Attitude to the Labour Party and the Left

The IST and Germany in the early 1990s

To many who experienced the past sectarian behaviour of the SWP combined with abstract propaganda – ‘One solution, revolution!’ – the seeming metamorphosis to a ‘broad’ approach in this decade was a revelation. But not for the Socialist Party or the CWI, who had witnessed similar zigzags in Britain and in other countries, even in the 1990s. For instance, in the middle of 1994, the German sister organisation of the SWP, Sozialistischen Arbeitergruppe (Socialist Workers’ Group – SAG) participated in the youth section of the Social Democrats (SPD), the Jusos. According to their members, this abrupt turn was implemented after a direct order from Tony Cliff himself. His German followers closed their paper with a letter from the editor saying it was no longer to be published. There was no explanation of what had happened to their ‘open’ organization, the SAG. They merely announced the start of a new magazine, ‘Sozialismus von unten’ (Socialism from below), which, they claimed, was “politically independent” and not a “party organ”.

The SAG entered the Jusos as individual members and practiced there what the late Ernest Mandel had advocated for the Trotskyist movement in the past, a kind of ‘deep entrism’ into the mass parties of the working class. This meant, in effect, hiding the real programme of Marxism. It resulted sometimes in Trotskyists blocking with left reformists in a semi-permanent or permanent bloc on three or four demands. His followers in Britain pursued something similar in collaboration with the ‘Tribune’ left. In the 1960s, they published a journal ‘The Week’ – somewhat cruelly described by their opponents as ‘The Weak’. None of these efforts met with the kind of success of Militant, which implacably defended a Marxist programme, sometimes against the left.

The SWP tried to hide the fact that it acted collectively within the framework of the Jusos, building a loose network of Jusos activists called ‘Linksruck’ (‘swing to the left’) and published a Jusos magazine of that name. The Jusos at this stage was an active youth organization with several thousand activists, criticizing the SPD leaders from the left. But they had been strongly affected by the shift to the right of the SPD in the previous years. In fact, in Germany, even at that stage, the most radicalized youth would not think of joining the youth organisation of the SPD and no fresh layers moved into this organization.

Their work in Germany in this respect was a caricature of the successful policy of the work within the social democracy that Militant had pursued earlier over a long period. This was at a time, it must be added, when the SWP and its predecessors adopted an ultra-left position towards a mass party, the Labour Party, that was still a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’. Their mantra in Germany was: “If all the left was in the SPD, we could easily change its course.” In contrast to the policy it presently puts forward in Die Linke (Left party) in Germany, it then stated:

“The SPD has two big advantages to the PDS [which subsequently merged with the WASG into Die Linke]. It is not a pure ‘East’ party but a whole German party and it is in the East and the West a political authority for workers. If the SPD were to take the lead of the movement against Kohl instead of tolerating its government, as it has until now, the PDS would have no chance and would vanish soon. Let’s do it.”

It said of the PDS:

“It… drew support from the army of unemployed in the East. There is little support among industrial workers for the PDS and it is fairly committed to the market.”

This is at a time when the PDS was increasing its total share of the vote, a reflection of the revulsion felt at an early stage at the introduction of capitalism into the former East Germany. As the CWI’s German section, the SAV, commented at the time: “Even the capitalist media recognise the significance of the PDS vote but not the ex-SAG.” Currently the SWP’s co-thinkers in Germany sing an entirely different tune towards the PDS/Left party. However, their adaptation to the Jusos and the SPD in the 1990s mirrors their similar opportunist approach towards Die Linke today. Superficially, they gained from the Jusos turn but only at the cost of miseducating their members. Moreover, their evolution in Germany was also in anticipation of how they developed towards ‘alliances’ and co-operation with other groups in the last period.

SWP and the Labour Party

The SWP was extremely muddled on the character of the Labour Party, even when they were formally in the party in the early 1960s. Yet the Labour Party was then essentially what it had always been from its inception, a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’. As we have seen from their characterisation of the 1970s and 1980s as a ‘downturn,’ the SWP believed nothing could be expected from work in the Labour Party in the whole period of the 1970s. Far more ‘fruitful’ was their concentration on students and radicalised middle-class layers. But Militant, through patient, diligent and principled work demonstrated the viability, from a working-class and Marxist point of view, that at its base the Labour Party remained in this period a workers’ party, albeit still dominated by a pro-capitalist leadership. Moreover, events would act to transform the party, thereby creating big opportunities for socialists and Marxists if they knew how to work in this milieu. We built a force that far exceeded anything that the SWP had, then or subsequently, both in numbers but particularly in its political and social weight, which was reflected both within the Labour Party, particularly its youth wing, and also in the unions.

On two occasions in the 1980s, the SWP wrote open letters to Militant – at the height of our influence – requesting discussions with a “view to unity”. We never took up those invitations at that stage because the differences were too great. When the situation changed in the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism, we approached the SWP and many other groups with a view to discussions in order to clarify ideas in the changed situation and the way forward. However, we and others were met with a brick wall; the SWP was bristling with confidence and not a little arrogance, clearly believing they represented the ‘future’ of the left. However, events compelled them ultimately to discuss with others on the left, including us, towards the end of the 1990s.

But this was not undertaken in the spirit of open discussion, debate and trying, while recognising that there were political differences, to arrive at common points of agreement. They were largely concerned on how to enhance their own position. All parties and groups seek to build political support for their ideas. But one of the ways to achieve this is by engaging in discussion and being prepared to take up criticisms and arguments levelled against your policies when the situation requires. The Socialist Party in England and Wales has consistently invited them to debate at our annual event, ‘Socialism’. On two occasions, they did attend in the early days of the Socialist Alliance. But they have never reciprocated by inviting us to speak at their event, ‘Marxism’. Moreover, when we invited them to Socialism recently this was their reply:

“Thank you for your invitation to speak at the Socialism 2006 event in November. I am sorry that we will not be able to attend. In solidarity, Candy Udwin, SWP National Office.”

However, following their recent crisis, the SWP has now expressed an interest in speaking at ‘Socialism 2008’, which we welcome. It remains to be seen, however, whether the SWP leadership has really changed their methods.

Socialist Alliance

From the time that the SWP fully entered the Socialist Alliance in England and Wales in 1999, rather than this leading to a comradely collaborative approach on the part of those involved, a period of intense bickering, not to say bitter conflict, broke out within its ranks. The entire responsibility for this rested on the shoulders of the SWP and their allies – some of them very temporary indeed – whose political and organisational approach was doomed to failure from the outset, as the Socialist Party consistently argued.

Faced with their failure to correctly estimate the character of the 1990s and the adoption of a linear tactic of building through frenetic activity – which inevitably produced a large turnover of members – the SWP engaged with the Socialist Alliance. But this was with a determination to take it over and bludgeon aside by force of numbers all of those who seriously opposed them, particularly the Socialist Party. It was not just ourselves but other independent campaigners who opposed Labour on the electoral front who they tried to dismiss out of hand; for instance, the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation which stood in the 2000 Greater London Assembly Elections.

The same approach was shown by the Hackney Socialist Alliance, at the behest of the SWP, to stand against an anti-cuts candidate supported by 27 Hackney Council shop stewards and convenors in a council by-election in 2001. One of those who supported the SWP’s approach – Mike Marquese – was soon to depart from the Socialist Alliance but supported the SWP here. He justified this stance, as did the SWP: “The Socialist Alliance itself was a much broader forum and a numerically larger base.” Therefore, a group of trade unionists moving against Labour who could with a skilful and friendly approach be drawn into the ranks of a broader alliance were alienated. The SWP also adopted a hostile attitude to the Kidderminster hospital campaign, which made a serious and successful electoral challenge to New Labour despite the political outlook of its leadership. Although not distinctly on the left, this represented a serious break from Labour and opened up the potential for an alternative broad electoral front.

This top-down approach of the SWP leadership, we said at the time, was “repeating the worst mistakes of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party”. The Socialist Alliance was a small force, which in the general election in England averaged only 1.7% of the vote in 92 seats in 2001. This included the very good votes for Dave Nellist in Coventry (7.08%) and Neil Thompson in St Helens, a firefighter-supported candidate, with 6.8%. The Socialist Alliance was therefore a modest force that was electorally striving for credibility and relevance. Yet the SWP were hell-bent on a centralist and exclusive approach, something that even a mass party in its first stages, in Britain in particular, would not adopt.

We gave the example many times of the attitude of Keir Hardie at the founding conference of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, which led to the formation of the Labour Party. He argued what the structure of this new organisation should ensure:

“Each of the affiliated organisations would be left free to select its own candidates without let or hindrance, the one condition being that, when returned to Parliament, the candidate should agree to form one of the Labour Group there, and act in harmony with its decisions. In this way they would avoid the scandal which in the past had pained earnest men on both sides, of seeing trade unionists opposing socialists, and vice versa.” [Max Beer, ‘A History of British Socialism, p328]

Federal approach

This very good advice of Hardie for what was the beginning of a mass force – which the Socialist Alliance was not and could not be at that stage – was just ‘history’ to the SWP. They insisted on a centralised approach more akin to a party, while at the same time arguing against the idea of setting up a party – which they also did in relation to Respect. This was done in order to ensure that the votes of the SWP held sway on crucial issues of policy and organisation. This, as we argued at the time, was a formula, like with the SLP, for another failed attempt to bring the left together in order to prepare the basis for something larger at a later stage. In particular, the SWP wished to impose their election candidates, both SWP members and supporters, particularly aimed to wipe out the Socialist Party, which had built up an electoral position previous to this in Coventry and Lewisham but also elsewhere.

They consciously distorted the Socialist Party’s arguments for an inclusive rather than their exclusive approach. In Socialist Worker, they gave this as an example of “a minority [who] have argued the Socialist Alliance should concentrate on standing single-issue candidates even if it means dropping talk of socialism”. On the contrary, we argued forcefully for the Socialist Alliance to formulate transitional demands linked to the idea of socialist change. But at the same time, it would be possible – and still is – to encompass ‘single-issue’ campaigns who were prepared to stand against New Labour in an electoral front; for instance, on an anti-cuts platform. Gradually, they could then be drawn into the ranks of an alliance and ultimately a party.

In answer to this argument, Dave Nellist wrote a letter to a prominent Socialist Alliance leader at the time – who was also destined to break with the SWP later – who supported their unitary approach:

“The Alliance helped [the former] council workers in Tameside stand candidates two years ago. The SSP [with the SWP having merged with this party in Scotland] has announced it is not standing in a by-election to the Scottish parliament to allow a health campaign space to stand a candidate; I stood aside in Coventry North-West to allow Christine Oddy to stand against Geoffrey Robinson [New Labour MP], which was for the last couple of years our preferred seat in Coventry. Why does Hackney Socialist Alliance feel there is no space that could have been left that would have brought these council workers into a wider orbit (by cross-endorsements of the two campaigns for example)?”

In the 2001 general election, the SWP and their allies were forced to concede that the Socialist Party would stand in seats where we had built up a local base (when they were boycotting standing in elections) long before they had come into the Socialist Alliance orbit. But this was only after a considerable struggle in which some of the allies of the SWP – with their tacit support behind the scenes – tried to ban paper sales of The Socialist in particular during the London Socialist Alliance (LSA) election campaigns. In an echo of the arguments that the right wing attempted to use in the Labour Party against Militant, they tried to impose ‘restrictions’, read ‘bans’, on the sale of papers of left-wing organisations. This was specifically aimed against the Socialist Party: “All participating parties, organisations, groups or individuals have the right to distribute or sell their own material at LSA events but no such activities shall take place while canvassing on behalf of the LSA.” Mike Marquese, then an ally of the SWP, stated: “To be honest, I opposed this practice [selling papers during canvassing and election campaigns] when I was in the Labour Party – though obviously I don’t think you should be expelled for it – and I oppose it in the SAs for the same reason.”

The selling of a socialist newspaper advocating agreed policies of the Socialist Alliance, as well as putting forward our own position, Marquese interpreted as an “abuse and discourtesy towards the punters on the doorstep”. On the contrary, the role of socialist newspapers – of course, on condition that their analysis and programme are clear – in no way undermines the effectiveness of an electoral battle. It combats hostile Tory capitalist propaganda and also allows those voting for a mass party to see the variation of ideas within the party.

At the same time, the SWP went to incredible lengths to prevent our supporters and members from becoming candidates, even where we had established a strong position. For instance, Pete Glover in Bootle has consistently chalked up the best election results of any candidate on Merseyside to the left of Labour. This did not prevent the SWP and their allies from trying to oust him as the candidate in the 2001 general election and replace him with Nigel Flanagan, then a member of the SWP. Subsequently, this individual defected from the SWP and from the left, and now occupies a position as a paid official on the right of Unison.

Socialist Alliance wrecked

At this time, the SWP were coming under attack for their methods outside the Socialist Alliance. For instance, in February 2001, they were compelled to reply to charges in their paper Socialist Worker over a headline: “Are the SWP the vampires?” This accusation was levelled against them by anarchists but the same accusations are often made by genuine activists and unaligned workers coming to the movement for the first time. Of course, the right wing Labourites and trade union leaders invariably invoke the epithet of ‘parasites’ on any movement in which Marxists participate. This is despite the fact that Marxists have often been pioneers, sometimes having joined the movement years, even decades, before those who level this charge. For instance, Tony Blair had only recently joined the Labour Party when he became part of its legal team that persecuted the five members of the Militant Editorial Board and helped to get them expelled in 1983. But it is a fact that the SWP arrogates to itself the predestined right of leading any movement. We totally disagree with arguments of the anarchists who eschew the key role of ‘leadership’ in which they participate. But the accusation against the SWP that it “has a long history of seizing on every new ‘issue’ or movement and trying to dominate it, recruiting who they can and moving on to the next big thing” was undoubtedly a hallmark of the SWP in the 1990s and remains the case today.

Of course Militant built and recruited from movements in which we participated. But this was not and is not our only ‘motivation’. Unless the level of understanding of those who participate in a struggle is raised, confidence instilled in those participating in a campaign, such ‘recruitment’ will be built on sand. Moreover, it should be achieved only on a principled basis. If there is not sufficient political support for your ideas, then you participate as a loyal minority. This approach is entirely foreign to the SWP, as the history of the Socialist Alliance and Respect demonstrates.

The closed character of the Alliance, which became clearer and clearer in the aftermath of the 2001 general election, made it impossible for genuine socialist organisations to continue to participate within it. Contrary to the myth which the SWP and its cohorts have put forward, the Socialist Party did not arbitrarily break from the Socialist Alliance. We were forced out by the decision of the SWP to use its numerical support to impose a ‘centralised’ approach in place of the federal approach which existed, particularly over who would be candidates at local level. Under their proposals, local autonomy completely disappeared. True, a few ‘independents’ would be allowed to stand but this was at the ‘grace and favour’ of the SWP, and not as something that would naturally arise from a federal-type inclusive constitution.

At the same time, the SWP displayed a complete muddle as to what such a force as the Socialist Alliance would represent politically vis-à-vis New Labour. The SWP and many others on the left have maintained that the character of the Labour Party has not undergone a qualitative change. They therefore dispute our claim that the Labour Party has been bourgeoisified and is now a capitalist party. They argue that Blair and Brown are bad, but not ‘fundamentally’ so compared to previous Labour leaders. For them, the continued formal adherence of the trade union apparatus to New Labour is sufficient to underline their position. The fact that the masses have deserted this party – four million less voters than in 1997, an all-time low in Labour Party membership – is an “irrelevance” as far as they are concerned. The statement of Brown that Thatcher’s anti-union laws are untouchable under a “New Labour” government is of little significance to them.

Yet the statement of Brown should be a defining moment, in the trade unions’ relationship with his government and party. New Labour looked with disdain at the trade union link while its coffers were filled by big business. But now, the captains of industry have, in the main, swung over to Cameron with the prospect of a Tory victory in the general election. Brown and Co are therefore more dependent on trade union funding than even in the past, as individual membership has also slumped. Yet his statement embracing Thatcher’s anti-union position “forever” is the equivalent of the Liberal Party supporting the Taff Vale judgement’s attack on the trade unions at the beginning of the twentieth century. This was sufficient to push the trade union leaders at the time to break with the Liberals, albeit in a hesitant fashion, and move to create their own party, the Labour Party. The Labour Party was thus raised on the shoulders of the trade unions at the beginning of the 20th century.

So rotten is the present trade union leadership and apparatus that it is now unlikely that they will repeat this attitude towards New Labour. The Socialist Party has been crystal clear from the early 1990s that a new mass party, the basis for this, should be laid by demanding the complete disaffiliation of the trade unions from the Labour party and the creation of a new mass force. The break of the Fire Brigades’ Union and the RMT, together with the stand of the socialist left in the PCS, underline the correctness of this analysis.

While this was taking place, the SWP was swinging from one contradictory position to another. One of their allies against the Socialist Party, Liz Davies, formerly a leading Labour left, broke from the Socialist Alliance – after we had departed. In her letter of resignation from the Socialist Alliance, she says of the 2002 SWP conference: “In this report, SWP leaders are quoted as arguing that ‘reformists’ should remain inside the Labour Party – quite a different perspective from what was put to me by the same people when they asked me to join in 2000 and 2001”!

This is quite typical of the double bookkeeping of the SWP. Now faced with new developments and disintegration around the Labour Party, it is possible but not certain that they will do a volte-face and, as reality intrudes, ‘agree’ that the Labour Party is now a ‘bourgeois formation’.


Respect was formed by the SWP and its allies together with its main public figure George Galloway but on the basis of the conscious and arbitrary shipwreck of the Socialist Alliance by the SWP itself. No discussion, no democratic debate, merely a ‘pronuciamento’ by the SWP leadership. This confirmed everything we had said when we were compelled earlier to leave the Socialist Alliance. But it nevertheless came as a shock to those who remained after we were forced out.

In the period prior to this, at the height of the antiwar movement in Britain, the Socialist Party, with others, engaged in a discussion with George Galloway on the possibility of forming a new project to the left of Labour. Galloway seemed to be open to this, initiated perhaps through a mass rally in the Albert Hall. He remarked to Peter Taaffe and Dave Nellist in a meeting at Westminster that Militant had organised successful rallies there in the 1980s. But George Galloway subsequently did not implement this. He made serious mistakes in first of all placing exaggerated expectations in 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 their neo-liberal programme, never mind someone like George Galloway. Despite any other drawbacks he may have, he nevertheless courageously opposed New Labour, Blair and Bush, in the US, the latter’s own backyard, on the Iraq war.

Also, instead of utilising the magnificent two million-strong demonstration of 15 February 2003 against the war to call for a mass party – which Dave Nellist and Peter Taaffe urged on him – he, together with the SWP and a few other small groups, launched Respect in January 2004. Even then, we engaged in a discussion over the programme and policies of Respect, with a view to participating if agreement could be arrived at in this venture. But unfortunately, as with the Socialist Alliance, the same approach was adopted, both by the SWP and Galloway – exclusive not inclusive. Moreover, in an attempt to court Muslims in general, their programme made unacceptable concessions to communalism, as well as other deficiencies, which the Socialist Party pointed out. Despite this, if there had been some leeway for participation, with freedom to politically operate within Respect, it may have been possible for the collaboration of the Socialist Party and others to have been obtained. But this was not the case and, instead, Respect was formed on an even narrower basis, from the standpoint of the labour movement and socialism, let alone Marxism, than the SWP-dominated Socialist Alliance.

‘Communalism’ or non-sectarian policies?

From the beginning, it had a pronounced, ‘communalist’ character. In the lexicon of Marxism, this describes parties that base themselves upon one ethnic group, particularly in a multinational/ethnic society or region. London is now 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 situations of racial or national conflict such as in Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka or Pakistan. In all three countries, no other organisation has sought so 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, with George Galloway, the main public figure of Respect, had already moved to a position of uncritical support, not just of ‘oppressed Muslims’ in general, but of 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 had come to power. Initially, the SWP was opposed to any criticism of al-Qaeda, at the time of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. This flowed from the mistaken belief that such organisations and their actions – mass terror, not just against American imperialism but the American people, including the working class – were ‘progressive’. We demonstrated – not ex post facto but at the time – that there was not an ounce of progressiveness in al-Qaeda, with its roots in Wahaabi Islam, which is retrogressive, anti-Shia and politically reactionary, anti-working class in short.

Their attack on the World Trade Center was an example of ‘mass’ terrorism, which Marxists opposed. We counterposed to this the mass mobilisation of the working class and the methods they employ in struggle, strikes, demonstrations and political argument, as a means of defeating capitalism. 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, uncritically, with George Galloway in the formation of Respect, they were compelled to follow his ‘pro-Muslim’ evolution.

How not to overcome the ethnic-religious divide

Galloway was at least explicit in outlining clearly where he stood. In a letter from Respect to constituents for the 2004 European Assembly elections in London, he wrote:

“It is because I have spent my whole political life championing righteous Muslim causes that they want to silence me and I was expelled from the Labour Party. I was one of the pioneers of the pro-Palestinian work in the UK and the driving force behind the twinning of Dundee with Nablus in 1980, which saw the first Palestinian flag from a public building in the western world. I was the organiser of the National Lobby on Kashmir and hold Pakistan’s two highest civil awards; The Hilal-I-Quaid-I-Azam and the Hilal-I-Pakistan for ‘services to the restoration of democracy in Pakistan’ and ‘services to the people of Kashmir’ respectively. And from 1990 until now, I have been in the forefront in the defence of the people of Iraq from the onslaught of sanctions and war. I am currently Vice-President of the Stop the War Coalition which demands an end to the foreign occupations of Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq. Throughout my political life, in parliament and on the streets, I have championed the causes of the Muslims. And now I have to ask you for your help.”

Prior to this, he gave unqualified support to Mohammed Sarwar MP. Because of the reduction in seats in Glasgow, where part of Galloway’s Kelvin seat would merge with Govan, which would have impacted upon Sarwar’s position, Galloway issued the following statement to his constituents:

“I won’t be standing as a candidate in that constituency because to do so would mean that I’d be contesting against Mohammed Sarwar (presently the Govan MP) who, as well as being a close friend, is Britain’s first Muslim MP. I introduced Sarwar to politics and I’m not going to do anything which might result in his removal, particularly if it allowed the SNP to take the seat.”

What is striking about this statement, implicitly endorsed by the SWP because they never criticised it at the time, is the emphasis on Muslims as a community. Mohammed Sarwar, who may be “Britain’s first Muslim MP”, was nevertheless still tied to New Labour. This party and government were and are carrying out the vicious war against predominantly Muslim workers and peasants in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, it is responsible for a real deterioration in living standards and conditions of Muslim workers. 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. This has been the hallmark of ethnically and religious-based parties. In the case of Northern Ireland, ‘nationalist’, parties such as the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), despite the inclusion of ‘social democratic’ in their name, is a religiously-based party. It remains the case even when these parties are tinged with an element of ‘radicalism’. The same applies to Sinn Fein, which was not averse to mentioning occasionally ‘socialism’ (in the past, not today because it has become more and more Blairite) 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. For instance, Respect and the SWP – particularly through the Stop the War Coalition but also with Respect – were delighted when the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) gave selective support to Respect in the 2004 European elections. But in justifying this, MAB stated: “In the five regions where MAB specifically recommended Respect candidates… endorsing the Muslim bloc phenomena.” [MAB Press Release, ‘First Step in the Right Direction, 17 June, 2004.] But the same MAB also backed Ken Livingstone in London and hailed the Liberal Democrat local election gains “in high density Muslim areas”. They claimed this was because of the recommendations to “Muslim community by MAB”. As we commented in the June 2005 edition of Socialism Today:

“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 or Muslims nor aid the development of working-class unity.”

MAB, prior to the 2005 general election, also declared: “MAB urges Muslim voters to assess candidates by considering the main issues which affect Muslims as well as wider society in general and reflects their interests, regardless of party affiliation.” They also declared that, “Results at the urban and constituency level in the European elections show clearly the high potential influence of the Muslim bloc vote in any general elections.” Further: “The Muslim Association of Britain is delighted that a Muslim Lib-Dem candidate has been delivered to the European parliament in the north-west.”

Prior to this, in 2004, leaflets put out by Respect were almost solely on the war (including an eight-page newspaper). One leaflet they were pushing in London was almost exclusively aimed at Muslims. Out of five subheads, one is “Respect – the party for Muslims” and another is “George Galloway – a fighter for Muslims”. Moreover, they emphasise almost exclusively his role fighting for justice for the peoples of Palestine, Iraq, Bangladesh and Pakistan, at the same time emphasising that he was married (at the time) to a Palestinian doctor. He was also teetotal and had “strong religious principles about fighting injustice”.

This is not a generalised defence of all workers – something which should be the approach of all genuine socialists – but solely aimed at Muslims as Muslims, not at Muslim workers as part of a working-class ‘community’. Merely to tag on at the end, as Respect did, demands in relation to housing, education, social services, etc, is not enough, particularly in an ethnically polarised situation and society, which was the case after the attack on the Twin Towers, the Iraq war and Bush and Blair’s infamous ‘war on terror’. While it is absolutely necessary to defend Muslims from racist attacks, this should be done as part of a united campaign of all oppressed working class people, not on the basis of ethnicity but on class. Coventry Socialist Party did this in Dave Nellist’s highly successful council election campaign of 2008. The Merseyside Militants also did this when faced with the opposition of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church – and at one stage, the heads of all religions in Liverpool – in the course of the Liverpool battle, as our comrades have done heroically in Northern Ireland over decades.

History has some answers

A short-term pandering to one section of the population on the basis of the misused concept of ‘community’, without a clearly defined class approach, is to widen the religious-ethnic divide not overcome it. The inevitability of the collapse of Respect was evident to those like us who observed and criticised their narrow appeal to ‘Muslims as Muslims’.

We fundamentally disagreed with the ‘communalist’ implications of their programmatic approach, directed towards Muslims. We were the first in Britain to clearly reject the notion of a programmatic adaptation to Muslims as one unified bloc. Our reasons were that this could be seen, and indeed was in the case of Respect, as ‘communalist’ – a term which the Socialist Party first used – in its approach. We were and are implacable in our defence of Muslims – including middle-class and even bourgeois layers – who have been subjected to racism and repression as a consequence of ‘Islamophobia’, one consequence of Blair and Bush’s ‘war on terror’. But at the same time, the main appeal for any emerging new left, socialist force must be to the working-class base in every ‘ethnic’ community.

The labour movement itself, in places like Liverpool and Glasgow – let alone Northern Ireland, where only the Socialist Party there has taken a consistent non-sectarian, class standpoint – since its emergence was compelled to confront the high priests of all religions, who wished to be the sole ‘shepherds’ of their flocks, not just on spiritual matters but on social issues as well. Through sometimes bitter political and class battles, the working class of all religions and none were persuaded to oppose the religious hierarchy, both at a city and national level, who sought to undermine the ideas of solidarity, class unity, socialism and struggle from penetrating their ranks. Even in the Liverpool struggle between 1983 and 1987, the opponents of Militant in Liverpool (see ‘Liverpool: The City that dared to fight’ and ‘The Rise of Militant) sometimes invoked the figure of the Pope against the Marxist ideas of Militant in the city, with little success, it should be added.

In the past, divisions between Catholics and Protestants were successfully exploited by the approach of the labour movement. As late as 1964 there were six ‘Protestant Party’ councillors in Liverpool, the last joining the Tories in 1974. However, a combination of factors in the post-1945 boom dissipated the poisonous fumes of sectarian hatred. Dispersal of the inner-city population to mixed areas in the suburbs during the boom was one factor. But there was also a growing consciousness that the religious conflicts of the past were secondary to the unity of the working class. When the Liberals in Liverpool stooped into the gutter, seeking to fan the flames of religious division, this was all to no avail; the working class instinctively understood that on the bread-and-butter, class issues they would judge who to support politically not the priests and bishops.

Invariably, in all social struggles, most of the hierarchy of all religions take the side of the rich and powerful at the expense of the interests of the working class and the poor. How to free the working class from the stultifying and harmful effect of religious divisions has been an issue that the labour movement wrestled with throughout the twentieth century and still does today.

The promotion of ‘faith schools’ by the Blair government and now continued by the Brown cabinet can enormously reinforce religious and ethnic divisions. The SWP, along with most of the middle-class left, in the NUT for instance, have gone along with this. Once the inevitable reaction against this widening of divisions in education occurs, they will probably claim they never adhered to this policy in the first place!

Laboratory test

The local government elections of 2008 were a laboratory test for the different methods of the SWP/Respect on the one side, and the Socialist Party on the other. In the St Michael’s Ward in Coventry, Dave Nellist was elected once more as a Socialist Party councillor. But this was in the teeth of an attempt by mosque ‘elders’ – Bangladeshi Muslims in this case – to mobilise Muslims in his ward on a ‘communal’ basis – read religious loyalty first – in support of New Labour. This failed, with many Muslims expressing their anger at the attempt to coral them into supporting a party, New Labour, which nationally and internationally, was against their interests, as shown in the bloody catastrophe of Iraq and the ‘war on terror’. They therefore supported and voted for Dave Nellist in considerable numbers alongside non-Muslims. This resulted in a splendid victory for socialist and class struggle policies and succeeded in raising the political consciousness of all workers, contributing to strengthening the working class in the city.

There were also attempts to ape the methods of the big parties in courting publicity and finance. For instance, one could read on the Respect website in 2004 a report of a fundraising benefit dubbed “An Audience with George Galloway”, which took place in Birmingham. There was also, of course, the unfortunate appearance of Galloway on ‘Big Brother’. George, in his agreement to participate in this ‘reality’ show, seemed to think that ‘all publicity was good publicity’, which may be the case for a pop star, but not for a serious political movement and its representatives. Faced with this clearly embarrassing situation, the solution of the SWP leaders was to remain shtum.

Mark Steel, who had criticised the internal political culture of the SWP, commented on

“the damage caused by this lack of debate, firstly following the extraordinary episode of George Galloway’s nightly exploits on Celebrity Big Brother. Anyone associated with Respect faced a barrage of taunting or abuse from those around them. I don’t know of a single Respect supporter who came through that time unscathed, as many people who were sympathetic to George and the coalition felt let down, and withdrew their support. In those circumstances, you might assume there would be national discussion on how to deal with this, but instead there was none. Indeed, the national secretary of Respect, a leading SWP member, [John Rees] appeared on Newsnight to repeat the somewhat flimsy claim that the Big Brother escapade had been worthwhile because it had earned Respect a good deal of publicity.”

Clearly, Mark Steel, and many others in the ranks of the SWP, some less openly, believed that this bad ‘publicity’ further undermined Respect. Steel goes on to state:

“The irony is that many of the same people who are now angrily reciting the reasons for why we must distance ourselves from George Galloway, were then refusing to allow any discussion on why he should even be questioned.” [Mark Steel, ibid.]

The conflict between the SWP and the unified Respect was rooted in the opportunist character of this alliance, the kind of people it aimed to ‘recruit’ and how Respect was received by the ‘Muslim community’. For instance, the East London Advertiser, the local paper in Tower Hamlets, declared in March 2006, “Respect elder defects to Lib Dems after row”. It reported that a “senior Respect party official” had “defected to the Lib Dems, branding George Galloway a ‘clown’, just a month after praising him as a ‘noble statesman'”. The individual concerned, Doctor Shamsuddin Ahmed, formerly vice-chairman of Respect, left the party “after a row about which ward he could stand in for the Tower Hamlets council elections in May”. He said he was “‘disgusted’ the way Respect was being run by a clique from the Socialist Workers Party, and was now convinced the Lib Dems were the ‘natural party for people from ethnic backgrounds’. Ironically, immediately after Celebrity Big Brother, Dr Ahmed had told the Advertiser: “George Galloway is one of the noblest statesmen today and we have got absolute faith in the decency of the man.” This incident shows the inevitable unprincipled political ‘horse-trading’ – which has been a feature of Respect – that takes place when a party is founded in this way. In Tower Hamlets, since its inception there have been questions of ‘sharing out the spoils’ – council candidates – for a given ‘community’. Naturally, the opportunist Lib Dem group leader, Janet Ludlow, was reported as declaring that they were “considering selecting [the Respect defector] for Whitechapel”.

These kinds of political shenanigans are not, of course, the hallmark of Respect alone. With no fundamental differences between the main parties, political chicanery, switching from one party to another in order to seize the ‘main chance’ and individual advancement is not uncommon. But a new party – particularly a workers’ party – must break with such methods completely. However, even a mass workers’ party, encompassing broad layers, can still attract dubious elements, in its first period in particular. In order to avoid this as far as possible, it is always necessary to have clear class guidelines. MPs and other public representatives should receive no more than the wages of a skilled worker, expenses to be checked and the surplus to be donated to the labour movement. Respect had none of these guidelines.

The Tower Hamlets fiasco was a dress rehearsal for the even more damaging defection from Respect/SWP councillors following the split in 2007. Just one example of the carpetbaggers who hitched their wagons to Respect – when all other options failed – was the example of Shahid Mahmood, Respect candidate for a ward in Calderdale Metropolitan District Council. He had previously been a member of the Labour Party but explained: “I left and joined the Conservative party and after a year I was selected as a candidate for a ward. I came third in 2002.” Asked why he took the strange decision to join the Tory party, he replied: “I just thought I’d join to see how I could get on with them.”

These kind of people are not the bedrocks upon which can be constructed the firm foundations of either Respect or a new mass workers’ party. The SWP have occasionally indignantly ‘refuted’ the ‘communalist’ character of Respect, notably in their ‘internal’ party notes following the 2006 elections. They wrote: “The argument that Respect is a communal organisation is doing the rounds and has been taken up by the likes of Bob Crow.” But Bob Crow showed here a healthy suspicion and was correct in his criticisms of the SWP-dominated Respect.

Socialist Party vindicated

Our analysis and criticisms of Respect have been vindicated. This is why the SWP was so indignant at the time. They wrote: “The Socialist Party put up the following disgraceful statement 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 the cause of great celebration for the left as a whole if it had been achieved on a clear class-based programme but instead, unfortunately, Respect could unconsciously begin the further polarisation based on racial division.

Yet two years later, similar charges against Respect and George Galloway as we made then came from the SWP leadership which condemned us and Bob Crow for our earlier analysis. In 2006 they went on:

“We have to take these arguments up and should not be defensive in the slightest. These people consciously ignore the excellent results of comrades like Jerry Hicks in Bristol… Our candidates are not just Muslims – Oli Rahman, one of councillors, is a PCS activist.”

It is very sad for the SWP that this self-same Jerry Hicks defected to Galloway’s wing of Respect which the SWP now accused of ‘communalism’. Oli Rahman, held up as a militant not so long ago and not just a Muslim, has defected to New Labour!

The attempt of the SWP to present the split in Respect as a “left-right” issue is treated with thinly-disguised derision in labour and socialist circles. There was, as far as we know, a fundamental agreement between the two wings of Respect on its policies and programme. Galloway and his supporters are no more or less ‘communalist’ than they were when the SWP entirely subscribed to their programme. In reality, the split in Respect was at bottom a struggle over organisational methods, particularly over collaboration with other groups, over control of the ‘apparatus’ of Respect and of council candidates.

The SWP attacked Bob Crow on the grounds that ‘Abdul Sheikh, a councillor in Newham, is an ex-shop steward in Ford 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 candidates’ ethnic/religious origin).” We don’t speak for Bob Crow, but the fact that Respect candidates may be shop stewards – and effective in the industrial struggle – and one is an ex-shop steward, is beside the point. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein candidates have sometimes had a history as shop stewards but we judge and criticise them not just on this but because they stood for a sectarian party, Sinn Fein, representing just one section of the ‘community’. This is a decisive question in judging political parties located in or seeking to represent the working class. Moreover, the leadership of the pre-split Respect, led by the SWP, took up an extremely arrogant approach towards any group moving towards independent political representation, and specifically the RMT. They demanded that the union did not contest the 2008 London assembly elections because Respect was standing!

The real reason at bottom for the split in Respect was pointed out once more by Mark Steel:

“This method of dealing with problems also seems to inform our relationships with activists from outside the SWP at national level. Whether in the Socialist Alliance, Stop the War, or Respect, we seem destined to land ourselves in acrimonious disputes. And the growing list of people who’ve selflessly committed themselves to a project alongside us, only to later lament that they feel betrayed and humiliated is one that, shall we say, needs addressing. I even found myself questioned at one point by the Central Committee, because after speaking at a number of Scottish Socialist Party events they considered I had become ‘Too friendly’ with Tommy Sheridan.” [Mark Steel, ibid.]


The SWP’s political opportunism and adaptation to the more difficult political terrain for socialists in the 1990s and early part of this century has been evident also in Scotland. The SWP belatedly joined the Scottish Socialist Party in 2001 two and a half years after it was launched and following the split in the SSP in 2006 joined Solidarity. However, from the beginning their aim was to fashion Solidarity into a “Scottish Respect”

At the first national conference of Solidarity in November 2006, the SWP used the conference to strongly argue against Solidarity being a socialist party. Instead, they advocated that Solidarity should be a “movement of the movements”, a home for those fighting Islamophobia, for the anti-war movement and for those opposing climate change. During the debate on the name of the party, one SWP member said: “Socialism should not be in the name; if we remove it people will join us”. The SWP voted for the name to be ‘Solidarity’, dropping the reference to ‘Scotland’s Socialist Movement’.

The SWP falsely argued that a socialist party would inevitably be narrow and isolated, whereas a movement that was “broad” and which concentrated on Islamophobia and the Iraq war would be far more appealing. The SWP’s arguments found no support outside their ranks. It was members of the International Socialists (CWI) who played the key role in defending the socialist orientation of Solidarity.

The SWP’s Scottish Committee, writing in the SWP’s pre-conference document in December 2007, complained bitterly that “it seemed at first that Tommy Sheridan shared our vision of the new party, would join us in building that new and very different type of organisation. But it became clear very quickly that he in fact backed the CWI in its campaign to control the new organisation and link it to its new project for a New Workers Party.” What they mean by this is the agreement between the CWI, Tommy Sheridan and the vast majority of Solidarity members that what was required was the building of a socialist party that sought to build its forces among the working class in Scotland.

Since then the SWP have played very little role in the building of Solidarity nor for that matter in the Defend Tommy Sheridan campaign, which held a very successful 250 strong rally in June 2008 and has widespread support among the working class and in the trade union movement in Scotland.

