Respect Unity Coalition

 

New page:

Click here for articles on Respect Unity Coalition

Click here for articles to the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition

 


 

Archive 2004-2007

On this page:
Socialist Party & The Respect Convention (Jan 2004)
Votes At What Price? (July 9 2004)
Socialist Party discusses with Respect
Also see:
SWP / Respect conference: Flawed perspectives The Socialist, 29 June 2006
Respect in crisis - what lessons for socialists? 30 October 2007

24 May 2006

Respect - a reply to the SWP

THE SOCIALIST, the Socialist Party’s weekly newspaper, carried an article in issue 439 by Judy Beishon on Respect’s election results (see below). Some, particularly the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), the backbone of Respect, objected to the following statement in the article: "Respect declares that their twelve council seats in Tower Hamlets are ‘one more than the BNP in Barking and Dagenham’. This would be a cause for great celebration by the left as a whole, if it had been achieved on a clear class-based programme. But instead, unfortunately, Respect could unconsciously further the beginnings of a polarisation based on racial division, by not countering the growing perception that it is a ‘party for Muslims’."

The SWP made its objection in its ‘Party Notes’, which it distributes internally within their party. Why have they not publicly taken up the Socialist Party and others if they feel so strongly about our criticisms and, it seems, those of Bob Crow (of the railway workers’ union RMT)? The increased number of councillors for Respect is an important political development. It is related, in our view, to the manifestation in this election of a certain racial polarisation (See article in June 2006 issue of Socialism Today ). Socialists should do nothing, even inadvertently, to widen this divide, which is not wide or unbridgeable at present. This was the concern of the Socialist Party in raising the above criticisms of Respect and the SWP.

In their notes, the SWP wrote: "We have to take these arguments on and should not be defensive in the slightest. These people consciously ignore the excellent results of comrades like Jerry in Bristol, Maxine in Sheffield and Albert in Harlesden. Our candidates are not just Muslims – Olli Rahman, one of our councillors is a PCS activist, Abdul Sheik a councillor in Newham is an ex-shop steward at Fords in Dagenham and two of our key candidates in Newham are RMT members (Bob Crow didn’t know this! That may be because he didn’t look beyond our candidate’s ethnic/religious origin)".

Criticisms

Are the criticisms of Respect and, by definition, the SWP made by the Socialist Party and Bob Crow inaccurate and unfair? The simple aphorism, ‘show me who your friends are and I’ll show you who you are’ applies in politics. In the 2004 European and London Authority elections, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), as Clive Heemskerk pointed out in the July/August 2004 edition of Socialism Today, "gave selective support to Respect, claim[ing] that support for Respect amongst Muslims was higher ‘in the five regions where MAB specifically recommended Respect candidates… endorsing the Muslim bloc phenomenon’. (MAB press release, First step in the right direction, 17 June 2004)."

Our article went on to state: "MAB’s aim is clear, to establish ‘a Muslim bloc’ to bargain for the ‘best deal for Muslims’ from any party, including pro-capitalist ones, rather than to join a drive for a new mass workers’ party that could address the needs of all sections of the working class. Respect, by portraying itself as ‘the party for Muslims’, unfortunately has not challenged this approach, which will advance neither the real interests of workers who are Muslims nor aid the development of working-class unity".

We also pointed out that if Respect represented a turning away from Labour, now a capitalist party, by Asian workers towards a more developed class consciousness, this would indeed be a positive step. But, unfortunately, under the leadership of George Galloway and the SWP, Respect has so far not acted as this bridge to a new workers’ party, but reinforced the idea of ‘Muslim interests’ completely separate from those of other sections of the working class. Neither the SWP nor George Galloway repudiated these criticisms at the time nor do they in their current statement.

Despite the protestations of the SWP it remains a fact that all the successful candidates for Respect were Asians. The SWP did not get a single member of its party elected in 2006 and now has just one councillor in Respect’s ranks, Michael Lavallette in Preston. He was elected in 2003 under the banner of the Socialist Alliance. The fact that some successful Respect council candidates were PCS activists, for instance Oliur Rahman in Tower Hamlets, does not, however, alter the political character of Respect.

Northern Ireland

During the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland and now there were shop stewards in the ranks of Sinn Fein, some of whom were effective in the workplace, often representing workers from both sides of the religious divide. Some of these workers believed, no doubt, they could appeal to Protestant workers on a political level because of the industrial positions which they held. But the perception in the eyes of Protestant workers of Sinn Fein as an organisation based on one section of the Catholic community made it, and continues to make it, impossible for this organisation to reach over the religious divide to workers on the other side. That can only be done in Northern Ireland through a new mass workers’ party, bringing together Catholic and Protestant workers, which rejects the sectarian policies of the main parties on both sides of the divide. The Socialist Party in Northern Ireland has tirelessly worked for this goal at a time, by the way, when the SWP at times acted as uncritical supporters of Sinn Fein.

