The crisis in Respect

Issue: 117
Posted: 18 December 07

Chris Harman

Two meetings took place in London on 17 November 2007, in venues about two miles apart. One was the 360-strong annual conference of Respect, which was attended by 270 delegates from 49 local branches and 17 student groups. The other, held in opposition to the conference and under the title “Respect Renewal”, was a rally of 210 people called by MP George Galloway and a number of notables, including some members of the outgoing National Council and some of Respect’s local councillors.1

Such splits are not unknown in the history of the working class movement. The founding of the Second International in 1889 also saw two conferences called in opposition to each other on the same day, in the same city, Paris. One was called by the German Social Democratic Party and the French Marxist party of Paul Lafargue and Jules Guesde, and backed by Frederick Engels, Eleanor Marx and William Morris. The other was called by the French reformist “possibilists” and backed by the British Social Democratic Federation of Henry Hyndman for sectarian reasons. Nonetheless, the divisions in Respect have caused confusion among many on the left in Britain and are, no doubt, leading to just as great bewilderment internationally. This article attempts to locate the politics behind the division and draw out some lessons.

The eruption of the crisis

Respect’s only MP, George Galloway, precipitated the crisis through a series of attacks on the biggest socialist group within the organisation, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). This began with a veiled attack on Respect’s national secretary, John Rees, who is a leading member of the SWP. Galloway also claimed that Respect had wasted resources by sponsoring a 1,000-strong Defend Fighting Unions conference the previous December and by taking part in the Pride London march (one of Europe’s largest LGBT rights festivals) in the summer.

By mid-October 2007 the attacks had escalated into an onslaught against the whole SWP. One document circulated by Galloway and his supporters declared, “Respect is in danger of being completely undermined by the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party.” The SWP were “Leninists”, who were trying to control Respect “by Russian doll methods”, claimed Galloway at a Respect branch committee meeting in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets. Local SWP members Paul McGarr and Aysha Ali were “Russian dolls”, “members of a group that meets in secret, deciding on a democratic centralist line”. Galloway went on to argue, “Paul and Aysha do believe what they are saying,” but, he added, “they would have said it even if they didn’t believe it”.2 This set the tone for a concerted attempt to drive the SWP out of Respect, with Galloway’s supporters unilaterally declaring on 29 October that John Rees was no longer national secretary of Respect and that Lindsey German, the convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, was no longer Respect’s candidate for Mayor of London—despite the fact that a 300-strong members’ meeting in July had selected her. Five days later Galloway’s supporters changed the locks on Respect’s national office, shutting out its full time staff. They announced that they would not recognise Respect’s annual conference and were calling their “Respect Renewal” rally for the same date.

Galloway’s supporters tried to justify their moves by making a whole series of groundless allegations against the SWP. They claimed the SWP was trying to fix the outcome of the Respect conference; it was “blocking delegates” in Birmingham; it was voting for delegates “at completely unrepresentative meetings” in Tower Hamlets; it was dragging out meetings in the hope that other people who opposed it would leave; it was committing the grave sin of urging its members to stand for election as delegates in local branches of Respect; it had made four of the Tower Hamlets councillors “turn their backs on Respect”, and was trying to organise a “coup” against the democratically elected leader of the council group and even “trying to do a deal with the Liberal Democrats”; it was claimed that “a fundamental division had occurred in Respect between the leadership of a very small organisation called the Socialist Workers Party and almost everyone else in the party”.3

The allegations are false, as testified by numerous non-SWP members, including Kumar Murshid, formerly a Labour councillor and adviser to Ken Livingstone, who joined Respect earlier in 2007, and Glyn Robbins, chair of Tower Hamlets Respect. The wording of most of the allegations is remarkably similar to that used by the media against supposed Communists during the Cold War in the 1950s, and by the right in the Labour Party against supposed “Trotskyist infiltrators” in the 1960s and 1980s. The aim was not simply to destroy opposition to a particular direction in which Galloway wanted to pull Respect—a direction that, as we will see, was markedly to the right of the trajectory of Respect when it was launched four years ago. It was also to besmirch the name of the Socialist Workers Party, thereby damaging our capacity to play a part in any united campaign of the left. It was sad to see such methods used by someone like Galloway, who had himself been subject to so much witch-hunting in the past from the media. But, tragically, he was now engaged in what he described to one activist from a Communist background as a “fight against Trotskyism”. No doubt he was more circumspect when recruiting some other people to his side, which includes both Ken Loach and Alan Thornett.4

Some such people were, regrettably, taken in by Galloway’s lies. But serious activists, however much they might disagree with some of the SWP’s politics, know that our members do not behave at all as he purports. Indeed, the SWP has a long record of working over a wide range of issues with people and organisations with different views to our own. Even Peter Hain, now a senior government minister, recalled in a radio programme in October 2007 being able to work with us inside the Anti Nazi League in the late 1970s. He described our party as the dynamic driving force, but said we were able to work with people who were committed to the Labour Party. Today members of the SWP central committee play a leading role in the Stop the War Coalition alongside Labour Party members such as Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn, as well as Andrew Murray, a member of the Communist Party of Britain, and people who belong to no party.

Unity and honest argument

There is a reason we have such a reputation. It is because we follow the method of the united front as developed by Lenin and Leon Trotsky in the early 1920s, and further elaborated by Trotsky when faced with the rise of Nazism in the early 1930s. This method stands in direct opposition to manipulating votes or rigging meetings. It starts with the understanding that exploitation, war and racism hurt working people, whether they believe in the efficacy of reform to change the system or believe, like us, that revolution is the only way to end its barbarity. This has two important consequences:

  1. Fighting back against particular attacks and horrors depends on the widest possible unity. The revolutionary minority cannot by its own efforts build a big enough movement. Revolutionaries must reach out to political forces that agree with them on particular immediate issues, even if they disagree over the long term solution.

