frontline 17.

Respect's Big Opportunity

Andy Newman is a member of Respect and is involved in the Socialist Unity Network. In this article he looks at the victory of George Galloway and what it means for the future of the left in England.

Credit where credits due:

Respect's performance in the general election was excellent. The victory of George Galloway in Bethnal Green is the first time that a socialist outside the Labour Party has been returned to Westminster since Bernadette Devlin-McAliskey won mid-Ulster in 1969. Salma Yacoob also came within 3000 votes of winning Birmingham Sparkbrook for Respect, and has started a legal challenge to the result alleging irregularities in Labour’s postal votes. Respect received more than 5% of the vote to retain their deposit in 9 constituencies.

As Respect steering committee member, Alan Thornett has written: “Respect’s unique achievement was that it was able to breakthrough both the electoral system and the stultifying election campaign, by building dynamic campaigns in key inner city, traditional Labour, working class, constituencies with big immigrant communities, Muslim, but not only Muslim, which could concentrate a big vote. It won a mass support in a way no other left party has been able to achieve.”

What is more, Respect’s electoral success has been followed by George Galloway’s gladiatorial triumph in front of the US Senate, which has given added impetus to Respect, as thousands who opposed the war cheered him on. The Respect Office reported that over 2,500 people contacted them in response. Significantly, Respect in Bethnal Green has moved on from the single issue of the war and is spearheading a militant campaign to defend the local fire service.

Was it a Moslem vote?

Respect's best results were undoubtedly in the constituencies with a large non-white, and specifically Moslem population. However, we must still agree with Alan Thornett that:

"Simply standing under the Respect banner in itself, however, even where there were big anti-war Muslim populations, did not ensure a good vote. What produced the vote was previous track record plus strong, well resourced, outward looking campaigns which drew people in and developed a real momentum in the communities.”

In evidence of this, Respect achieved relatively poor votes in Bradford North and Luton South, even though these both have large Muslim populations. Where Respect did well it did so because it deserved to - on the back of inclusive, energetic and imaginative campaigning, that both benefited from the Moslem vote, but also transcended it. Analysis of the results does suggest that Moslems are much more likely to vote Respect than the rest of the population are. But in some areas Respect did demonstrate that it could gain significant votes from non-Moslems, for example in Tottenham, and Hackney.

A myth being promoted is that Respect is the beneficiary of a “communal vote”. The implication of this accusation is that the voting has been organised along loyalties and social structures that are somehow backwards or reactionary. Of course, there were some endorsements by religious and community figures, and voting is influenced by local and personal loyalties, etc. But in all honesty those of us who have endured electoral politics in the Labour Party know that this is just what happens in elections. Respect stood on a broadly anti-capitalist platform, and many thousands of individuals Moslems chose to vote for that left alternative in preference to the Liberal Democrats. Given the "War on Terror” and talk of clash of civilisations; given the media witch-hunts and the implication that all Moslems are potential suicide bombers. Is it any wonder that in such circumstances the political organisation that has stood firmest against the racism, and been most steadfast in its opposition to the neo-imperial project in Iraq and Afghanistan should have received higher votes among Moslems? Is it by chance that George Galloway, the politician before all others who has championed the cause of the Arab peoples, should be celebrated in the communities that identify with their co-religionists?

Respect's ability to win the votes and active involvement of working class Moslems, in huge numbers, is a formidable achievement that the whole left should learn from.

What about the poorer results?

Many of Respect's poorer votes are indicative, along with the poor votes of many other left candidates, that in much of the country the issue of the Iraq war was subsumed under a much greater imperative of stopping the Tories winning. Where the contest became a close Tory/Labour marginal then Respect's vote suffered badly - this is particularly clear in Respect's results in Hove and Dorset South, as with the Socialist Green Unity Coalition results in North Swindon and Crawley.

A large factor in the election was the relative success of New Labour in exploiting the pendulum nature of the electoral system by exaggerating the apprehension of a possible Tory victory. This indicates that although the activist base of the Labour party has been undermined - and there has been an observable decline in loyalty to the party from trade union activists as well as a decline in absolute membership and participation - the voting loyalty of millions of working class people still resides with Labour. What is more, although Respect gained the very creditable total of 68,071 votes in 26 seats, the Liberal Democrats increased their vote nationally by 1.2 million, almost exactly the same number of votes that Labour lost! The predominant pattern was therefore for voters protesting against the war to switch to a different establishment party.

Alan Thornett argues that “Respect¹s results were defined by its breakthrough votes not its non-breakthrough votes.” But he fails to grasp that away from Respect's support from Moslems it must operate on the same terrain as the rest of the left, and it represents little progress since the Socialist Alliance, and in many areas is organisationally weaker than the SA was.