The situation in Britain is nowhere near that of Northern Ireland at the present time. But the Northern Ireland of 35 years ago was not what it is today. Before the Troubles, Catholic and Protestant workers came together in the Northern Ireland Labour Party, which managed to win 100,000 votes in the 1970 general election. Despite its limitations, this represented a bridgehead for the beginnings of a process for cementing class unity. Unfortunately, this prospect was shattered through the ‘troubles’ and the resulting sectarian polarisation which scars the lives of workers in Northern Ireland today.

The lessons of this conflict and how it began, as well as other examples from history of how the labour movement sought to overcome religious or sectarian divisions, is lost on the leadership of Respect and particularly the SWP. The fact that some non-Asian, SWP members, received reasonable votes in the circumstances, is to be welcomed. But this does not undermine the perception among broad layers of the working class, not just ourselves, that Respect is narrowly based on one section of the community, including the perception by many Asians, Muslims in particular, that it is ‘their’ party. Respect itself did nothing to refute this.

‘Save the NHS’ platform - a clear class issue

Contrast the approach of the SWP and Respect to the successful campaign of Jackie Grunsell in Huddersfield. She stood on a ‘Save the NHS’ platform, a clear class issue, which cut across communal divisions. We wish that Respect had positioned itself and campaigned in the same way because, as we explained in the socialist, if these electoral victories of Respect had been on a clear class programme and perspectives, the left would have welcomed this as a starting point for a discussion on a new mass workers’ party. Of necessity, this would also involve a discussion on the need for a federal approach towards a new workers’ party, something the SWP rejects.

However, despite our criticisms of Respect and George Galloway, we would still hope that, through a discussion – which involves honestly dealing with political differences – the basis could be laid for a common approach to assembling the forces of a new mass workers’ party in Britain. Because of its origins, its appeal to one section of the community, as well as its limited programme and internal regime, Respect – if it continues on its present trajectory – will not be able to break out of its present political cul-de-sac.


17 May 2006

Dangers in Respect's development

RESPECT STOOD over 150 candidates and got 16 elected: 12 in Tower Hamlets, three in Newham and one in Birmingham. The victories of candidates standing against the Iraq war, privatisation and the other neo-liberal attacks of New Labour and big business are welcome. However there are also strong danger signs regarding Respect's development.

Judy Beishon

All of their winning candidates are from a Muslim background and won predominately on the basis of Muslim votes in areas with high Muslim populations. Winning support from working-class Muslim and other Asian, black and immigrant communities is an essential task of left and socialist parties. These communities face some of the worst housing conditions, jobs and unemployment in Britain and also suffer the consequences of increased racism.

However, the extreme difference between Respect's election performance in those areas compared with areas with relatively few Muslims is striking. Virtually all of Respect's results in towns and cities such as Plymouth, Portsmouth, Cambridge, Liverpool, Newcastle and Oxford were very much lower (around 2-300 votes) than their votes in areas with high Muslim populations.

On its website, Respect declares that their twelve council seats in Tower Hamlets are "one more than the BNP in Barking and Dagenham". This would be a cause for great celebration by the left as a whole, if it had been achieved on a clear class-based programme. But instead, unfortunately, Respect could unconsciously further the beginnings of a polarisation based on racial division, by not countering the growing perception that it is a 'party for Muslims'.

The white working-class BNP voters of Barking and Dagenham will only be won away from the BNP by a left party that puts forward a class-based alternative. It is not so much a question of what Respect's election material says, but of what it doesn't say. While it puts across opposition to NHS cuts, council house privatisation, the war in Iraq and other welcome positions, it does not consistently include a class-based appeal to all sections of the working class.

As the Socialist Party has repeatedly warned, it is necessary for socialists to stand clearly and firmly on a fighting, class-based programme that can unite working people from all sections of society. In Kirklees, standing for 'Save Huddersfield NHS', Socialist Party member Jackie Grunsell won a council seat with 2,176 votes and a majority of 807, by appealing to both white voters and a significant Asian minority electorate. Victorious Socialist Party candidates in Coventry and Lewisham have also appealed to all sections of workers in those areas.

Another major challenge Respect now faces will be in living up to expectations to improve the lives of people in Tower Hamlets. Some of its new councillors there have a record of fighting privatisation and cuts, but as the second largest political group on the council they will soon be tested at a new level.

The housing, welfare and other urgent needs in that poverty stricken borough cannot be solved with the money presently given by the government and raised in local council tax. So Respect's councillors will be faced with the choice of supporting cuts in some services, increasing council tax, or of mobilising all sections of the community into a major campaign to demand the necessary resources from the government, as Liverpool's socialist councillors did in the 1980s.

Respect has already shown - particularly through the behaviour of its MP George Galloway - that its public representatives are far from accountable to the party. This, combined with the fact that many of its new councillors do not come from a socialist background, is cause for concern in Tower Hamlets.

What is needed, is a united, campaigning team of councillors, opposing all cuts and leading and basing themselves on the struggles of workers from all religious and ethnic backgrounds. Only in this way can a successful campaign be launched against the New Labour government and council attacks on living standards and for the resources necessary to transform people's lives.


Socialist Party discusses with Respect

Article from The Socialist March 2006

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.


July 9 2004

Votes At What Price?

An open letter to members and supporters of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) from the Socialist Party

The ideas of any socialist organisation meet their real test not in conference halls and lecture theatres, but in their ability to advance the struggles of working-class and young people internationally.

It is easy to claim to be a "revolutionary party" standing in the Marxist tradition, but quite another to prove in practice that you possess the ideas and methods which are best placed to win a mass audience around to the need for a socialist society, and to translate such a mood into a movement capable of challenging capitalism.

Regrettably, the recent actions of the SWP betray a fundamental lack of confidence that a significant layer of the working class can be won to a clear, socialist programme.

Socialists and the anti-war movement

The movement against the war and subsequent occupation of Iraq undoubtedly had a tremendously radicalising effect on millions of people across the UK and worldwide, and united people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds in a inspiring wave of popular protests against the imperialist aggression sponsored by Bush and Blair.

We recognise the importance of building a broad Stop the War Coalition which welcomed the participation of all those who opposed war, and the significant role of the SWP in helping to initiate such a body.

Yet although successive demonstrations and meetings provided a platform for all kinds of speakers (pacifists, liberals, religious speakers, and capitalist politicians…), organisations which put so much energy into building the movement were consistently denied the right to put forward a specifically socialist position.

SWP leaders spoke only in their capacity as Stop the War Coalition officers, and restricted themselves to generalities which even the most liberal elements would have struggled to disagree with.

This was in no way accidental, but instead the product of a mistaken belief that putting a socialist analysis to the fore of the movement would have narrowed its potential support. By contrast, Charles Kennedy was allowed to reap the benefits of addressing the February 15th demonstration, without being challenged on his willingness to support imperialist aggression if sponsored by the United Nations.

But do you really need to be shame-faced about putting forward your socialist ideas? Isn’t the clarity of our ideas a positive pole attraction for those who are looking not just to have their own ideas echoed back to them, but who are searching instead for genuine answers?

Indeed, if a bold socialist lead had been offered, this would certainly have increased pressure on the trade union leaderships to organise co-ordinated strike action against the war. This would have been a major step forward for the anti-war movement, and could even have brought Britain’s participation to an end.

‘New’ Labour and the political vacuum

Whilst Tony Blair’s support for the war on Iraq was, for many people, the final straw in persuading them to leave the Labour party, its support in working class areas had already been haemorrhaging for a over a decade.

As the 1980s saw major workers’ struggles end in defeat, and with the collapse of regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the Labour leadership was able to carry through massive attacks on the socialist component which had long been an important, though never dominant, feature of the party.

Many of the most active socialists were subject to witch-hunts and expulsions, democratic processes were scrapped, and the long-standing commitment to public ownership in Clause IV of its constitution was ditched in favour of support for the "dynamic market economy". In short, the whole class nature of the Labour party has undergone an irreversible seismic shift, to the point where it has now become an out-and-out capitalist party committed pushing through neo-liberal attacks.

With all three ‘main’ capitalist parties now sharing the same fundamental agenda, thousands of workers and young people understandably feel alienated from electoral politics.

There now exists a tremendous need for a mass workers’ party and we support all steps towards establishing the foundations for such an organisation. This is why the Socialist Party helped to found the Socialist Alliance, which we hoped would bring together genuine left forces under a common umbrella in order to offer a united challenge to New Labour, a project unfortunately stifled by the approach of the SWP.

Despite this setback, we are still supportive of any initiatives which advance the emergence of a force capable of representing the masses of working people. In particular we argued that the February 15th demonstration, which saw 2 million people on the streets of London protesting against the war, would have been a tremendous opportunity to launch such a formation.

Regrettably this opportunity was missed, but when Respect was formed we maintained a sympathetic and constructive approach, recognising that this was another opportunity which could have accelerated momentum towards a new workers party. To this end, the Socialist Party took part in discussions with Respect during the first three months of this year.

However, in the event we concluded that we were unable to join Respect at that point as we had a number of disagreements with the approach Respect was taking, both on programme and democracy. However, we hoped that our concerns would prove unfounded and that Respect would develop positively.