  2. By struggling over these issues alongside people who believe in reform, the revolutionary minority can show in practice that its approach is correct, and so win people to its ideas.

It was this understanding that meant that, throughout its history, the Socialist Workers Party and its predecessor, the International Socialists, has worked alongside other organisations and individuals—through the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in the late 1960s, the Anti Nazi League in the late 1970s and the mid-1990s, the Miners Support Committees in 1984-5, and the Stop the War Coalition and Unite Against Fascism today. It was the same approach that led us to initiate a campaign in defence of miners’ leader Arthur Scargill in the early 1990s when he was subject to a vicious, lying witch-hunt by the media and the Labour right wing—and most of the rest of the left failed to stand up for him.

Of course, people have attempted to throw mud at us in the past. But the mud has never stuck because we have no interest in manipulation. We cannot fight back without persuading other forces to struggle alongside us and we cannot win some of those to revolutionary ideas without reasoned argument. Those who have worked in united fronts alongside us know we have always been open about our politics, while simultaneously building unity with those who do not agree with us. To do otherwise would act against both goals of the united front. It would restrict any united front to the minority who are already revolutionaries, making it ineffective. And it would prevent us from being able to show in practice to people who are not revolutionaries that our ideas are better than the various versions of reformism. It would be like cheating at patience.

Anyone with a particular political approach, whether reformist, revolutionary or even anarchist, organises in practice to put across their point of view, even if they sometimes try to deny doing so. And that means getting supporters together, whether formally or informally. Galloway’s supporters in Respect could not have issued a stream of emails with between 12 and 19 signatures, and then called a public rally in opposition to the Respect conference, if they had not organised to do so as “a group that meets in secret”, whether in smoke-filled rooms or through telephone conversations and the internet. As the saying goes, what is sauce for the SWP goose must be sauce for the Galloway gander.5

We have always understood that it is necessary to argue for policies that make united fronts effective. So the founding of the Anti Nazi League (ANL) in 1978 involved arguments against those who did not see confronting the Nazis of the National Front as a central priority. A few of the celebrities who initially supported the ANL when it was organising wonderful anti-Nazi carnivals broke with it when the question arose of stopping the Nazis on the streets. If the SWP had not argued with activists across the country, the ANL would never have been able to inflict a devastating defeat on the National Front.

Much the same applied 23 years later when the Stop the War Coalition was formed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. There had been a highly successful central London meeting, initiated by the SWP and involving others such as George Monbiot, Jeremy Corbyn, Bruce Kent and Tariq Ali. But the first organising meeting after this nearly descended into a disastrous sectarian bun fight as various small groups tried to impose their own particular demands. It was the capacity of the SWP to draw constructive forces together around minimal demands that enabled the coalition to go forward. If some of the sectarian demands had been imposed (such as treating Islamism as if it were as big an enemy as US imperialism) the coalition would have been stillborn. SWP members argued for an approach involving the maximum number of people without diluting in any way its opposition to the war being waged by the US and British governments.

Far from SWP members behaving like “Russian dolls”, our capacity to debate what needed to be done within our organisation and then to win others to it was a precondition for creating one of the most effective campaigns in British history. In a previous incarnation Galloway used to praise the SWP for our capacity to get things done, in particular building the anti-war movement of which he soon became a leading member.

The politics of building Respect

The united front method also underlay our approach to Respect. Back in 2003 the anti-war movement was at its highest point. We had seen up to two million people demonstrate on 15 February 2003, as well as a series of demonstrations all over 300,000 strong. Many activists concluded that a political expression for the movement was required. We shared this general feeling. We also realised that, unless a political focus to the left of Labour was built, disillusion could lead, as it had repeatedly in the 20th century, to an electoral swing to the right—benefiting the Tories and, even worse, Nazi groups. Our duty to the left as a whole was to try to create a credible electoral focus to the left of Labour. We had tried, with only limited success, to achieve this through the Socialist Alliance, which was to a large extent a coalition of existing left organisations (including some that were very sectarian and abstained from the movement against the war). The scale of opposition to the war provided far greater possibilities for building a broad electoral united front.

The left focus would not be a revolutionary one, but would attempt to draw in the diverse forces of the anti-war movement—revolutionaries, of course, but also disillusioned supporters of the Labour left, trade unionists, radical Muslim activists and people from the peace movement. It was a project that only made sense if we could involve large numbers of people who did not agree with us on the question of revolution. To this end, representatives of the SWP leadership were involved in open and frank discussions with various people interested in the same project. Then the expulsion of George Galloway from the Labour Party precipitated the launch of the project. Again we followed a united front approach. We agreed on a minimal set of points, fully compatible with our long term goals, which were also the maximum acceptable to our allies, and to many thousands of people drawn into activity by opposition to the war. Hence the name given to the new organisation—”Respect: The Unity Coalition”. This was not the full blooded socialist position we might ideally have preferred; if it was, it would not have been able to attract all those who wanted some sort of anti-war, anti-racist, anti-neoliberal alternative to New Labour. The initials of Respect summed up the nature of the project—Respect, Equality, Socialism, Peace, Environment, Community and Trade unions—with socialism as one clear point among them.

Once again there was a political fight to get Respect off the ground, and the SWP was essential to this. There was argument inside the SWP, with a few people at a special national party delegate meeting in January 2004 opposing the project or its name. Beyond the SWP there were some on the left who objected to working with Muslims. We had to argue against them, pointing out that Islam, like other religions such as Christianity, has been subject to multiple interpretations—and that the claim that it was innately reactionary was part of the racist ideology being used to justify imperialist wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There were also more principled people in favour of working with Muslims, but worried about working with people from organisations influenced by historically right wing versions of Islamism, such as that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.6 Against these views we argued that some of those influenced by such organisations were being opened up to new vistas by their involvement in the movement against war, as well as the struggle against Islamophobia, alongside socialists, trade unionists and people of other religious beliefs or none. Only the course of the struggle would show whether particular individuals’ horizons had been widened enough for them to be drawn to the left. In any case, as with any united front, what mattered was not chiefly the attitude of the leaders, but whether it was possible to win over their followers, something that would only be discovered in practice.7 This was important, because their following was growing due to the harsh capitalist policies of supposedly secular governments in the Middle East and South Asia on the one hand, and the spread of Islamophobia in Europe on the other.8

We also had to argue with people on the left who objected to working with Galloway, claiming that his past record ruled this out. He had, for instance, never been a member of the Campaign Group of MPs; he refused to accept that Respect MPs should have a salary no greater than the average wage; he had also attacked the SWP in the past, saying at the time of the 1990 poll tax riot that “these lunatics, anarchists and other extremists principally from the Socialist Workers Party were out for a rumble the whole time”.9 But for us, in the summer of 2003, what mattered was not what Galloway might or might not have done in the past, or the level of his salary. The key thing was that he had been expelled from New Labour because he had done more than any other MP to campaign against the war. As such he was a symbol of opposition to New Labour’s involvement in Bush’s war for very large numbers of people who had previously looked to Labour.

Precisely because the SWP was a coherent national organisation, it was able to carry these arguments in a way in which no one else involved in the formation of Respect was. Galloway clearly agreed with this when he enthusiastically agreed to John Rees being nominated as national secretary of Respect, just as Peter Hain and others had once accepted members of the SWP central committee as national organisers of the Anti Nazi League. Hain and Galloway both recognised that a “Leninist” organisation could fight to build unity among people with an array of different political perspectives in a way that a loose group of individuals could not.

We showed our commitment to this over a four-year period. So in the London Assembly and European elections of 2004 we strove to ensure that the Respect lists were much broader than the SWP, even in areas where the SWP members were a large proportion of Respect activists. There were sometimes sharp arguments inside the SWP about making sure non-SWP members were candidates. We recognised this was essential to making Respect into a real “unity coalition”. In line with this approach we worked as hard for George Galloway in the 2004 elections to the European Parliament as we did for Lindsey German, a leading SWP member who stood for the London Assembly. And we worked as hard in parliamentary by_elections that summer for Muslim convert and journalist Yvonne Ridley in Leicester as we did for John Rees in Birmingham.

It was the willingness of SWP members to work in this way that produced the first electoral breakthrough for Respect in Tower Hamlets when local trade unionist Oliur Rahman became a councillor with 31 percent of the vote. Soon afterwards SWP member Paul McGarr beat New Labour when he came second in the mainly white Millwall ward in the borough with 27 percent of the vote. No one mentioned “Russian dolls” back then.

In the 2005 general election the diversity of Respect in the east London boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Newham found expression in the candidates for the parliamentary seats in the boroughs. The four candidates were Lindsey German, George Galloway, Oliur Rahman and Abdul Khaliq Mian. SWP members showed their commitment to Respect as a broad coalition by working for all the candidates, but especially for George Galloway, who was elected as an MP on a Respect ticket. In Birmingham our members worked very hard for Salma Yaqoob.10

The pattern was repeated in the council elections of 2006. We fought for lists of candidates that were mixed in terms of ethnicity, gender and religious beliefs. In Birmingham, Respect stood five candidates—two Muslim women, a Muslim man, a black woman and a female member of the SWP. In Tower Hamlets and Newham, SWP members argued for a mixture of Muslim and non-Muslim candidates in the different wards wherever possible, and others usually accepted our argument. Respect won 26 percent of the vote and three council seats in Newham, 23 percent of the vote and 12 seats in Tower Hamlets and a seat for Salma Yaqoob in Birmingham.

Defending Respect as a project for the left

But, just as with the Anti Nazi League in the late 1970s and Stop the War Coalition in 2001, the very success of Respect led to political arguments—and SWP members had to try to find ways of dealing with them. One argument flowed from the 2006 election results. The successful candidates were all from a Muslim background, despite Respect winning substantial white working class votes (and a mere couple of hundred votes stopped non-Muslim candidates winning in Tower Hamlets). This was used by opponents of Respect to spread the idea that it was a “Muslim party”.11

Another problem flowing from the success of Respect was familiar to people who had been active in the past in the Labour Party, but was completely new to the non-Labour left—opportunist electoral politics began to intrude into Respect.

Problems had already become apparent during Galloway’s successful 2005 election campaign in the Bethnal Green & Bow parliamentary constituency. As John Rees writes, there was “a huge alliance aimed at unseating New Labour’s Oona King”, who was massively unpopular because of her outspoken support for the war on Iraq. But:

Galloway’s uncritical promotion of anyone that might get him more votes pulled around the campaign, and promoted within it, individuals and forces very distant from the left. Labour councillor Gulam Mortuza was feted… Local elder Shamsuddin Ahmed was promoted to vice-chair of Respect for his support. Local millionaire restaurateur and property developer Azmal Hussein became a key figure in Tower Hamlets Respect. Abjol Miah, a young member of the Islamic Forum Europe, was celebrated as “the general” of the campaign. Mohammed Zabadne, a millionaire building contractor, was invited to speak at the victory rally and organised the first victory social a week later.12

Socialists did their best to deal with these unhealthy developments. They struggled against the non-left interlopers. By and large the left won. Mortuza turned against Galloway when the left blocked his bid to become “president” of Tower Hamlets Respect, leaving Respect and returning to Labour. Shamsuddin Ahmed was not selected for the council seat he wanted in 2006, left Respect and stood for the Liberal Democrats. Mohammed Zabadne soon became tired of left wing politics and broke with Respect. The willingness of socialists to argue against those who saw Respect simply as a vehicle for their own political careers was vindicated—but two years later this was used by Galloway to denounce, by implication, the SWP.13

The pressure to shift Respect in a dangerous direction persisted. There is a model of politics increasingly used by the Labour Party in ethnically and religiously mixed inner-city areas—promising favours to people who pose as “community leaders” of particular ethnic or religious groupings if they agree to use their influence to deliver votes. As three local SWP members and Respect activists in Tower Hamlets explain:

The Labour Party held office locally by making deals with, and promises to, key figures in local communities who then delivered “their” votes at election times. Sometimes this was mediated through organisations, religious bodies and individuals which reflected the local population at any time (Jewish, Irish, especially Catholic Irish around the docks, and others). Of course this tradition tended to replace principled politics with, at best, opportunism… With the arrival of Bengalis in east London this old reformist tradition simply adapted itself to the new situation, and has been a central part of Labour’s modus operandi in recent decades.14

This is what is known in US cities as Tammany Hall politics, or “vote bloc” or “communal” politics when practised by the pro_capitalist parties of the Indian subcontinent. It is something the left has always tried to resist. But it was this that began to appear in Respect in Tower Hamlets. There were arguments around this issue in the run-up to the 2006 council elections:

On the selection panel…we were continually being told that “strong” candidates were needed in the most winnable wards. This was a thinly veiled code for selecting Bengali men with a standing in the local area. Of course we recognised that after years of Labour clientalism it was important for the preponderance of candidates in these wards to be ethnic Bengalis. But we also argued that there needed to be a balance across the spread of candidates that reflected all the different elements in Respect’s coalition. In order to have a unanimous recommendation from the selection panel we in fact agreed to allow three male Bengali candidates in some wards (all wards had three seats), at the urging of people such as Azmal Hussain and Abjol Miah. Against considerable opposition we did, however, argue that a Bengali woman should stand in Whitechapel, one of our strongest wards, as should John Rees… Despite all of the compromises we made, when the agreed list was put to a members’ meeting Abjol strongly objected to John’s inclusion in Whitechapel, and although we won the vote we decided to make a tactical retreat from what had been a unanimously agreed position of the selection panel.

It later turned out that two of the Respect councillors selected on this basis did not share the political basis on which Respect had been formed:

One defected to Labour and one resigned. Both felt slighted that their personal ambitions were not being satisfied. Both were Bengali men with some standing in their wards. One was the candidate who replaced John Rees in Whitechapel. Another was, in fact, one of the people hand picked by Abjol and Azmal as the only possible choice in Shadwell.15

Arguments also took place in Birmingham in the run-up to the 2007 council elections. The candidate supported by Salma Yaqoob had been in the Conservative Party until just three months before. He had been planning to stand against Respect as an independent in a neighbouring ward. When SWP member Helen Salmon argued against adopting him as Respect’s candidate, Salma Yaqoob said Helen Salmon “had a problem with Asian candidates”.16 Then came the selection meeting for King’s Heath—an ethnically and religiously mixed ward. Salma Yaqoob had previously suggested that Helen Salmon should be the candidate. But in the week prior to the selection meeting about 50 people were recruited to Respect in the ward (at a time when there were only about 70 paid-up Respect members in the whole of south Birmingham). An Asian Muslim recruitment consultant was put forward as an alternative candidate at the last minute and he was selected by 30 votes to 20. The overall outcome of the argument in Birmingham was a complete change in the character of Respect’s list of candidates in 2007 compared to the list of year before. There was now a slate made up entirely of men from Pakistani backgrounds.

Typical of the reaction of many local people in Birmingham, Muslim as well as Hindu, Sikh, African_Caribbean and white, must have been that of the sister of one Pakistan-born SWP member who said that she had voted Respect previously, but would not do so again because it was a “communalist party”.17 No doubt one of the other parties spread this slander, but events on the ground could be seen as confirming it. Principled socialists had no choice but to argue against such developments. They represented a fundamental shift by sections of Respect away from the minimal agreed principles on which it had been founded—a shift towards putting electability above every other principle, a shift that could only pull Respect to the right. So Socialist Worker ran a short piece criticising what was happening in Birmingham and, a week later, a letter by Salma Yaqoob in response.

Further developments in Tower Hamlets also forced principled socialists to take a stand. In the summer of 2006 another bad Labour Party tradition began to come into Respect—the attempt to influence internal decisions by the use of “pocket members”—members paid for and manipulated by individuals within a party. Former left wing Labour councillor Kumar Murshid has explained how this worked on the ground:

One thing that caused me to move away from Labour was the culture of political division and “pocket members” that took hold in the party. You get one or two people with 50 or 100 pocket members who come into political meetings to decide positions or nominations. They grab power without any support in real terms—and the politics just gets thrown out the window.18

Balwinder Rana argues that the same methods have been used by the Labour Party in Southall, west London: “When an election is coming up, they go door to door, getting membership and paying their membership dues from their own pockets”.19 Now attempts were made to use similar methods at Tower Hamlets Respect members’ meetings. One wealthy member turned up with dozens of membership applications and a wad of money to sign people up at the reduced rate for the unemployed so they could vote at a meeting to decide who would head the Respect group on Tower Hamlets Council.

Arguments also took place within the newly elected Respect group on the council. Four councillors, including Respect’s first elected councillor, trade unionist Oliur Rahman, and its two women councillors, objected to what they saw as right wing positions taken by the majority of the group, and the failure of this majority to use their positions to agitate and campaign for Respect’s positions. None of the objectors were at that point in the SWP, although two soon joined. The issues became sharper late in the summer of 2007 when one of the Respect councillors resigned his seat in Shadwell, triggering a by-election. A Respect selection meeting got heated when a young woman, Sultana Begum, dared to stand against a middle aged man, Harun Miah. The SWP members and the four left wing councillors decided that Sultana Begum had the sort of fighting spirit best suited to represent Respect. Making this choice was one of the alleged “crimes” of the SWP referred to by Galloway—even though SWP members, after losing the vote at the selection meeting, worked flat out to win the seat for Respect, and were even thanked by the successful candidate.

