51. George Galloway and Respect



Bob Crow had not yet come out clearly for a new political alternative. Despite the friendly discussions that we had with him, he and other union leaders had burnt their fingers in Arthur Scargill’s ill-fated Socialist Labour Party. Bob was a workers’ leader who clearly resonated with the rank-and-file of the unions and the wider working class but at this stage he was reluctant to make a bold call, probably because he could not see a ready-made constituency for a new mass party existing at that time. Brown was no real alternative, as was indicated in his consistent support for capitalism, the market, which went together with berating the ‘old left’ for its ‘fetish’ in supporting the public sector. We warned: “The election of Brown as New Labour’s leader after Blair’s resignation or overthrow would mean a continuation of the ‘project’ … with all that would mean for the working class of Britain.”1 This was borne out to the letter in the reign of ‘Gordon the brief ’, which led to the disaster of the ‘ConDem’ coalition government following the 2010 election.

After the huge anti-war movement, a meeting did take place in London under the signboard ‘Where is New Labour going?’ Over 500 predominantly left activists attended, including prominent speakers like Mark Serwotka and George Galloway. The latter welcomed the discussion but stated that a decision on the issues under debate was coming closer with indignation rising at the spectacle of trade unions’ money going to New Labour, which was helping to  pay for the war. He declared: “This cannot go on. Enough will eventually be enough. The rail union NUR, predecessor of the RMT, founded the Labour Party 103 years ago. They were told it was premature and divisive… But the vast majority came to see that independent political representation was necessary. 103 years later Blair, on the other hand, thinks the foundation of his own party was a historic mistake.” The speaker from the Fire Brigades Union, Linda Smith, explained how the left in the FBU had argued for the democratisation of the funds going to the Labour Party but the recent strike meant that the FBU had moved on. She reported that the London FBU voted 15-0 to suspend all payments to the Labour Party until the FBU conference discussion on this issue.

John Rees, then of the SWP, also spoke on behalf of the Socialist Alliance. In the past, the SWP had argued that New Labour was no different from the Labour Party of the past. However, reality now forced them to abandon this untenable position. He stated: “We cannot watch history rolled back 100 years to a time when there is no party to represent the trade union movement. We are on the cusp of that happening.” This was yet another example of the flipflop approach of the SWP.2

Later in 2003 Galloway, MP for Glasgow Kelvin at the time, was expelled from the Labour Party for sticking to his principled opposition to Blair’s war in Iraq. This decision was taken by Labour’s National Constitutional Committee. Galloway declared afterwards: “This was a politically motivated kangaroo court whose verdict had been written in advance, in the best tradition of political show trials. It was a travesty of justice.” We concluded once more: “There is no room for socialists and principled fighters in today’s pro-big business Labour Party. Energies should now be channelled into building a new mass trade union based party that could be a focus for all those looking for a left alternative to New Labour.”3 Following this, Galloway spoke at the Socialist Party national rally in November 2003, where he denounced his expulsion and hinted – but didn’t clearly call for – an alternative to the left of Labour.

In the midst of the hectic anti-war movement, Channel 4 produced the TV programme ‘The Deal’, which as well as providing a convenient diversion, apparently purported to show that the origins of New Labour were all Dave Nellist’s fault! He was responsible for the alliance formed between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown! Dave, as a new MP in 1983, shared a small office with Tony Blair for three weeks. This was enough; they were chalk and cheese, and destined to separate. The programme confirmed that, not unsurprisingly, Blair could not stand the presence of Dave and requested John Smith move him into Gordon Brown’s office: “Can he share with you? He can’t get on with Dave Nellist… It’s because of dinosaurs like [Dave] that we lost the election.” It was the right of the Labour Party, typified by Smith and the new man on the make, Blair, who were responsible for the 1983 defeat. Back then there was also a reference to Dave Nellist wearing a ‘crimplene’ suit.4 Shades of Cameron’s criticism of the dress sense of Jeremy Corbyn!

The search for the establishment of a new mass party to replace the increasingly discredited New Labour dominated the work of the Socialist Party in 2004-05, a period running up to a general election. Galloway and others took an initiative by establishing ‘Respect – the Unity Coalition’ (RUC) that drew in the SWP. It was initially centred on standing in the June 2004 European and Greater London Authority elections. However the establishment of Respect was supported by the SWP by means of a pronunciamento, with no discussion and no democratic debate either within their ranks or with their other ‘partners’ still left in the Socialist Alliance. This completely confirmed everything that we had said about the methods of the SWP when we were compelled earlier to leave the Socialist Alliance. Nevertheless it came as a shock to those who remained after we were forced out.

Galloway made a mistake by placing exaggerated expectations in the strength of the ‘Labour left’ – Tony Benn and others – to prevent his expulsion from the Labour Party. We pointed out to him that the right wing was hell bent on purging those who offered the slightest resistance to the Iraq War and its neo-liberal programme, never mind someone like himself. Despite any other drawbacks he may have, he nevertheless courageously opposed New Labour, Blair and Bush in the US, including Congress, on the Iraq War.

Even then we engaged in a discussion over the programme and policies of Respect, with a view to participating in this venture if agreements could be arrived at. Unfortunately, as with the Socialist Alliance, the same approach was adopted by both the SWP and Galloway for an exclusive not inclusive party. We explained: “On December 17, 2003 the Socialist Party wrote to the signatories of the [Respect Unity Coalition’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… At this stage there is no evidence of a genuinely open discussion on how to build RUC.”5

A meeting did take place between Socialist Party representatives and Respect at which they appeared to be keen for us to join and take places on its executive. However, we explained that we did not feel that Respect represented a genuine step towards the formation of a new workers’ party at that stage. From the beginning, Respect had a ‘communalist’ character. In the lexicon of Marxism this describes parties that base themselves primarily upon one ethnic group, particularly in a multi-ethnic society or region. London was already that and is, even more so today, one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse cities in the world. As the history of the labour movement demonstrates, great care has to be exercised in appealing to one section of society so as not to alienate the rest. This approach has marked out the CWI in ongoing situations of racial or national conflict, such as in Northern Ireland or Sri Lanka. In all countries our organisation has sought consistently to unite workers on a class basis.

