Editorial: Building on Rochdale – the fight for a new workers’ party

This is the editorial in the newly-published April edition of Socialism Today, issue No.276, the monthly magazine of the Socialist Party. To subscribe to Socialism Today, go to https://socialismtoday.org/subscribe

Photos (House of Commons/CC, Paul Mattsson)

“Beyond alarming” is how Tory prime minister Rishi Sunak declared George Galloway’s victory in the Rochdale by-election, at a specially convened press conference on the steps of Downing Street. Labour leader Keir Starmer appeared equally alarmed as he apologised for having to withdraw support for the Labour candidate in the by-election, giving Galloway an easier path to victory.

Clearly, George Galloway and the Workers’ Party’s campaign in Rochdale succeeded in shaking the establishment. Labour, Tories and the Lib Dems were only able to muster a combined 26.7% of the vote. The by-election was a graphic illustration of bone-deep disillusionment with all the mainstream pro-capitalist parties. Galloway was victorious with almost 40% of the vote, and the second place candidate, with 21%, was an independent campaigning to reopen maternity and A&E services in the town.

As we predicted in our editorial last month, Rochdale also “raised the confidence of all those looking for a working-class socialist alternative to Labour”. Even in the limited time left before the general election there is the potential to take important steps towards creating such an alternative.

The task of developing mass democratic workers’ parties is of crucial importance in this era. It is now more than three decades since the collapse of the Stalinist regimes that existed in Russia and Eastern Europe. These regimes were not genuine socialism, but horrific dictatorships. Nonetheless, they were based on planned economies – albeit grossly distorted – and their demise was an important historical turning point, with serious negative consequences for the working class worldwide. In particular levels of working-class consciousness and organisation were pushed back. Socialism was seen as a thing of the past. In Britain the pro-capitalist Blairites’ transformation of Labour into New Labour meant that, for the first time in more than a century, the working class was left without any kind of mass political platform.

Today the situation is very different in some ways. Capitalism has not delivered the promised prosperity, but instead a relentless squeeze on living standards. Support for socialist ideas, in a broad sense, has re-emerged. The organised working class has re-entered the scene of history in widespread strike action. Nonetheless, it remains without any mass political voice in Britain, as in most countries worldwide. Marxists have a vital role to play in fighting to aid the working class in developing its own party, which is a crucial step towards conquering power. We push for every step, no matter how limited, in that direction.

Next steps needed

Following the defeat of Corbynism within Labour, Sir Keir Starmer has led a remorseless campaign to stamp out even its embers. His refusal to reinstate Diane Abbott as a Labour MP, while using Tory donor Frank Hester’s racism against her as a stick to beat Sunak with, is yet another declaration of his determination not to give a millimetre to the left. Diane Abbott herself has predicted that she will not be reinstated because her “attacks on the leadership have if anything intensified”. Unless they are willing to accept being silenced, it is clear that suspended and de-selected Labour lefts, including Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn, should contest the general election independently. Along with other candidates from the workers’ movement they could form a bloc of MPs in the next parliament, which – as inevitable disillusionment with Starmer’s pro-capitalist government grows – could help lay the basis for the development of a mass workers’ party.

George Galloway and the Workers’ Party have already played a positive role in this process by giving a glimpse of what is possible for the left in elections. What role they play going forward has yet to be determined. Galloway himself has a chequered history in the workers’ movement, to put it mildly. On the one hand he is still, almost two decades later, respected by many for his trenchant opposition to the Iraq war. His attacks on all the establishment politicians, describing Sunak’s Tories and Starmer’s Labour as “two cheeks of the same arse”, strike a widespread chord, as does his call for “a new working-class politics”.

Seeing him in his first week in parliament sitting next to Jeremy Corbyn, and very effectively opposing Communities Secretary Michael Gove’s new definition of extremism, is a reminder of why he is widely seen as being prepared to forcefully speak truth to power. In the speech Galloway simply points out that while he and Jeremy were considered extremist in the 1980s for campaigning against apartheid in South Africa, a previous Speaker of “this hallowed house” (John Bercow) was not, despite wearing a ‘Hang Nelson Mandela’ t-shirt at that time. Sometimes, George concludes, “the extremists are right”. Nonetheless, however effective, a spokesperson in parliament is not, by themselves, a vehicle for working-class political representation.

And not all socialist workers and young people would see George Galloway as their spokesperson, as a result of the mistaken positions he has taken on various issues. For example, he and the Workers’ Party oppose Scottish independence and, more seriously, have previously crossed class lines to do so. Our co-thinkers in Scotland call for a socialist independent Scotland, reflecting the support for independence among wide sections of the working class in Scotland. Nonetheless, we recognise that a party can support the right of self-determination without calling for independence. This was not the stance of Galloway and the Workers’ Party, however, when in 2021 they made tactical voting recommendations for ten Scottish Tory Party constituency candidates, backing representatives of the historic party of British imperialism on the grounds of ‘defending the union’.

Existing disquiet at Galloway’s approach on other issues was strengthened when, after the Rochdale by-election, letters his campaign had sent to voters emerged in the national press. One, with its attempt to appeal to anti-trans prejudices, was an unedifying example of his social conservatism, which deepens divisions rather than striving to unite the working class around a common programme. Giving even an iota of legitimacy to any capitalist division can contribute to, not combat, discrimination and all the suffering that flows from that. His letter to “voters of the Muslim faith”, with its declaration that Labour has “betrayed Muslims” whereas Galloway has “fought for Muslims at home and abroad” all his life, also contains dangers, which – if continued – could lead to a repetition of the failure of Respect, the party led by George and formed in 2004, following the invasion of Iraq, which was finally wound up in 2016.

Lessons of Respect

Galloway was twice elected as an MP for Respect, first in 2005 in the Bethnal Green and Bow seat in Tower Hamlets and then again in Bradford West in 2012. However, on neither occasion was he able to consolidate a base or build a stable organisation. Early gains – 12 councillors in Tower Hamlets and five in Bradford – evaporated. The initial victories were based primarily on Muslim voters who had broken with New Labour over the government’s warmongering in Iraq. This was potentially a huge step forward, but for it to have been consolidated would have required Respect acting as a bridge to draw angry Muslim workers towards seeing their common interests with other sections of the working class. On that basis Respect could have sped up the development of a mass democratic workers’ party. However, instead, Respect, initially led by an alliance of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and George Galloway, tended to increase divisions. From the beginning it proclaimed itself in election leaflets as the ‘party for Muslims’.

Respect only ever had limited active participation. Later Galloway admitted that “we were never that big actually… at our height, we probably had three to four thousand members” (The Guardian, 30 April, 2012), but it insisted on claiming that it was the finished product; “the alternative” to New Labour. It sought the support of individual trade union leaders, but its top-down structure had no room for trade unions to influence, never mind have a decisive say in, decisions of the party. Yet this was a period of history when sections of the trade movement, particularly the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union (RMT) were breaking with New Labour and starting to enter the political field independently.

Where we are today

There are a host of similarities with the situation we face today; both the opportunities – greater today than twenty years ago – and the dangers. Starmer’s support for the Israeli state’s onslaught on Gaza has again driven many Muslim voters to break with Labour, this time even before it is in government. Coming on top of Blair’s crimes in office, plus the experience of Labour councils implementing austerity over recent decades, Muslim voters’ anger at Labour is the deepest it has ever been. No serious socialist force can stand aside from this process.

The Muslim Vote campaign, supported by the Muslim Association of Britain and other Muslim organisations, has been launched to try and change the outcome of the general election by Muslims acting “in unison” at the ballot box. This is not a new idea. In 2004 the Muslim Association of Britain did something similar, recommending support for various candidates, including Respect but also Liberal Democrats, wrongly believing that the latter was an anti-war party. Subsequent events, with the pro-capitalist Liberal Democrats joining a coalition with the Tories, shows that backing one capitalist party over another does not offer a way forward.

This time around, the Muslim Vote campaign has not yet said which candidates it will support. But of the 92 seats where it calculates the Muslim vote is more than ten percent of the electorate, there are only a maximum of eight Labour candidates who, as part of the Socialist Campaign Group, might be hoped to defend both the interests of the Palestinians and oppressed worldwide, and the interests of working-class Muslims in Britain. Such left Labour MPs are going to make up a tiny handful of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and will have no influence on Starmer’s pro-capitalist warmongering Labour government, if they remain within the confines of a re-Blairised Labour Party. To really strengthen the bloc of MPs in the next parliament who are opposing the onslaught on Gaza and fighting for the interests of working-class Muslims requires backing candidates outside of the establishment parties, as was done by voters in Rochdale.

However, there are only five (out of 650) constituencies in the UK where Muslims make up 40% or more of the electorate. Clearly, even from a purely practical point of view, it is necessary to stand candidates fighting on a programme to appeal to working-class people from every background, rather than on the basis of their religion. Of course, such candidates would not win the support of every Muslim voter – class divisions exist within the Muslim population too. More than half of Muslims live in the 10% most deprived areas – and could be enthused by a programme that was ‘for the many not the few’ – but no doubt some of the 6.3% of Muslims in the ‘A’ socio-economic group might decide to put their class interests before their desire to oppose the war on Gaza at the ballot box.

By taking a clear class approach George Galloway and the Workers’ Party could play a positive part in the fight for an independent working-class political voice, not least among Muslim voters. However, the experience of Respect, and of the decades since, drive home that a new mass party of the working class will never be created by any leader or organisation declaring that it is ‘the solution’. Instead we need the maximum possible principled cooperation between existing organisations, encouraging every real step towards independent working-class political representation. Such an approach offers a way to maximise unity between different sections of the working class moving into struggle: whether via strike action, anti-war movements, climate activism or other means. There is a comparison to be made with the early Labour Party, which until 1918 was a federation – ‘an umbrella’ – of different trade union and socialist organisations, and continued to have strong federal elements beyond then.

This is the approach that has been taken by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), of which the Socialist Party was a founder organisation, alongside the then RMT general secretary Bob Crow. TUSC offers an electoral platform for all forces in the workers’ movement who are prepared to sign up to its minimum anti-austerity pro-working class policies. The Workers’ Party sits on the TUSC steering committee as observers and TUSC has proposed to them combining the strength of the different forces involved for the general election – via registering a ‘joint description’ with the Electoral Commission – to try and ensure that the ‘fair media coverage threshold’ is reached to maximise the impact of workers’ candidates in the election campaign. TUSC has a ‘united front’-type approach, marching separately and debating our differences as forcefully as needed. But striking together under the same banner at the ballot box, the task of the day as an historic general election looms.