Unfortunately, the European election campaign confirmed our worst fears about the political direction of Respect. Completely misunderstanding the reasons for its failure, Lindsey German claimed (at Respect’s founding conference) that the Socialist Alliance failed to attract sufficient support because it was too socialist, since any explicit mention of socialism ‘inevitably’ narrows the potential electoral support.

They try to present the idea of boldly presenting socialist ideas before the working class as the discredited strategy of an "old" left, incapable of breaking out of its small enclaves of support. This false argument is exploded by the recent results in the Euro elections, where Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party polled 5.5% in Dublin on the basis of a socialist programme, exceeding even Respect’s best performance (the 4.8% achieved in London by George Galloway).

The Politics of RESPECT

Whilst the vote Respect received was good in some areas, particularly Galloway’s 91,175 votes (4.84%) in the London Euro seat, nationally their vote in the European elections averaged 1.7%, or just over 250,000 votes.

This undoubtedly disappointed the leadership of Respect, who exaggerated their electoral potential. For us, however, the issue is not the vote as much as the means by which Respect achieved it.

For socialists, elections are just one occasion (by no means the most important) to raise a programme of political demands which builds upon and takes forward workers’ struggles, exposing the contradictions of class society and demonstrating the necessity of breaking with capitalism.

The programme we put forward should always be aimed at raising the confidence and level of understanding of the working class.

Far from intimidating potential working class support, such a bold, confident approach would demonstrate the relevance of socialist ideas for confronting the problems which millions of ordinary people worldwide confront on a daily basis.

This also means doing everything possible to encourage the unity of the working class. That is why our sister organisation in Northern Ireland has always fought for unity of the Catholic and Protestant working class.

In Britain today, the reactionary policies of Blair and New Labour are fostering division. Respect’s intention may not have been to exacerbate those divisions, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Respect’s average vote disguised low results in many parts of the country, which were combined with several notable votes in inner-city areas with large Muslim populations.

In the City and East London constituency, an area with the highest concentration of Muslims in the country, Respect polled 15.03%. Across Birmingham the average vote was 7.4%. These votes were mainly based on sections of the Muslim communities in those areas voting for Respect.

If this had been achieved by appealing to working-class Muslims on a class basis, it would be a very important positive achievement.

There is no doubt that on this basis Respect could have won the support of significant section of Muslims who had been radicalised by the war on Iraq and the anti-war movement but also, as one of the poorest and most oppressed sections of the working class, by their conditions of life under the New Labour government.

For example, according to the 2001 census, the unemployment rate of Muslims is more than three times that of the general population and is the highest of all faith groups.

One in seven of economically active Muslims are unemployed, compared with 1 in 20 for the wider population. Of course, we are entirely in favour of trying to win Muslim voters away from New Labour and the other capitalist parties.

By itself, however, this is not enough: British Muslims, no less than any other oppressed group, are looking for convincing answers to the problems which are generated by capitalism on a global scale.

As socialists, we can offer a comprehensive explanation of why the war, terror, imperialism and exploitation which blight the lives of Muslims across the world are rooted in the capitalist system.

But equally, we need to win support for the idea of a socialist alternative, and appeal to all workers, regardless of race or religion, on the basis of their common class interests in standing united in the fight against the power of global capital.

However, Respect made an opportunist, rather than a class, appeal to Muslims. A specific leaflet aimed at Muslims was produced which described Respect as "the party for Muslims". Under the headline ‘George Galloway – fighter for Muslims’ it said:

"Married to a Palestinian doctor, teetotal, he has strong religious principles about fighting injustice. He was expelled by Blair because he refused to apologise for his anti-war stance. Our Muslim MPs stayed silent or supported the war. Who do you want to be our voice?".

Whilst it is right to acknowledge Galloway’s vocal opposition to the war, and to attack Muslim MPs who failed to take a similar stance (although he seems to have excused Mohammed Sawar, MP for Glasgow Govan, saying he won’t stand against him in the next election because he is a Muslim), the rest of this statement is a highly opportunist attempt to appeal to Muslims on the basis of their religion.

While socialists defend the right of all to practice any religion they wish, or to practice none, without suffering discrimination or oppression, that does not mean we stand in political solidarity with all Muslims. Does Respect consider itself the party for 5,400 Muslim millionaires in Britain, many of whom made their money by exploiting other Muslims? Or for Mohammed Al Fayed, the billionaire owner of Harrods?

George Galloway himself compounded Respect’s mistakes when he stated his personal views on the question of abortion, saying that: "I’m strongly against abortion. I believe life begins at conception." And that because he believed "in God. [He had] to believe that the collection of cells has a soul."

Immediately afterwards these comments were enthusiastically welcomed by the Muslim Association of Britain (which backed Respect in several areas of the country). Galloway has every right to a personal opinion on the question of abortion.