Our real “crime”, it seems, was that we argued our politics openly and vigorously, and refused to be dragooned into being “Russian dolls” for George Galloway’s friends.

The mystery of Galloway’s turn

For some, the mystery in this account may be why Galloway turned so suddenly against the SWP. We can only surmise what his motive might have been. But his record is clear. He behaved marvellously immediately after his election by going to the US Senate and denouncing the war in front of the world’s television cameras. But after that his role rapidly became rather different to that of the “tribune of the oppressed”. There were complaints that he tended to leave much of his constituency work in Tower Hamlets to those whose salaries he paid out of his MP’s allowances.

Then, at the beginning of 2006, he dealt a blow to everyone who was preparing to campaign for Respect in the local elections: he absented himself from politics for weeks to appear in the despicable “reality TV” show Celebrity Big Brother. Every active supporter of Respect was faced at work with taunts from the right and with people on the left saying they would never vote for Respect again. The SWP had to decide how to react to this. The pressure was particularly acute during these weeks because leading Respect members such as Ken Loach and Salma Yaqoob were keen to denounce Galloway. Fortunately, as a “Leninist” organisation of “Russian dolls” we had our annual conference just as Celebrity Big Brother started and were able to agree on a general reaction, which our members then tried to argue. We pointed out that appearing on the TV progamme was stupid and an insult to those who had worked to get him elected, but that it was not in the same league as dropping bombs to kill thousands of people in Iraq and Afghanistan. We defended Galloway at meetings of the Respect leadership, in an article putting the case in Socialist Worker and through statements on television by John Rees and others. We never, of course, got any thanks from Galloway for this.

It is probably fair to say that, had SWP had not defended Galloway during the Big Brother affair, Respect would have disintegrated at that stage. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the Big Brother farce hit our vote that May. Galloway never once acknowledged the damage he did. On the contrary, in the months after the fiasco he began to use his “celebrity” to build a career as a radio talkshow host, interspersed with television appearances and, again insulting to Respect activists, appearing as guest presenter on Big Brother$7_$_s Big Mouth in June 2007. Yet he had the gall just two months later to complain that the SWP was “undermining” Respect. Meanwhile he had achieved the dubious record of being the fifth highest earning MP, after the former ministers William Hague, David Blunkett and Ann Widdecombe, and the Tory columnist and candidate for mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Some tribune of the people!

Despite his increasing preoccupation with his media career throughout most of 2006 and the first half of 2007, Galloway was still capable of letting us have occasional glimpses of his old skills at denouncing imperialism. He remained an asset to the left, even if a diminishing one, and we in the SWP reacted accordingly. We never imagined he would suddenly attack us for resisting those who were pushing sections of Respect in the direction of electoral opportunism. So we continued to try to get him to speak on Respect platforms, even if media commitments limited his availability, and we defended him against a further attempted witch-hunt.

When he suddenly did launch his attack with the document of mid-August, anyone capable of looking a little below the surface could see it was directed against us. The document appeared when New Labour unexpectedly began to hint there might be a general election within four or five weeks. Galloway had said he would not stand for re-election to his seat in Bethnal Green & Bow, but he did show a desire to stand in the other Tower Hamlets constituency. That required him to win votes. So his document was based, in part, on electoral arguments. Respect had done poorly in the Ealing & Southall parliamentary by-election. For those with a modicum of political analysis, this could be explained by the timing (it was called at two and half weeks notice), by the fact that it was in the middle of the short-lived “Brown bounce” as the new prime minister came into office and by our lack of roots in the area. But Galloway contrasted it with the success of Respect in the Shadwell ward by-election in Tower Hamlets, drawing the conclusion that the only way to win seats was to follow the methods which had begun to take root in parts of Birmingham and Tower Hamlets. There was no future in appealing to workers on the basis of class or anti-war arguments (despite the victories of SWP members Michael Lavalette and Ray Holmes in council elections in May) and instead there had to be a shift towards courting “community leaders”. The SWP was resisting such a turn, and so it had to be attacked.

Breaking points

The attack on the SWP was centred on the area where Galloway and his ally Abjol Miah hoped to be Respect parliamentary candidates, Tower Hamlets. There was an explosive meeting in mid-October to elect delegates to the annual conference. The question of “pocket members” raised its head again. Scores of people attended who activists had never seen before. As Kumar Murshid wrote in a letter to one of Galloway’s supporters, Azmal Hussain, who chaired the meeting:

The fact that you and your colleagues mobilised so many members to come to the meeting yesterday was fantastic, except that most everyone I spoke to did not really know why they were there or what they wanted. I put to you that this is precisely the problem when your energies are given to the pursuit of positions and supposed power as opposed to political issues around which we need to define ourselves and our party.

The Respect rules stipulated that nominations for delegates had to be received in advance of the meeting. In all, 46 nominations had been received and there were a number of vacant places. An account by SWP members tells what happened next:

Just before the vote was about to be taken Kevin Ovenden [paid parliamentary assistant to Galloway] brought in a second handwritten list. This list contained names of people who were not fully paid up members of Respect, people who had not been asked if they wished to stand, people identified by only one name and one member of Newham Respect who was proposed from “George’s office”. After the chair, Azmal Hussain, refused to put a compromise proposal to the vote the meeting became chaotic and the chair and a number of others left. Jackie Turner, Tower Hamlets Respect secretary, took over in the chair with the agreement of the meeting and the original nominations were ratified and it was agreed to discuss with the proposers of the second list how the remaining places could be filled.20

George Galloway, who was not at the meeting, put his name to a denunciatory email claiming the SWP had “systematically undermined” the meeting, ignoring democratic procedures so as to take control of the conference delegation.21 When the SWP and the left councillors defended themselves, he accused us of aggression. At the “Russian dolls” meeting two nights later he told some of our members (including his 2005 election agent) to “fuck off”. Some of his supporters made it clear they wanted to drive us out of Respect. They attempted to do so at another Tower Hamlets meeting the following week. But seeing that they did not have a clear majority, Azmal Hussain, in the chair, refused to take any votes against or abstentions on their resolution and then tried to end the meeting when people objected.