Undemocratic internal organisation

The political failings, together with the bureaucratic regime inside the SWP, were graphically underlined by the split that took place in 2007-08. The SWP summarily expelled Kevin Ovenden and Rob Hoveman, long-term members of the SWP, as well as Nick Wrack, who left the Socialist Party in the 1990s. He had been a member of the SWP of only a few years’ standing. They had been critical of the SWP Central Committee’s handling of Respect but had not aired their differences outside the ranks of the SWP until disciplinary action was taken. Nick Wrack had been promoted by Galloway and his supporters as a ‘national organiser’, in opposition to John Rees, the National Secretary of Respect. The SWP came out against one of their own members – Nick Wrack – taking up this position. The fact that Nick Wrack was prepared to do this against the wishes of his own party does not enhance his reputation as one who is prepared to accede to what was presumably the democratic majority in the SWP. Nevertheless, to give him an ultimatum – ‘either withdraw from accepting the post or resign from the SWP’ – is incredible for a ‘revolutionary party’ allegedly based on ‘democratic centralism’.

In contrast, compare how he and his dissident views were handled within the Socialist Party. Nick Wrack played an important role in the ranks of Militant and the Socialist Party but left following differences over the change of our name from ‘Militant Labour’ to the ‘Socialist Party’, which involved questions on the character and tasks of Marxist parties in a new period. He was in a clear minority within our party. We tried to persuade him to maintain a role in the leadership – despite any differences – but he declined to do so. He subsequently left our ranks, but the leadership and member of the Socialist Party at no time threatened him with expulsion because of the different position that he held on an important tactical issue. In the SWP, however, when he refused the order not to take up the position of ‘National Organiser’ of Respect, the SWP leadership summarily expelled him. This points up, once more, the fundamental differences between the Socialist Party and the heritage of Lenin and Trotsky in the Bolsheviks in the handling of internal disputes, and the method of the present SWP. The SWP combines opportunist politics with a bureaucratic method in handling differences and opposition, both within their own ranks and in organisations in which they participate.

The deep well of suspicion – generated by the actions of the SWP – came to the surface following the debacle of Respect. But the signs were there before of general discontent with the methods of the SWP, and not just from the Socialist Party. This surfaced, for instance, in Leeds, in relation to the ‘Leeds Left Alliance’ (LLA). We would not agree with all of the criticisms of the Leeds Left Alliance; for instance, they criticise the SWP because they claim to be “a revolutionary party”. That is their right, as it is with us, the Socialist Party. Moreover, the sweeping condemnation of other organisations made by the LLA which, they allege, try to “take over” existing campaigns has also been used against Militant and the Socialist Party by our opponents, some of them claiming to stand on the left. However, the Socialist Party has had up to now a generally good relationship with the Leeds Left Alliance, partly because we have not used the methods of the SWP and we have sought genuinely to build an open, democratic alliance.

In October 2000, the LLA stated bluntly: “The SWP has a long and consistent history of active hostility to everyone else on the left in British politics. They have a record, repeated over and over again, of going into other campaigns and organisations, taking them over… [They] also have a record of simply attacking other organisations and of setting up rival campaigns to undermine genuine ones.” Unfortunately, this is not just the experience for the Leeds Left Alliance but practically every other genuine organisation of the left, as the history of the Socialist Alliance documented above demonstrates and now, the wreckage of Respect. The above comments of Mark Steel bear out that the Leeds Left Alliance is not alone in its criticisms. The LLA also complained that at the Socialist Alliance conference in Coventry on 30 September 2000, the SWP had enough individual members to field nearly 200 on the floor of the conference. Indeed, nearly 150 new members of the Socialist Alliance were signed up on the door… The SWP now effectively control the Socialist Alliance by dint of simply joining up, and wheeling out, enough members to dominate.”

The SWP cannot be criticised for their size. When Militant was bigger than the SWP, a similar charge was levelled at our door. It is not just a question of the size of a party but what it says and what it does, and how, that counts. When the LLA proposed a mechanism to provide “reassurance” against any prospect of an SWP takeover, their suggestions were rejected. For instance, the Hull Left Alliance, with the original compliance of SWP members there, adopted a constitution where each organisation had no more than one vote. However, the Leeds SWP rejected this, as did the national leadership of their party. Their Hull comrades then fell into line.

The impulsiveness and lack of sensitivity of the SWP is also shown by their clash with the RMT leadership in October 2007. They claimed on the Respect web site that the RMT London region had voted to support Lindsey German, then of Respect and later of the SWP’s wing of Respect, on the ‘Left List’, for Mayor of London. The article also stated that the London Transport Region of the RMT supported her for the Greater London Assembly elections in 2008. Bob Crow, on behalf of the RMT, was forced to send a letter to Respect:

“The report misleadingly gives the impression that RMT members from the London area pledged support for Lindsey German. This is unequivocally not the case. Nor does support for Ms German represent RMT’s official position on candidates for GLA elections, or of mayor… Official support for political organisations or candidates is solely the province of the union’s Council of Executives. It is a matter of deep disquiet that the Respect website contains such misleading statements and references to persons claiming to speak on behalf of RMT’s London area when they have no such authority. This article represents an unwarranted and unwelcome intrusion into this union’s internal political discussions and gives members and the general public the impression that a decision has been taken on the question of support for GLA and mayoral candidates when this is emphatically not the case.”

The cavalier attitude of the SWP – of using individuals as purporting to speak for sections of the union movement – is quite common in the history of their organisation’s involvement with the unions. Under the banner of ‘Respect’ this did not change but if anything was reinforced. This is linked to their approach to the unions.