However, the lack of proper democratic procedures within Respect, means that his maverick positions become hard to differentiate from the platform of the whole organisation.

 Given the lack of any Respect policy on the issue, and the failure of the SWP members who were Respect candidates to publicly put their own opinion on the issue (they claim to support, in our opinion correctly, a woman’s right to choose when and whether to have children) the effect of George Galloway’s exaggerated profile often gave the impression that Respect opposes abortion in all circumstances.

While this may have increased Respect’s vote amongst a section of Muslim voters, it will have also repelled many women that Respect should have been aiming to attract.

Sowing Divisions

If Respect gains by being seen as a Muslim party, which does not address the needs of other sections of the working class, it could push other sections of the working class away and reinforce racist and divisive ideas.

Following this strategy in future elections it could foster dangerous divisions within the working class between Muslim and other communities.

By contrast, a sizeable new workers’ party which both campaigned in a class way on both the general issues and against racism and Islamophobia could begin to cut across racism and prejudice.

Ironically, far from "broadening" the appeal for a mass electoral force on the left, Respect’s strategy actually narrowed it.

A new mass left formation cannot be built on one issue, or by appealing to just one section of the population. While Respect’s formal programme did include demands against NHS privatisation, tuition fees and on other issues, the material they put out in the election concentrated almost exclusively on the occupation of Iraq.

This was undoubtedly a key issue in this election, but for the majority of working-class voters it was not the only issue. Rather Blair’s lies to justify the brutal war on Iraq acted as a lightning rod for all the other crimes of New Labour.

Important sections of working people, who could have been attracted to a new left alternative which both fought against the occupation of Iraq and on other issues like tuition fees, privatisation and cuts, were simply not touched by the approach of Respect. Many white working-class communities, alienated from the policies of the capitalist parties, were nevertheless left cold by Respect’s campaign.

In the North West Euro seat, for example, even with a large Muslim electorate, Respect polled nearly 10,000 less than the fringe nationalist English Democrats.

Regrettably, this might be used against the left by trade union leaders who want to maintain links with the Labour Party. "It’s no use", they will claim, trying to take on the main parties – better to try (and fail!) to exert pressure from within.

Nevertheless, with New Labour increasingly coming into conflict with large sections of the working class, this argument need not carry the day. This fact that the FBU has voted to cease paying a political levy to a Labour Party intent on attacking its members pay and conditions under the cloak of "modernisation", is clear evidence of this.

Fighting for a Socialist Alternative

We believe that it is high time that socialists stopped apologising for their beliefs, hiding them away in order to keep anti-working class forces on board, and started arguing for our ideas in a confident and open manner.

What is needed is for the trade unions and genuine forces on the left to make a clean break from Labour, and issue a call for the setting up of a new mass worker’s party to represent all those people who feel betrayed by New Labour.

This would not be a retreat to "old Labour", or a Labour party mark-II but, rather, we would argue for it to adopt a programme which did not sow illusions in the capitalist system, and to put forward instead a clear programme of class demands in order to build support for a socialist alternative.

The Socialist Party is committed to working in unity with other left groups, trade unions and individuals who are serious in their desire to bring into being a party which would represent the interests of working-class people.

Socialist ideas are not interesting topics for a discussion circle or a "Marxist forum": their importance today is determined by the extent to which they are relevant to advancing the day-to-day struggles of working class and young people.

It is time to ditch the electoral opportunism promoted by the SWP leadership, and start building a movement based on the unity of working class people – from across racial and religious divides - in fighting to overthrow a capitalist system which creates relentless war and exploitation in the interests of profit, and replace it with a socialist alternative.

 


June 17 2004

Respect And The June Elections

RESPECT - THE Unity Coalition was formed by George Galloway MP and the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) at the beginning of the year. It stood in elections for the first time on 10 June.

Hannah Sell

The Socialist Party took part in discussions with Respect during the first three months of this year but concluded that we were unable to join at that point as we had a number of disagreements with the approach Respect was taking, both on programme and democracy. However, we hoped that our concerns would prove unfounded and that Respect would develop positively.

Unfortunately, the European election campaign confirmed our worst fears about the political direction of Respect. The vote Respect received was good in some areas, particularly Galloway's 91,175 votes (4.84%) in the London Euro seat. Its vote in the European elections averaged 1.7%, or just over 250,000 votes. This undoubtedly disappointed the leadership of Respect, who exaggerated their electoral potential.

For the Socialist Party, however, the issue is not the vote as much as the means by which Respect achieved it. For socialists the programme we put forward should always be aimed at raising the confidence and level of understanding of the working class.

This means doing everything possible to encourage the unity of the working class. That is why our sister organisation in Northern Ireland has always fought for unity of the Catholic and Protestant working class.