Coalition or Party?

As I have written elsewhere: “The adoption of neo-liberalism by the Labour Party and the systematically anti-working class policies of the Labour government are weakening the base of the Labour Party within the movement… Most significantly, the neo-liberal policies of the Labour party have led to a growing antagonism with the trade unions, particularly those representing public sector workers. In our communities and workplaces the Labour Party no longer acts as a pole of attraction for class conscious workers or talented community activists. The experience of Labour in office, in Westminster and in our Town Halls is complete surrender to market forces. Alongside this development, the anti-Globalisation movement and the mass campaigns against imperialist war have brought thousands into political activity and presented a diverse series of ideological challenges to the neo-liberal orthodoxies that have opened a further space up for the left. This space can be filled by a class-struggle party, who in-between and alongside elections involves itself in the day-to-day fights to improve conditions for the working class.”

The question is therefore whether Respect can fill that space in England? Certainly Respect’s electoral successes have strengthened the objective conditions for building such an alternative – the crucial next few months will determine whether the left can build upon that success. However, Murray Smith posed the all important question very clearly. “For the SWP leadership, does Respect represent a particular tactic for building a broad socialist party, or does it represent an alternative to such a party?”

According to leading SWP theoretician, Alex Callinicos, “Respect is a coalition—a federal organisation that individuals can join and to which organisations can affiliate while preserving their autonomy. The programme, while principled, is relatively minimal, meaning that Respect is a pluralistic organisation in which diverse viewpoints coexist. This structure is critical if the existing forces within Respect are to have the breathing space they need to work together, but even more so if others— particularly wider sections of the trade union movement—are to be drawn in.”

Alan Thornett very expertly exposes the limitations of such a coalition structure: “One problem with the current coalition model, particularly when there is an organisation involved which is as numerically dominant as the SWP, is that as soon as something important happens the public profile of the SWP overshadows the public profile of the coalition. This not only deprives the coalition of the profile it needs but it feeds the perception that the SWP only want to use the broad organisation when it suits their own party interests to do so.

“The same problem arises with political debates and discussion. There is a much wider range of political differences within Respect than was the case with the SA. This is natural because it is a broader organisation. George Galloway¹s well known views on a number of things are a prime example. Such issues need to be discussed and understood otherwise they will fester on the margins. But how can these issues be discussed unless there is a well-developed structure within Respect ¬ both at the level of the elected bodies ad the general membership - which can contain and develop such discussions? Again this implies a party approach rather than that of a coalition. In fact a coalition implies that you settle for the continued existence of these difference rather than seek to develop a convergence on them.

”Respect rightly intends to mount a major challenge in the local elections next year, and logically it will win seats ¬ even control of Tower Hamlets Council is a possibility. But how can a difficult area of work like local councils, hamstrung by government controls, be conducted without the kind of strong leadership bodies and decision making process which only a party can develop? How can accountability work adequately ¬ at local authority level or at Westminster - without the structure of a political party?”

Despite the protestations of Alex Callinicos that Respect should not be regarded as a universal model to be counterposed to broad class-struggle parties, such as the Scottish Socialist Party, in the newspaper of the Australian Socialist Alliance, Green Left Weekly, Dave Glanz (a leading member of the ISO, the SWP’s Australian sister organisation) recently wrote: “we need to learn something from the methodology of Respect's success in England. We can't replicate such an organisation here, but we can adopt and adapt its approach to united front work with Muslims and disenchanted Labor supporters, and its organic growth out of real campaigns, principally but not exclusively against the war in Iraq.” In practice the ISO has put forward within the Socialist Alliance particular tactical choices that have worked for Respect, as if they are matters of principle; and it raises the success of Respect as an argument against evolution of the SA into a multi tendency socialist party broadly on the lines of the SSP.

Galloway’s election increases his weight within Respect, and there are many high profile and independent members and supporters, so it would be a mistake to caricature Respect as simply a rebadged SWP for elections. Nevertheless, the national, organizational backbone of the organisation is the SWP. Although the national steering committee is broad, one member, John Lister, has observed that real power lies with the smaller officers’ group where the SWP have a working majority. Therefore to meaningfully discuss the prospects of Respect it is imperative to understand the current thinking of the SWP.

The SWP’s commitment to Respect seems much greater than the commitment they had to the Socialist Alliance, which is excellent, but to fully reap the rewards of that involvement they must move on from the conceptual model of a “United Front of a special type” where the SWP both promotes its own organisation, and simultaneously seeks to promote Respect.

United Front of a Special Type:

It could be argued that this formulation developed by the SWP is an ex post facto rationalization of their organizational self interest. The underlying assumption is most clearly stated by John Rees: “Genuine unity in action depends on separation on matters of principle such as reform and revolution. We cannot properly determine those immediate issues on which we can unite unless we also properly, and organisationally, separate over matters of principle.”

