Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/431/5064
Socialist Party discusses with Respect
LAST YEAR the Socialist Party wrote to Respect, asking for a meeting to discuss how our two organisations could best collaborate in the task of overcoming the lack of political representation for the working class. As a result, we were invited to meet Respect on 7 March. Judy Beishon reports.
Introducing the discussion, Hannah Sell restated that the Socialist Party welcomes every positive step towards working-class political representation. She went on to say, however, that although we welcomed Respect's electoral successes, such as George Galloway's victory in the 2005 general election, it is clear that Respect is not at present developing into a sizable, effective force that can represent all sections of the working class.
It has not developed into a force even equivalent to other formations such as the WASG in Germany, the Left Bloc in Portugal and the Brazilian P-SOL.
One reason is Respect's political approach and programme. It is important, for instance, to recruit Muslim workers to a new workers' formation, but this must be clearly based on a programme of working-class unity across all sections of society. Otherwise, there is the danger that divisions will be exacerbated, rather than unity being developed towards formation of an effective mass force.
Unfortunately, the approach and material used by Respect, which has achieved its electoral gains primarily by work in Muslim communities on the issue of the Iraq war, has laid it open to the perception of being a party predominantly for Muslims, with the corresponding dangers this can bring. The Respect representatives at the 7 March meeting dismissed our points on this issue and, without presenting evidence, argued that Respect has broad appeal beyond the Muslim community.
Another reason for Respect's failure to develop as a vehicle of working-class political representation, and the fundamental reason why the Socialist Party has been unable to join Respect and argue for our ideas from within, is because Respect is not organised on an inclusive, federal basis.
It claims to be a coalition of different organisations and opinions rather than a centralised party, but a large majority at most of its meetings and rallies are members of the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP). So on Respect's constitutional basis of decision-making by 'one person, one vote', the SWP is able to decide the outcome on most issues, from overall policy to the selection of election candidates.
Many trade unionists, left activists and community campaigners amongst others, are very wary of a 'coalition' which can be manipulated behind the scenes by a single organisation. This is the more so for workers who have had direct experience of the past policies and methods of the SWP.
Because Respect does not have a genuinely federal constitution that would have ensured that major decisions are taken on the basis of agreement between the key participating organisations, or that would have prevented the dominance of any single organisation, it has prevented wider layers from joining.
Over time, with an influx of new workers and youth into one (or more) new formations, federation-based constitutions could be changed through democratic discussion and debate to structures appropriate for the larger size, tasks and degree of political agreement of the organisation.
But it is premature at this stage in England and Wales to have a 'party-type' constitution, especially considering the present level of left and trade union forces involved in the necessary processes.
Unfortunately, the three Respect representatives at the 7 March meeting made it clear that Respect would not reconsider the basis of its present constitution. SWP member John Rees, Respect's national secretary, said that its structure is already federal, as there is no 'party political agreed position' and its members can campaign for their own ideas. But such a broad political entity requires a corresponding organisational federalism, which Rees does not support.
The other Respect representatives present, Tower Hamlets councillor Oliur Rahman and International Socialist Group (ISG) member Alan Thornett, said that the Socialist Party should join Respect, but also believe no fundamental changes to be necessary.
Alan Thornett even argued that Respect needs more centralisation rather than less, despite the fact that his group recently produced a public statement criticising lack of accountability and democracy in Respect.
Most of the measures they have supported are being implemented, especially following Galloway's Big Brother performance, which clearly revealed to Respect members the need for accountability of public representatives. But the changes being made will not solve Respect's problems, or alone lay the basis for it becoming a larger, successful coalition.
The Respect representatives accepted that Respect is still 'in formation' and is not therefore the final word on a new workers' party. But when invited to sign Respect up to the Campaign for a New Workers Party (CNWP), they did not do so, though they agreed to raise it at their next national council meeting and will send a speaker to the 19 March conference.
In The Socialist 16 March 2006: