A comment on the recent national conference of the Respect Party by Ian Donovan.
This year’s conference of Respect saw the organisation formally change its name from the original ‘Respect – the Unity Coalition’ to the simpler ‘Respect Party’. Unfortunately, it also signalled a significant political shift away from any attempt to unite the working-class left into a broad party. Instead, Respect now stands committed to a political strategy that involves alliances with forces whose commitment to the working class and any meaningful struggle against neo-liberalism is at best questionable.
Respect now sees the Green Party, and the semi-Blairite soft-left in Labour around Jon Cruddas and his Compass group as its allies, not left wing trade unions, or Socialists and Communists outside Labour. Respect’s leaders exhibit public hostility to labour movement initiatives like the ‘No2EU’ platform that was put together by the leadership of the RMT rail union and three socialist organisations for the European elections.
They display even more hostility to the fact that a broader, more overtly socialist, coalition is being put together to fight a significant number of seats in the General Election. Indeed, the logic of this is to also see the remaining hard left in Labour, such as it is, as similarly inimical to the alliances that Galloway, Salma Yaqoob and others want to put together, similarly ‘dogmatic’ and old-fashioned in their view of the working class.
Which Galloway for one now considers to have been ‘unmade’ – a reference to the title of E. P. Thompson’s famous work ‘The Making of the English Working Class’. Thus he writes off the British working class as a force for social change, and furiously denounces those in Respect who disagree.
The shift to the right was capped when George Galloway, replying to those in Respect that wanted to actively participate in building the new broad left coalition being initiated by The Socialist Party, The Communist Party of Britain, the RMT leadership and some prominent union leaders and militant trade unionists, badly stated that he was utterly opposed to any such alliances. Because ‘Communists and Trotskyists’ are an ‘electoral liability’ and a barrier to gaining the votes of many of those people that Respect need to win the elections they have set themselves, according to GG.
Unfortunately, though not surprisingly given that he is Respect’s best-known public figure and sole MP, his views won out in the most crucial vote at the conference, as the conference voted not to hear a resolution that called for positive co-operation with the new coalition.
Though a number of the resolutions actually passed talk in an hypothetical manner about the possibility of co-operation with such a coalition were it to be formed, now that that the coalition has publicly announced its formation the real effect of the vote against the supportive resolution means a public political snub to those involved in the new initiative.
Galloway’s remarks about not involving Respect with ‘Communists and Trotskyists’ is a repudiation of the original vision of Respect. Because Respect, when it was founded in 2004, was an electoral bloc between George Galloway, a Labour MP expelled for his outspoken and meaningful opposition to the Iraq war, the Socialist Workers Party (the largest Trotskyist organisation in Britain) and a whole layer of other people, including Muslim activists who had no problem uniting with Trotskyists.
In fact, much effort was spent by George Galloway and others in the original Respect coalition trying to persuade the Communist Party of Britain to join Respect. This effort failed at the time because the faction within the CPB that is completely committed to a strategy of ‘reclaiming’ the Labour Party was then strong enough to stop the CPB doing so. Things have improved on that front since then, but now George Galloway doesn’t want them anyway. This is a complete about face on left unity, and a major rightward shift.
Galloway, Salma Yaqoob and others among the leadership of Respect justify this refusal to co-operate with the new coalition by pointing to their struggle to preserve the Respect name after the split with the sectarian, bureaucratic leadership of the Socialist Workers Party two years ago. But this is an example of misusing past exploits and victories to justify current misdeeds.
It is rather obvious that if Respect were prepared to take the bull by the horns, to engage positively with the forces comprising the new coalition, then the publicity and momentum this would generate would more than make up for any compromise that might have to be reached about the unified coalition name, how it’s component parts might describe themselves, etc.
The issue of the Respect name is a red herring in this debate – Galloway let the cat out of the bag when he said that Communists and Trotskyists were an electoral liability and that he was opposed point blank to such alliances irrespective of the practicalities.
