Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/332/5615
Socialist Party And The Respect Convention
LAST SUNDAY, 25 January, the founding convention of Respect took place and agreed to launch an electoral campaign across England and Wales, headed by George Galloway MP, for the June European and Greater London Authority elections.
The Socialist Party attended and contributed to the convention. We also met representatives of Respect's executive (George Galloway MP and John Rees of the Socialist Workers Party) two days before the convention. They made clear that they were keen for us to join Respect and to take places on its executive.
However, we explained that, while we are keen to collaborate, and are following the development of Respect with interest, we do not feel able to join at this stage. Nonetheless, we would like to support Respect in the European Elections and hope they will also support us in the elections we contest.
We explained the reasons for our attitude in a letter we distributed to the Respect Convention, an abridged version of which is printed below.
To the Respect Founding Convention
The need for a mass left alternative to New Labour has never been more striking. In the Socialist Party we have long argued that New Labour has ceased to in any sense to represent the interests of the working class and that what is needed is a new, genuine workers' party.
We have a record of supporting any serious initiatives towards the formation of such a party including more limited electoral alliances and pacts. For that reason we are following developments around Respect with great interest. However, it is not clear to us that, at this stage, that Respect represents a step towards the formation of a new workers' party.
Therefore, for the reasons we explain below, while we would like to give Respect support in the European elections, and also hope that Respect will support us in the local authority and GLA seats we contest in June, we do not feel able to join at this stage.
Democracy - lessons of the Socialist Labour Party and the Socialist Alliance
In general it is not possible to build support for a new mass left formation without a high-level of openness and democracy. The people we want to attract from the anti-war and the anti-capitalist movement, and above all from the trade unions, will not join a top-down organisation with a pre-determined programme and constitution.
In England and Wales this has been proved in the negative by the experience of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) and the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) led Socialist Alliance (SA). The over-centralised nature of their formal structures, neither of which allowed any room for organisations and campaigns to affiliate, was part of the problem.
However, it was also the arrogant approach of the leadership of these organisations that alienated potential support. The SWP-led SA, for example, took the position that they were the left electoral alternative to New Labour. This was at a time when the SA had1690 members and had won an average of 1.72% of the vote in the 92 seats it had contested in the general election.
Unfortunately, what flowed from such an overestimation of the SA's strength was a refusal to work alongside, or even to seriously discuss with, other left forces, including trade-union anti-cuts candidates who wanted to stand in elections unless they were prepared to join the SA.
Respect's approach to date
While it is still early days, Respect, in which the SWP also play a leading role, does not seem to have learnt these lessons. Even for an electoral coalition, openness and democracy are important.
But prior to today's founding convention there has not been any real attempt to discuss with rank and file trade unionists, anti-war activists and community campaigns. Instead we have had a series of rallies addressed by the founders of Respect, in some cases without debate from the floor.
While we do not judge the issue of democracy simply in relation to ourselves we are concerned that the way we have been dealt with may be an indication of Respect's approach.
While the Socialist Party's achievements are modest, the Socialist Party has nonetheless had the most electoral success on the socialist left, with five councillors, the largest number of any socialist organisation in Britain. We won our second councillor in Lewisham just last month. Our councillors also have a record of successfully defending their seats.
We also have a significant base in the trade unions, including 17 members of trade union executives. Yet we were not asked to take part in any of the initial discussions on the formation of Respect. The meetings that we requested were cancelled by the SA.
After writing to Respect in December a meeting has taken place this week between ourselves and John Rees of the SWP and George Galloway. While this was very welcome, it would have been far better for us to be involved at an earlier stage.
Perhaps even more regrettable Respect called a rally in Coventry without discussing with the Socialist Party or asking us to speak. This is a town where we have three Socialist Party councillors including Dave Nellist, who was previously chair of the Socialist Alliance.
At the moment Respect is, in reality, an electoral coalition for the European elections. Of course, a coalition for one election can play a positive role on the road to a new workers' party, but this is not guaranteed.
If, as we all hope, Respect has success in the European elections we have no clear idea what is planned for the next stage. For example, George Galloway MP has raised the prospect of Respect possibly playing a part in a process of "reclaiming" the Labour Party and has called for the trade unions to play a "central role" in this process.
We regard this is a mistake and will give credence to those trade union leaders who are desperately trying to convince their members to keep funding New Labour. While Respect should obviously take a friendly approach to those socialists who remain within the Labour Party, it should nonetheless use any success it has to make a clear call for a new mass workers' party.
A Socialist Programme
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 in our view 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 leaders such as George Galloway 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 in our view is mistaken when he says Respect will win "the bulk of progressive opinion in the country" (Morning Star, 12 January).
This is not only because there is no evidence of such a level of support but because 'progressive opinion' is too vague a description of who Respect 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, also claim to appeal to 'progressive opinion'?
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 Nader, 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.
A workers' MEP on a worker's wage
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 from the money-grubbing 'career' politicians.
In this regard it is unfortunate that Respect is not committed to a policy of its elected representatives taking only the average weekly income of a skilled worker (the exact figure could of course be determined through democratic discussion). 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 , and that it was also clear that their 'hands were clean'. Joe Higgins, currently a Socialist Party MP in Ireland, does the same. We also take the same position in the trade unions. Socialist Party member Martin Powell-Davies, for example, who is currently contesting the National Union of Teachers General Secretary election, is committed to remaining on the salary of a classroom teacher.
In conclusion, notwithstanding our criticisms of Respect, we hope to work together both now and in the future to build a socialist alternative in England and Wales.
In The Socialist 31 January 2004:
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