In Britain today, the reactionary policies of Blair and New Labour are fostering division. Respect's intention may not have been to exacerbate those divisions, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Opportunism

RESPECT'S AVERAGE vote disguised low results in many parts of the country, which were combined with several notable votes in inner-city areas with large Muslim populations.

In the City and East London constituency, an area with the highest concentration of Muslims in the country, Respect polled 15.03%. Across Birmingham the average vote was 7.4%. These votes were mainly based on large sections of the Muslim communities in those areas voting for Respect.

If this had been achieved by appealing to working-class Muslims on a class basis, it would be a very important positive achievement. There is no doubt that on this basis Respect could have won the support of significant section of Muslims who had been radicalised by the war on Iraq and the anti-war movement but also, as one of the poorest and most oppressed sections of the working class, by their conditions of life under the New Labour government.

For example, according to the 2001 census, the unemployment rate of Muslims is more than three times that of the general population and is the highest of all faith groups. One in seven economically active Muslims are unemployed, compared with one in 20 for the wider population.

However, Respect made an opportunist, rather than a class, appeal to Muslims. A specific leaflet aimed at Muslims was produced which described Respect as "the party for Muslims".

Under the headline "George Galloway - fighter for Muslims" it said: "Married to a Palestinian doctor, teetotal, he has strong religious principles about fighting injustice. He was expelled by Blair because he refused to apologise for his anti-war stance. Our Muslim MPs stayed silent or supported the war. Who do you want to be our voice?"

While it is right to advertise Galloway's undoubted anti-war credentials and to attack Muslim MPs for failing to oppose the war (although he seems to have excused Mohammed Sawar, MP for Glasgow Govan, saying he won't stand against him in the next election because he is a Muslim), the rest of this statement is a highly opportunist attempt to appeal to Muslims on the basis of their religion.

While socialists defend the right of all to practise any religion they wish, or to practise none, without suffering discrimination or oppression, that does not mean we stand in political solidarity with all Muslims.

Does Respect consider itself the party for 5,400 Muslim millionaires in Britain, many of whom made their money by exploiting other Muslims? Or for Mohammed Al Fayed, the billionaire owner of Harrods?

George Galloway himself compounded Respect's mistakes when he stated his personal views on the question of abortion, saying that: "I'm strongly against abortion. I believe life begins at conception." And that because he believed "in God. [He had] to believe that the collection of cells has a soul." Immediately afterwards these comments were enthusiastically welcomed by the Muslim Association of Britain (which backed Respect in several areas of the country).

George Galloway has every right to a personal opinion on the question of abortion. However, given the lack of any Respect policy on the issue, and the failure of the SWP members who were Respect candidates to publicly put their own opinion on the issue (they claim to support, in our opinion correctly, a woman's right to choose when and whether to have children) the effect of George Galloway expressing his personal opinion was to give the impression that Respect opposes abortion in all circumstances.

While this may have increased Respect's vote amongst a section of Muslim voters, it will have also repelled many women that Respect should have been aiming to attract.

New workers' party

THE VOTE-winning strategy adopted by Respect is potentially very dangerous. The Socialist Party has long argued that New Labour today is another party of big-business, no different in essence to the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.

We campaign for the building of a new party - that brings together forces such as socialists, trade unionists and the anti-war movement - and puts forward a socialist programme.

The recent decision of the FBU to stop funding New Labour shows the potential for trade unionists to begin building such a party. A formation led by George Galloway, particularly if it had been launched from the platform of 15 February, when two million marched against the war, could have been an important step in the direction of such a party.

However, Respect, formed after the high point of the anti-war movement, has so far not brought a new workers' party any closer. At the founding convention of Respect, Lindsey German of the SWP argued that the Socialist Alliance had failed because it was too explicitly socialist and that Respect would succeed for the converse reason.

This argument was mistaken, as the Socialist Party was able to demonstrate in the Euro election in Dublin, Ireland - where Joe Higgins received 5.5% of the first preference vote on a socialist programme. We were able to do the same in Coventry where we contested fourteen council seats and received an average of 16%.

In fact, far from broadening Respect's appeal, its leadership's approach narrowed it. A new mass left formation cannot be built on one issue, or by appealing to just one section of the population. While Respect's formal programme did include demands against NHS privatisation, tuition fees and on other issues, the material they put out in the election concentrated almost exclusively on the occupation of Iraq.

Iraq was undoubtedly a key issue in this election, but for the majority of working-class voters it was not the only issue. Rather Blair's lies to justify the brutal war on Iraq acted as a lightning rod for all the other crimes of New Labour.

Important sections of working people, who could have been attracted to a new left alternative which both fought against the occupation of Iraq and on other issues like tuition fees, privatisation and cuts, were simply not touched by Respect's approach.

In most areas, outside of their increased support in some Muslim communities, their vote was even lower than the high water mark of Respect's predecessor organisation, the Socialist Alliance.