Underlying this turn to the right is the looming General Election. Respect was set up to offer an alternative to Labour at the electoral level, as part of a project to try to defeat the ‘triangulation’ strategy of New Labour, the arrogant assumption that no matter how much Labour moved to the right, how much it attacked the working class, how much it adopted openly capitalist and anti-union, free market policies usually associated with the Tories, the working class and other oppressed layers had nowhere else to go. The whole point of Respect was to break that down, to offer the working class ‘somewhere else’.
Now this has been abandoned also. The call has gone out from George Galloway to vote for New Labour in the overwhelming majority of seats in the country, save where there is a ‘credible’ left wing candidate – one who has a chance of winning outright in most cases. By this, he means the three Respect candidates – in areas of large Muslim population – and a couple of others including the odd Green candidate, and Dave Nellist in Coventry who as a former Labour/Militant MP is difficult to portray as lacking ‘credibility’.
In this, Galloway is using Dave Nellist in particular as a fig leaf for a rotten policy of support for New Labour in virtually all cases. Dave Nellist is likely to stand as a candidate of the new coalition, but Galloway makes it clear that he considers the coalition not ‘credible’ and is for votes to New Labour against it generally.
Galloway is not completely consistent about this; he has a tendency to see politics as about personalities, and not ideas or the collective action of party memberships, and this foible leads him to do things that sit uneasily with his main political thrust – like campaigning for Tommy Sheridan – who lost his deposit and was beaten by the BNP – in the recent Glasgow North East by-election.
But these are incidental foibles – the main political line is clear – Galloway has now embraced lesser evil-ism in this coming General Election. This despite the fact that there is no real difference of policy on the things that count between New Labour and the Conservatives. On the question of cuts in public spending to pay for bailing out the banks, for instance, both main parties (and the Lib Dems as well) have made it quite clear that there will be a programme of savage cuts after the election. Both parties are firmly committed to the imperialist war in Afghanistan, to maintaining anti-union laws, and to numerous other common reactionary policies.
If anything, Labour is so slavish, and its reactionary and authoritarian instincts so pronounced, that it has allowed the Tories to posture to its left on some issues, notably civil liberties and ID cards. Campaigning to re-elect this government, as well as being a vain endeavour most likely, amounts to, no matter what those doing it may say, an endorsement of, or at the very least, a willingness to overlook, its rotten record and an abandonment of the desperate need for an alternative.
The argument that Labour is still some kind of workers party, that merely by dint of its origins a century ago as a party founded by the trade unions, that is used by some of the more theoretically-minded socialists today who justify refusing to write off Labour completely, is not the decisive issue here.
I consider this position mistaken today – I think that the bourgeois element in New Labour has been strengthened to the point that it has become a cross-class party, not a workers party with merely a pro-capitalist labour bureaucracy at the head of it. Nevertheless this position is not hegemonic on the socialist left and many good socialists do not currently draw that conclusion.
It would be perfectly possible for Respect to back a more general left-wing challenge to Labour, to participate an a joint campaign (even if informal and only appearing in election literature, not on the ballot paper) with the ‘son of No2EU’ coalition and still advocate votes to Labour where no left candidate was able to stand.
But this slavish line of Galloway and others in Respect is not merely a tactical reflection of a belief that there is still some working class element or potential left in Labour. Taken together with the denunciation of ‘communists and Trotskyists’ as a liability, this can only be seen as part of an attempt to ingratiate Respect, and Galloway in particular, hoping to gain some political benefit, perhaps like Ken Livingstone in securing re-admission to Labour at some point.
In a future article, I will try to go into more depth about some of the reasons for this rightward drift, and some of the problems, prefiguring this development, that have emerged in Respect since the split with the SWP. One thing’s for sure. This is a most unwelcome development, a real blow to those who seek to build a broad socialist alternative to New Labour that can develop roots in the working class and re-arm our class with its own independent political expression.