One very disturbing feature of this meeting was the attitude of Galloway’s supporters towards women members of Respect. Rania Khan, at 25 the youngest councillor, recalls:

We had about 50 women that night and they had valid membership cards but they were not allowed to take part. It was raining and cold outside and they had small children with them, and someone who was close to the council group leaders said to one of the women queuing up outside, “My wife doesn’t come. Why are you here?”22

This was not the first time such attitudes had been displayed towards Respect members, and particularly young women. Lufta Begum says that Respect council group leader Abjol Miah “shouted at me”.23 Paul McGarr says, “Some of the young Muslim women have been repeatedly insulted and bullied.” He adds that he does not see this as a particular characteristic of Muslim men—it was how women would have been treated by Labour officials in the mining village he grew up in 40 years ago. The point, however, is that the left have always sought to resist such behaviour.

Up to this point the SWP had done its utmost to reach a compromise that would prevent the split in Respect coming out into the open. Our only precondition was that principled socialists had to have the right to argue within Respect’s democratic structures against opportunism and Tammany Hall communalism. But the behaviour of Galloway and his supporters in Tower Hamlets showed that compromise would not work. There was only one possible way of keeping Respect alive in its original form—for the SWP and others on the left to fight flat out. The left councillors were so angry by this point that no one could dissuade them from breaking with the rest of the Respect group on Tower Hamlets council. As Lufta Begum says, “John Rees said to us, don’t resign the whip at present. But we could not endure it any more”.24

Resigning the whip did not, as Galloway’s supporters claimed, mean them leaving Respect. There is a long tradition in British politics of elected representatives losing or rejecting the “whip” (ie the discipline of the parliamentary or council group) of a party without leaving the party itself.

The internal discussion in the SWP

Galloway and his supporters have portrayed the SWP as a closed “Leninist” group in which a small number of people at the centre dictate to the members, who then are frogmarched into manipulating wider meetings. The picture does not correspond to the way the SWP really works. This was shown by the way we reacted to the attacks on us from late August onwards.

Once it became clear just how serious Galloway’s attacks were, we circulated his first document and our reply to our members, and called a meeting for all London members. The meeting was chaired by an experienced member, who had argued for an alternative slate for the central committee to the one proposed by the outgoing leadership at the 2006 party conference. There was open debate, with alternate speeches from those who supported and those who opposed the central committee’s interpretation of events. And there was not the slightest hint of intimidation, with a strict ban on heckling. A series of members’ meetings in each locality followed and then a national delegate meeting. Again those who disagreed with the leadership’s position were able to speak without hindrance—including three non-delegates who were invited as the only observers so they could make their points. At the end of the meeting a vote was taken in support of the leadership’s reply to Galloway’s arguments and it was carried overwhelmingly in a room containing more than 200 people; there were only two “noes” and four abstentions. Arguments on both sides in the debate within the party were then printed in an internal bulletin; all the arguments within Respect were circulated to party members; further local aggregate meetings took place and then another national meeting, attended by about 250 people, which voted with two against and a handful of abstentions to endorse a central committee document.25

One particularly sad thing in this whole sorry saga was the behaviour of three SWP members, who had every right to put their arguments to the party, and had done so at the meeting of London members, in the party’s internal bulletin and at the first national delegate meeting. Two of these members, who had both been in the party for a number of years, had taken employment as Galloway’s assistants. They chose to ignore the overwhelming feeling at the SWP’s national meeting and not only lined up with him, but also helped orchestrate the attacks on the SWP and the left councillors in Tower Hamlets.26 The third, a former member of the Militant organisation, was asked by the central committee not to stand for the position of national organiser of Respect, but insisted on putting himself forward for this job. We had no choice but to part company with the three and terminate their membership of the SWP. The vote at the second national meeting held by the SWP endorsed this decision.

No one reading the account of the succession of meetings and discussions we organised should be able to conclude that our “Leninism” or “Trotskyism” is undemocratic. Thousands of people with a record of activity in the working class, anti-war and anti-racist movements had access to all the different arguments and followed them attentively before coming to a conclusion. They decided overwhelmingly that they would not be “Russian dolls” for Galloway as he tried to turn Respect into a vehicle for furthering the political careers of people who shared few of its original values.

The conclusion of our discussions was that it was necessary to try to continue to build Respect according to the original conception as a left focus reflecting the diversity of the forces involved in the anti_war movement. This could only be done by opposing the attempts by Galloway and his allies to stifle accountability of elected representatives, to prevent Respect members from challenging moves towards opportunism and to drive the biggest group of organised socialists from positions of influence in Respect. To this end, every effort had to be made to ensure that the Respect annual conference took place with delegates elected on a democratic basis. It was while we were deciding on this approach that news came through that Galloway’s supporters were trying to sabotage the conference by calling their own rally on the same day. Galloway’s rally consisted to a very large extent of speeches denouncing the SWP.

Results and prospects

Respect has not been the only attempt to build a left alternative to a rightward moving social democratic party. We have seen similar attempts with the Scottish Socialist Party, P-Sol in Brazil, the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark, the Left Bloc in Portugal, Die Linke in Germany, the efforts to find a single anti-neoliberal candidate for the presidential elections in France in 2007 and the formation of Rifondazione Comunista in Italy. Neither has Respect been the only case in which the project has suddenly been endangered by the behaviour of leading figures.