This is offered as a self evident truth, but when reform and revolution is not a current issue in the movement, is it not more sensible to unite all those who advocate the primacy of the class struggle, in opposition to those willing to compromise with neo-liberalism? The role of Marxists would then be, as Murray Smith describes, to build a broad socialist party while defending Marxist positions within it, with the aim, not of building a revolutionary faction with an 'entrist' perspective, but of taking forward the whole party and solving together with the whole party the problems that arise, as they arise.

The practical and unfortunate consequence of the SWP’s model of organisational separation is the potential self-belief of revolutionaries that having sipped from the cup of Lenin they are destined for leadership. Or as John Rees has described the process in Respect: "In this project the socialists in Respect, who have the clearest understanding of the general situation in which we operate and the greatest organisational ability to create the alliances, have a crucial role to play. Where they are capable of engaging and leading the wider forces, Respect will succeed. If they fail, Respect will fail. There is too much at stake to allow this to happen, and too much to be won not to succeed"

By “the socialists in Respect”, John Rees clearly means only the SWP, and those who defer to it. Leading members of the Socialist Alliance from a Labour Party background were effectively excluded from Respect at last year's conference, and the organisation is experienced by many as profoundly undemocratic. A constitutional amendment that would have allowed members’ platforms was voted down at conference, and in some areas of the country good non-SWP socialists have been bureaucratically excluded. As Alan Thornett correctly argues: “How is it possible to have a mass membership party without strong local branches with a political life of their own to which the new members can relate? How is it possible to have such a party without a regular publication or newspaper which is both and educator and an organiser of that party? How can such a party have an adequate public profile without a regular publication to sell? In the absence of this how will these new members be kept in touch with the politics of Respect and how long will they remain members?”

Why should it necessarily be the case, as John Rees argues, that the SWP always have the clearest understanding, or the greatest organisational ability? Respect is in a novel situation and must learn to harness the experience and talents of all its members. Unfortunately the urgency of Rees’s injunction “If the [socialists] fail, Respect will fail. There is too much at stake to allow this to happen, and too much to be won not to succeed” may discourage SWP members from allowing Respect to grow organically in such a way that the whole membership can learn from its collective successes and failures.

Where is the SWP going?

There is no space in this article to elaborate a convincing account of the SWP’s political development. The following remarks are therefore tentative and offered as a starting point for debate. However, to understand the SWP’s attitude to Respect it is necessary to make some evaluation of their understanding of the overall political situation: which seems essentially to be that the Iraq war, and now Galloway’s electoral breakthrough represent a sea change; archetypically expressed in Party Notes: “Galloway's election victory means that all bets are off. … the Bethnal Green and Bow result means that we can build a whole new Respect in your area in short order. … The main lesson to learn is that Respect is now in a completely different league from anything else the left has produced in this country for 60 years”

In a more considered article, John Rees argued quite correctly. that: “The first years of the 21st century confront us with this prospect: a working class suffering from over 20 years of neo-liberal attacks on its standard of living; the loyalty commanded by Labourism at a post-war low; and an increasingly radical anti-capitalist and anti-war consciousness arising from the largest mass movements in a generation It is these conditions that give socialists the best chance they have had since the 1970s to rebuild a movement that can challenge the existing system..”

However the relative weight that is given to each of these factors, and the degree to which it is believed these tendencies have advanced makes a very big difference to what conclusions can be drawn.

In formal terms the SWP holds a relatively conservative view of the Labour party as still being a “bourgeois workers party”. Arguably the SWP underestimates the profound change in the Labour Party wrought by Blair’s rule changes to permanently exclude left influence, and the impact of New Labour’s neo-liberalism upon its support among trade unionists. Although generally correct, Rees’s following description of the Labour Party overlooks the change in membership composition so that only 29% of the membership are now in a trade union: ““Labour remains working class in the following crucial senses: its individual members are overwhelmingly working class, even though the apparatus is more dominated by middle class elements than it was before; its voting base is overwhelmingly working class; the majority of its election funds still come from the unions. The unions, as this year's Labour Party conference demonstrated beyond doubt, are still organically connected to the Labour Party … … there remains a strong organisational bond between the unions, especially the union leaders, and the Labour Party.” .

The SWP have provided exemplary leadership in the Stop the War Coalition in their relationships with Labour MPs and the trade union bureaucracies, but they exaggerate the impact that New Labour policies – particularly the war on Iraq – have had upon Labour’s electoral base. The most significant aspect of Respect’s poorer results is that in those Labour seats where the Tories had a prospect of winning then the war had a much more marginal impact. For example, in both Dorset South and Dumfries and Galloway, Labour significantly increased their share of the vote, defending miniscule majorities over the Tories. Incidentally, a very different perception of the stability and value of Labour’s electoral base by the Communist Party means that there is no realistic prospect of the CPB being attracted to Respect. Respect benefited from a protest vote over the war, and may be able to consolidate that support in its strong areas, but is very unlikely to make significant electoral headway elsewhere.

The SWP also systematically exaggerates the depth and impact of the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements. Most clearly the Iraq war mainly benefited the Liberal Democrats, showing that mass social movements can be contained within the ideological parameters of conventional politics, unless they become informed by the experience and lessons of class struggle.

And it is the relationship between the anti-war protests and the class struggle where the SWP verges towards wishful thinking. Martin Smith argues that “The generalised anti-capitalist mood, though still in its fully fledged form the property of a minority, is pulling up the mood of resistance in much wider layers of the class. This in turn is beginning to erode the mood of defeats in the unions, thus affecting their numbers and willingness to take action.” and “One of the key tasks for trade union activists and socialists in the coming months is to intervene in the anti-war movement and use the radicalising effect created to strengthen union branches and give confidence to activists.” In support of this thesis Martin Smith points to a number of examples, such as British Airways and Canary Wharf. There is indeed a limited revival of confidence and we are having some victories, but crucially there is a desperate shortage of shopfloor representatives, and an undeniable shift in culture in unions towards passive reliance upon officials. Surprisingly perhaps, the solution is well described by TGWU Assistant Secretary Jack Dromey: “Organisation is built on the simple truth unless you build strong, fighting, self-confident and self-sustaining workplace organisation, you do not win, you do not grow and our hard-pressed officers run ragged servicing a fragmented and declining membership. Organising, identifying lay leaders who will organise their workplace, factory or farm, for there is no other way for workers to gain control of their destiny.”

Ideological radicalisation feeding into industrial militancy is one possible outcome, but it is an abstract schema. It is much more likely that the revival of combativity in the unions will be hard fought by the slow patient work of winning individuals to take lay leadership positions on a class struggle basis, and accelerating the process, where possible, by exploiting any opportunities for solidarity with other workers’ disputes. A broad party on the model of the Scottish Socialist Party can play a vital role in such a revival by popularising class struggle. It is not so clear that either a coalition such as Respect, or an independent revolutionary organisation like the SWP, can play such a role; and the mediating structure offered by the SWP, the rank and file papers, are insufficiently independent.

Fundamentally the SWP are in a hurry. There has been no coming to terms by the membership with the mistakenly urgent perspective bequeathed by Tony Cliff: “When Blair comes to office here we will see … volatility. There will be a race between the far right and the far left to win workers to their politics." This is the politics of the "1930s in (not very) slow motion.” (Socialist Review, Nov 1996). Cliff wrote in the conclusion of his 1999 book Trotskyism After Trotsky that "capitalism in the advanced countries is no longer expanding" so that Trotsky's words in the 1938 Transitional Program "that ’there can be no discussion of systematic social reforms and the raising of the masses' living standards’ fits reality again" If it is a race, it involves two tortoises and no hares, and under Labour there has been a genuine increase of prosperity for many British workers, admittedly tarnished by the attrition of the welfare state.

Not only has the economy proved stable, but the ideological challenges of the anti-globalisation and anti-war movement are insufficient to displace social democracy. Unless we are careful, exagerated expectations of Respect’s prospects may distract away from the genuine opportunities open to the left.

The way forward:

The strategic opportunity for us resides in the conflict between the Labour Party's neo-liberal agenda, and its own base in the trade unions, particularly in the public sector. Respect has the aspiration to attract those trade union and community activists who would have previously looked to Labour. Currently in England Respect is undoubtedly the strongest vehicle to do this – despite its problems – but it is not a socialist unity project in the same way the SSP is, and although some socialists will join Respect, some will not.

Yet here lies a danger. John Rees argues: “Respect fails when it is simply a collection of left activists. Respect succeeds when the left, which comprises its core, reaches out to and engages and involves wider networks of trade unionists, campaigners, mosques and other communities.” But a precondition of extending beyond its core is that it also reaches out to those left activists not currently on board, and to do that requires an organisational structure that allows them to participate and determine the direction of the organisation. We must also agree with Chris Bambury, editor of Socialist Worker, when he says: “today we face a stagnating trade union membership, lack of organisation like tenants’ organisations in too many of our communities and moribund student unions”. Participation in the wider networks that John Rees talks about is generally sparse, routinised and increasingly elderly.

If Respect attracts and empowers the activists it can play an important role in revitalising working class organisation, but away from the issue of the war and the Moslem vote, these activist networks are insufficient to build either a mass membership or break Labour’s electoral base.