continuing the broad co-operation with Labour supporters in the Stop the War Coalition and organising separately to build a challenge to New Labour is both possible and desirable”. No disagreement there. But he adds that “selling a paper and maintaining a revolutionary organisation like the SWP is not only compatible with building broader movements, it is one condition of their success”. There’s the rub. It all depends what you mean by “broader movements”. It is certainly compatible with building the anti-war movement and other fronts for united action. It is not compatible with building a “united left alternative” which to be a real alternative to New Labour, means moving towards a party. Insofar as Respect is a success, and the SWP is clearly working hard to make it a success, that is what will be posed. And either the SWP will prove capable of redefining its role as a revolutionary Marxist component within a new party, or it will begin to act as a brake on the development of Respect. The stakes are high enough to make it worth questioning some long-held certainties.

NOTES

  1. “Respect” stands for “respect-equality-socialism-peace-environment-community-trade unionism”.
  2. Frontline 8, Nick McKerrell, “The united front today”; Murray Smith, “Where is the SWP going?” Frontline 9, John Rees, “The Broad party, the revolutionary party and the united front” and reply by Murray Smith. These articles were also published in International Socialism (issues 97 and 100) and, along with other articles on socialist regroupment, in Links 23.
  3. Greg Tucker, “Building anti-capitalist parties across Europe”, Socialist Outlook, issue 2.
  4. Monbiot subsequently withdrew from Respect because of the failure to form an alliance with the Green Party, a failure essentially due to the intransigence of the Greens themselves.
  5. One of the most interesting of these contributions was the article by Salma Yaqoob, “Global and local echoes of the anti-war movement: a British Muslim perspective”, in International Socialism.
  6. The Founding Declaration of Respect (and much other information) can be found on their web site: www.respectcoalition.org
  7. John Molyneux, “The necessity of Respect”, Socialist Review, February 2004.
  8. Quoted in Socialist Resistance, February 2004.
  9. Alan Thornett, “Broad parties, revolutionary parties and the united front”, Socialist Outlook, issue 2.
  10. Frontline 9, p 18.
  11. Alex Callinicos, “A letter to LCR comrades”, IST Discussion Bulletin 3, June 2003.
  12. Thornett, as above.
  13. Greg Tucker, “Building anti-capitalist parties across Europe”, Socialist Outlook issue 2.
  14. See my article in Frontline 9.
  15. Tucker, as above.
  16. John Rees, “The forces of change”, Socialist Review, November 2003.

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