Divisions

IF RESPECT follows the same strategy in future elections it could foster dangerous divisions within the working class between Muslim and other communities.

If Respect gains by being seen as a Muslim party, which does not address the needs of other sections of the working class, it could push other sections of the working class away and reinforce racist and divisive ideas.

By contrast a sizeable new workers' party which both campaigned in a class way on both the general issues and against racism and Islamophobia could begin to cut across racism and prejudice.

However, it is not clear what Respect's future will be, or even if its leaders see it as a permanent formation. George Galloway has mistakenly 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, indicating that he may see Respect as a temporary means to try and push New Labour left.

And while George has undoubtedly taken a principled stand on the war, he is, on a whole number of issues, in his own words, "not as left wing as you think".

This is demonstrated graphically in his recent autobiography where he describes both Tony Benn's Labour leadership challenge in 1981 and the heroic struggle of Liverpool City council 1983 - 1987 as 'ultra-left'.

He also argues that MPs should be paid twice as much as their existing salaries of £47,000 per year, plus expenses.

While we disagree with George on these and other issues, this does not mean we opposed taking part in an electoral formation with him. On the contrary, we would have been happy to do so in the case of Respect, provided it was based on appealing to broad layers of trade unionists, anti-capitalists and the anti-war movement, and had a democratic structure which allowed open and honest discussion with the freedom for ourselves and others to argue for our own programme.

Unfortunately, this is not the road Respect seems to be on. Unless Respect changes direction, it will not play a positive role on the journey to a new workers' party.

Socialist Party Election Success

Elections 2004: A Shadow Over Blair

European elections: 'Kicked In The Ballot Box'

CWI election campaign 2004

Election campaigns archive


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

Dear comrades,

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.

Beyond June?

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.

 


16 January 2004

Respect Unity Coalition - what we think

THE RESPECT unity coalition (RUC) is an initiative from George Galloway MP, the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) and others, centred around standing in the June European and Greater London Authority elections.

On December 17 2003 the Socialist Party wrote to the signatories of RUC's founding declaration (George Galloway MP, Salma Yaqoob, Lindsey German, John Rees, Linda Smith, Ken Loach, and George Monbiot) asking to discuss the RUC initiative (see below.)

George Monbiot replied, saying that he agreed that the Socialist Party should have been consulted and now John Rees, of the SWP, has replied on behalf of RUC in order to organise a meeting with us.

The Socialist Party welcomes this opportunity to put our point of view. We will support any positive step towards the creation of a new mass socialist alternative to New Labour. However, the programme of RUC is not clearly socialist.

Many of its demands are very good - such as for an end to privatisation and the return of key industries to public ownership, no to tuition fees, and for the restoration of the link between pensions and earnings.

However, they fall short of a socialist programme. Why is this? Is it because George Monbiot or Salma Yaqoob are not socialists? In our view it would be a mistake to dilute the programme of RUC in order to win the support of a few "prominent individuals'.

While George Galloway sounds very confident that RUC will win "the bulk of progressive opinion in the country" (Morning Star 12.01.04) experience shows that 'big talk' is not enough.

In any case 'progressive opinion' is too vague a description of who RUC is aiming to win. What does it mean?

"When George uses it he presumably means something different to Tony Blair when he does!

RUC must aim to win the most thinking sections of the working class and young people politicized by the anti-war movement. As we have consistently argued this requires openness and democracy.

A top-down approach, without genuine discussion and debate, will not succeed in involving wider layers of the working class, in particular rank and file trade unionists, as the previous failures of the Socialist Labour Party and the Socialist Alliance have demonstrated.

Unfortunately, RUC appears to be making the same mistake. At this stage there is no evidence of a genuinely open discussion on how to build RUC.

On the contrary, in Coventry, where the Socialist Party has three very prominent councillors (including Dave Nellist who was previously chair of the Socialist Alliance), RUC has called a rally without in any way contacting the Socialist Party, never mind asking us to contribute to the meeting!

Nonetheless, nationally and locally the Socialist Party will engage in any discussions that take place and do our best to argue the point of view outlined in the letter - on programme and on the critical issue of democracy.


Links

Socialism in the 21st Century, by Hannah Sell

2004 - New Year Of Political Struggle, by Peter Taaffe


17 December 2003

To the signatories to the ‘Declaration for a left electoral challenge to New Labour’:

George Galloway MP, Salma Yaqoob, Lindsey German, John Rees, Linda Smith, Ken Loach, George Monbiot, Bob Crow, Mark Serwotka

 

Dear Comrades,

The Socialist Party has followed your recent announcements on the formation of the Respect Unity Coalition with interest. We are keen to support any serious attempt to create a left alternative to New Labour. 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 initiatives towards the formation of such a party.