The Rifondazione leadership in Italy moved very quickly from intransigent opposition to the centre-left to joining a centre_left government implementing the policies it once opposed.27 The majority of the leadership of the Scottish Socialist Party gave evidence in a libel trial against the party’s best-known figure, Tommy Sheridan.28 The Portuguese Left Bloc was thrown into disarray in the autumn of 2007 by the decision of José Sá Fernandes, a left wing independent activist elected to Lisbon council with the Bloc’s support, to make a deal with the Socialist Party. The Red_Green Alliance in Denmark was paralysed in the run-up to the November 2007 elections by a media campaign directed against the organisation’s decision to choose a young Muslim woman as one of its main parliamentary candidates. There are continuing tensions inside the German party Die Linke over the participation of some of its East German members in local government coalitions with the social democrats. The attempt to put forward a single presidential candidate for the anti-neoliberal left in France, backed by nearly half of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), came to nought. The French Communist Party claimed its own candidate represented the movement, while José Bové, himself claiming to be the “unity candidate”, attacked the Communist Party and the LCR, only to agree later to be adviser on “food sovereignty” to the right wing Socialist Party candidate Ségolène Royal.

None of this means that the attempt to create a left focus is in itself misplaced. The meagreness of the reforms offered by Labour and other social democratic parties has created a huge political vacuum to their left, which the forces of the revolutionary left are too weak to fill more than partially by themselves. It is this which creates the need for a gathering of left forces wider than the revolutionary left organised through a united front. But the very thing that makes such political united fronts potentially able to attract wide support—the involvement of well known non_revolutionary political or trade union figures—necessarily means they are unlikely to last indefinitely in the face of changing circumstances without intense arguments breaking out over their direction. Figures who believe in the path of reform rather than revolution can often put up very strong and principled opposition to what a particular government is doing at a particular point in time. But their very commitment to the path of reform means that they can suddenly drop some of their principles in favour of opportunistic attempts to advance within the existing structures of society.

Galloway, for instance, has been open about his commitment to the path of reform. He has said that the Labour government would have been very different “if John Smith were still alive”.29 On television and radio programmes he has often demonstrated a strange faith in the capacity of the police to deal with crime, and has declared his commitment to the unity of the British state, which he sees New Labour as undermining.30

Such views meant that at some point he was likely to be attracted to opportunistic methods that revolutionary socialists would have to resist. The same was true of Bové in France, of Sá Fernandes in Portugal and of Rifondazione’s leader Fausto Bertinotti in Italy. It also cannot be ruled out in the case of the most important West German leader of Die Linke, Oskar Lafontaine. This does not mean it has necessarily been wrong to form a political united front with such figures. However, it requires an awareness that the very success of such a project can embolden reformist as well as revolutionary forces, encouraging them to go off in their own direction and to attack viciously those who resist.

The point was made in this journal three years ago that “electoral splits from an existing mainstream reformist party necessarily involve activists who reject the policies of current governments, but who have not broken with the whole conception of parliamentary socialism”.31 This would inevitably mean that “when the going gets tough there is pressure among activists whose political background has been in mainstream reformism to fall back on the methods of parliamentary alliances”. It was necessary for revolutionaries to go through “the experience of trying to build an alternative with people who are still at least half influenced by reformist ideas—but also do not hide their distinct views and take every opportunity to win people to them through their publications, their meetings and one to one arguments”.

The assumption then was that the “pressure” towards opportunism would arise when there were openings for supposed influence at the governmental level, as with Rifondazione in Italy and previously with the Alliance Party in New Zealand. What was unexpected was the much lower level of temptation required for prominent figures to break with declared principles. The examples of the Scottish Socialist Party, of Buffet and Bové in France, and of Galloway have taught us all a hard lesson.

This does not, however, mean that the method of the political united front is wrong. It is likely to continue to be essential in the period ahead as the way to channel the bitterness against social democrats abandoning the interests of their traditional supporters. But it is necessary always to remember that any particular configuration may be of limited duration, with some forces turning their backs on it even as new ones open up fresh possibilities.

This also means it is wrong to conceive of the left focus taking the form of a “broad party”, united over the whole range of policies, rather than a coming together in a coalition of independent political forces and traditions—some revolutionary, some reformist. There is no way that reformists and revolutionaries can agree on all their political objectives without dishonesty and manipulation on one side or on both. The LCR in France has a different attitude to the role of working class in the struggle to change society to that of Bové or Buffet. George Galloway and the “community leaders” in Tower Hamlets or Birmingham have a quite different attitude to those of us who are consistent revolutionaries. Unity to fight mainstream parties is one thing. An agreed programme on how to change society is another.

These arguments also apply in important forms of day to day activity. In Britain trade union leaders sympathetic to Respect agree with revolutionaries on opposition to anti-union laws, but they may well be opposed to urging particular groups of workers to take unofficial action in defiance of them. In Germany union leaders who support Die Linke have not agreed with the correct decision of some Die Linke branches to back a strike by an independent train drivers’ union.

Where revolutionaries are very few in number, their options for united action may be restricted to working in a much bigger organisation where left reformism predominates, while being able to do little more than make propaganda for their own views within it. But where the revolutionary and reformist forces are more evenly balanced, revolutionaries have a duty to argue and agitate independently, even as they work with others in the political united front. This has one very important practical implication. It means a revolutionary press that does not restrict its arguments to those shared by its reformist allies. Only in this way can it provide a coherent Marxist view of the world and not fudge over what needs to be done in each concrete, immediate struggle.