However this was not even the declared intention of Respect. In fact prior to this, the SWP and Galloway had already moved to a position of uncritical support not just for ‘oppressed Muslims’ in general but also the ‘leaders’ of ‘Muslim organisations’. This was an integral part of their entirely one-sided analysis of the world situation, particularly since George W Bush came to power. Initially the SWP was opposed to any criticism of Al-Qa’ida, as explained above, at the time of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre. Previously, the SWP had not gone quite as far as this in their one-sided approach to movements in the neo-colonial world but having thrown in their lot with George Galloway in the formation of Respect, they were compelled to follow his ‘pro-Muslim’ evolution.

Our response was to point out that if this strategy was pursued, it could foster dangerous divisions within the working class between Muslims and other communities. If Respect made gains by being seen as a Muslim party that would not address the needs of other sections of the working class, it could push them away and reinforce racist and divisive ideas. We also pointed out that what was striking about their position, implicitly endorsed by the SWP because they never criticised it at the time, was the emphasis on Muslims as a community. Mohammed Sarwar, who may have been ‘Britain’s first Muslim MP’, was nevertheless still tied to New Labour. Moreover no distinction was made between poor, working-class Muslims and the estimated 5,400 Muslim millionaires in Britain at the time who were hostile to the interests of working-class Muslims and the ideas of socialism.

The New Labour government was carrying out the vicious war against the Muslim workers and peasants of Iraq and Afghanistan. We commented: “Imagine if the pioneers of the labour movement had acted like this in Liverpool or Glasgow, appealing to ‘Catholics’ as a ‘community’, and likewise to Protestants.”6 This has been the hallmark of ethnically and religiously-based parties. In the case of Northern Ireland, the ‘nationalist’ organisation the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), despite the inclusion of ‘social democratic’ in its name, was a religiously-based party. It remains the case even when these parties are tinged with an element of ‘radicalism’. The same applies to Sinn Féin, which was not averse to occasionally mentioning ‘socialism’ in the past but nevertheless was and is a sectarian organisation rooted in one section of the ‘community’. The maxim ‘show me who your friends are and I’ll show you who you are’ is applicable in politics.  After he was expelled from the Labour Party Galloway wrote a book I’m not the only one, which was reviewed in Socialism Today by Jim Horton. This book offered an interesting insight into one of the founders of Respect. Of course, there is a searing indictment of the war and the continued occupation of Iraq as well as a scathing analysis of all those New Labour MPs who sheepishly voted for the conflict. However, what the book also revealed was that the setting up of Respect was not an accident but was rooted in Galloway’s long-held political opinions, which showed that he “at various times described himself as a socialist, but in his book is hardly a scintilla of a socialist programme”.

During the 1980s Iran-Iraq war Galloway “supported Iran, as did Syria, the Arab country to which I was then closest”.7 His support for Iran went beyond the war issue: “In the absence of a powerful socialist or secular opposition in Iran, my perspective led me to support the Islamic revolution of Khomeini as a people’s movement that promised the end to an oppressive dictatorship.”8 There is no suggestion of supporting an independent movement of the working class, which was the main issue that should have been raised and was raised during the Iranian revolution. In fact, Khomeini brutally suppressed the main workers’ party at the time the Tudeh party and the rest of the left. This was only possible because this party had failed to build a politically independent working-class movement. In that sense it had the same false perspective as Galloway, looking towards a ‘progressive’ movement to oppose the Shah while offering Khomeini a “popular and united front” against the monarchy. In other words, this party soaped the hangman’s rope of the regime of Khomeini, which destroyed Tudeh.

Galloway offered for this country a “British democratic revolution”, a completely outmoded concept, linked as it was to a capitalist democratic revolution that had taken place in Britain four centuries previously. At the same time, he attacked those socialists like Militant who led mass movements against capitalism and Thatcher. He cited the Liverpool city councillors who between 1983 and 1987, as we have explained, mobilised in a major battle to defeat the Thatcher government for more resources for the city. Galloway accused them of being “ultra-left”, pursuing “gesture politics” and “not averse to kamikaze acts, such as refusing to set a municipal rate, or otherwise breaking the law”. He specifically referred to the “Militant group of Trotskyist entrists working parasitically within the Labour Party”, and mocked the “starry-eyed, far-out, far-left fantasies of the fanatics”.9 This is straight from the book of Neil Kinnock together with the worst witch-hunters in the Labour Party. Tony Benn never criticised the heroes of the Liverpool struggle in this way.

Galloway also argued that MPs should be paid twice as much as their existing salaries – then £47,000 per year – plus expenses! This was massively more than what ordinary workers received at this stage. He opposed the Socialist Party’s call for all labour movement officials to receive no more than the average wage of a skilled worker. Nevertheless while we sharply disagreed with him on these and other issues, we were still willing to take part in an electoral formation with him and Respect so long as it was based on appealing to broad layers of trade unionists, anti-capitalists and the anti-war movement. Such a movement would need a democratic structure which would allow open and honest discussion and the freedom for the Socialist Party and others to argue for their own programme within the framework of such an organisation.10

Despite his political deficiencies Galloway, standing for Respect in Bethnal Green and Bow, won a high-profile victory in the May 2005 general election. He was to remain a figure on the left but never succeeded in breaking out from a very narrow political approach which could not appeal to the mass of the working class.