In the past we enthusiastically welcomed Arthur Scargill’s proposal to launch the Socialist Labour Party. Unfortunately the lack of democracy in the SLP prevented us from taking part, and in fact prevented the SLP from seriously taking off. However, we then went on to found the Socialist Alliance in the mid-1990s in an attempt create a democratic federal alliance, which could allow different socialist groups and individuals to work together, whilst at the same time preserving the rights of all those who participated. It was with regret that we were forced to leave the Socialist Alliance in 2001 because we had concluded that, under the effective control of the Socialist Workers’ Party, it had become a second cul-de-sac on the road to a new workers’ party.

We refer to past attempts to create a left alternative to New Labour because it would be most unfortunate if any of the mistakes of the past were repeated. For that reason we take the programme and structures of RUC seriously, and believe it would have been better had we been consulted during initial discussions. While our achievements are modest in comparison to our tasks, we have 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 this month. We also have a significant base in the trade unions, including 17 members of trade union executives.

However, as we have not yet been asked to take part in discussions on the RUC, and it is clear from the written material that a lot of decisions have already been taken, we felt we had no choice but to put our initial comments briefly in writing to you.

Without doubt 2003 led to a growth in the potential for a socialist alternative to New Labour. Millions have rejected Labour and there is a yearning for a left political alternative. Of the millions who took part in the anti-war movement there is a significant minority who, at the height of the movement, would have immediately joined a new radical socialist force, if it had been proposed by one of the prominent leaders of the anti-war movement, such as George Galloway. Today the mood against the occupation of Iraq is growing and intertwining with anger on top-up fees, privatisation and other issues. The potential for a radical socialist alternative undoubtedly still exists.

We are therefore disappointed that the RUC ‘declaration’ does not put forward a specifically socialist alternative. We think this is a mistake, at least in Britain. Whereas in the US, for example, a left non-socialist alternative, such as Naderism, could mark a significant step forward, in Britain, where the working class has the experience of Labourism, the potential exists to build considerable support for a formation with an explicitly socialist programme. Of course, we do not preclude a new formation deciding, after discussion, to compromise on the socialist content of its programme. For example, this might be justified in order to enable a significant section of the working class, such as a trade union, to join the new formation. And of course, in those circumstances socialists would have a duty to argue for their ideas within the new formation. However, in the current instance we can see no reason for not putting forward at least the general outline of a socialist programme.

We also have other comments on the programme which we will make in future discussions. One issue we would like to discuss is the approach of the RUC to the Labour Party. In our view George’s expulsion, despite the support of Tony Benn, Tony Woodley, even Michael Foot – who expelled us in 1983 – and many other leading lefts, reconfirms the nature of the Labour Party today as being a million miles removed from a genuine workers’ party, or even a capitalist workers’ party. This does not mean that we take a hostile approach to those socialists who remain within the Labour Party. But while we are sympathetic to any attempts to retransform the Labour Party, we do not judge that they are going to succeed. Therefore our priority is to campaign for a new party and we would argue for the RUC to take the same clear approach.

We also have questions on how you intend to organise RUC. The experience of the SLP and the SA confirm, in a negative sense, what we have argued over the last decade – that to succeed any new formation must be open, democratic and welcoming to new forces. We know that you have planned a launch conference on January 25 open to all those who have joined RUC. We understand that this will be where the opportunity will exist to propose amendments to the programme and structures of RUC. However, we do not think it practical or reasonable to expect individuals or organisations who do not yet know the details of your proposal, to have to decide to join RUC in order to have a chance to discuss those details. If you proceed in this way it will exclude many who might otherwise take part. We think it would be far better to delay a launch conference a little bit in order to allow more open and democratic discussion. A launch conference would then be likely to involve more significant forces when it did take place.

We would also like clarification on whether you see RUC simply as a coalition for the European elections, with goal of getting individuals elected, or as a step towards developing a new party of the working class.  We consider the latter to be one of the most important tasks facing socialists in this period, and our support for any proposal is largely governed by the degree to which we consider it is a step in that direction. Nonetheless, even if you are only proposing the former, we are, of course, in favour of giving support to any candidates who offer a clear alternative to New Labour. However, even an electoral coalition requires negotiations and the right for all involved to discuss out, and where necessary, criticise the programme of the coalition both within it and in the labour movement.

This letter only outlines our initial comments. We hope it will be possible to meet and discuss the issues further in the near future.

 

Yours in solidarity,
 
Hannah Sell
On behalf of the Socialist Party EC

    


Links:

Socialism in the 21st Century, by Hannah Sell

2004 - New Year Of Political Struggle, by Peter Taaffe


 

Would you like to find out more about the Socialist Party? 

Why not Contact or Join the Socialist Party?

[Top of Page] [Home] [News] [The Socialist]