These lessons are going to continue to be important. The few dozen people who think of themselves as revolutionaries but have joined the Respect Renewal breakaway will learn this lesson the hard way. They will face a choice between having to avoid speaking on a whole range of issues or saying things that upset one or other of its component parts. They will be faced on a daily basis by Galloway, with his disdain for what ordinary supporters think about his media performance and his opinions of issues such as crime, by those Tower Hamlets councillors whose main concern is their own careers, by those who mistakenly believe the only way to win the votes of Muslim workers is to keep quiet in the face of male chauvinist attitudes, and by those who despite their denials have tried to play the communal card in the past and will do so again in future. We can only hope that at some stage principle wins in the battle with opportunism.

Meanwhile, the main body of Respect faces the continued challenge of trying to build a consistent left focus. That will be harder after the breakaway. But wider political developments are likely to offer new opportunities in the medium term. The crisis in Respect arose, in part, because the immense feeling against the war was not matched by a corresponding increase in the level of industrial struggle, allowing union leaders to use their influence to endorse New Labour. And the crisis came to a head in the late summer because the “Brown bounce”, however short-lived, worried those whose only concern was short term electoral success. But New Labour is now facing renewed problems as Gordon Brown reveals his true face, not only through his commitment to Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and threats against Iran, but also through his attempt to hold down public sector wage rises below inflation, and his continuation of Blairite policies in education and the health service. The breakaway of the Galloway group from Respect may have been a blow to the attempt to provide a left focus for those disillusioned by New Labour. But revulsion at Brown’s policies should provide plenty of opportunities to recover from it.


Notes

1: Respect Renewal claim a much higher figure, but 210 was the maximum number of people allowed in their hall under fire regulations, and is confirmed by counting the numbers present in photos posted on websites.

2: Transcript of the emergency meeting of Tower Hamlets Respect branch -committee, Thursday 18 October 2007. From notes taken down by Maggie Falshaw.

3: The first four of these allegations were contained in the stream of emails sent by Galloway’s supporters to Respect members; the last two were in a letter published in the East London Advertiser, signed by the leader of the Tower Hamlets councillors’ group, Abjol Miah, and Galloway’s two full time assistants Kevin Ovenden and Rob Hoveman.

4: Alan Thornett is the leader of the British section of the Fourth International.

5: This is especially so since some of Galloway’s allies in the Islamic Forum of Europe have connections with the Bangladeshi group Jamaat-i-Islami. Founded in pre-Independence India, this group developed as a very tight knit politico-religious organisation in both West and East Pakistan. It was involved in the military suppression of the Bengali liberation movement in 1969, before developing separate Pakistani and Bangladeshi wings, both of which still use force to drive the left from university campuses. Until recently the Bangladeshi Jamaat was in government with the right wing National Party, while the Pakistani Jamaat has been part of the alliance that has governed in coalition with General Musharraf’s supporters in one province.

6: This was, for instance, the position of Tariq Ali and Gilbert Achcar

7: For the general argument, see Harman, 2002.

8: This was the tone of my arguments in fraternal debates with Gilbert Achcar at the SWP’s Marxism festival in July 2005 and at the Historical Materialism conference in December 2006.

9: Quoted in Morley, 2007, p201.

10: For the character of the Respect election campaign, see Taylor, 2005.

11: The interviews in Taylor, 2005, give a very different picture.

12: John Rees, “Respect: Anatomy of a Crisis”, SWP Preconference Bulletin 3 (December 2007).

13: Galloway complained of “tensions” caused at one Respect meeting to select council candidates in his document “The Best of Times, the Worst of Times”, which triggered the crisis.

14: Shaun Doherty, Paul McGarr and John McLoughlin in SWP Preconference Bulletin 2 (November 2007).

15: Shaun Doherty, Paul McGarr and John McLoughlin in SWP Preconference Bulletin 2 (November 2007).

16: Helen Salmon, Pete Jackson and others, SWP Preconference Bulletin 2 (November 2007).

17: Information provided by Talat Ahmed.

18: Interview in Socialist Worker, 17 November 2007.

19: Speech at Respect conference.

20: Shaun Doherty, Paul McGarr and John McLoughlin, SWP Preconference Bulletin 2 (November 2007).

21: Email to members of Tower Hamlets Respect by Azmal Hussain, George Galloway and others, 16 October 2007.

22: Interview with Rania Khan, 17 November 2007.

23: Speech at Respect conference.

24: Speech at Respect conference.

25: This article is based on that document. I have changed some of the wording to make sense to a wider audience than SWP members and I have put in additional -material dealing with events since the meetings. The original document is available on the SWP website: www.swp.org.uk

26: As the bitterness of Galloway’s attacks on the SWP increased we argued that working for him was becoming incompatible with loyalty to other SWP members. They rejected the suggestion and were clearly on Galloway’s side at National Council meetings of Respect and local meetings in Tower Hamlets. Their abandonment of the SWP was proved when they rejected the offer to appeal to the party’s disputes committee against the central committee’s decision to expel them.

27: Trudell, 2007.

28: Gonzalez, 2006.

29: This is what he said on one occasion in the presence of Colin Barker. John Smith was the leader of the Labour Party in the early 1990s after Neil Kinnock and before Tony Blair.

30: Question Time, on BBC 1, 25 October 2007, available on George Galloway’s website.

31: Harman, 2004.


References

Gonzalez, Mike, 2006, “The Split in the Scottish Socialist Party”, International Socialism 112 (autumn 2006), www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=247

Harman, Chris, 2002, The Prophet and the Proletariat, second edition (Bookmarks).

Harman, Chris, 2004, “Spontaneity, Strategy and Politics”, International Socialism 104 (autumn 2004), www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=12

Morley, David, 2007, Gorgeous George: The Life and Adventures of George Galloway (Politico’s).

Taylor, Ian, 2005, “Respect: the View from Below”, International Socialism 108 (autumn 2005), www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=137

Trudell, Megan, 2007, “Rifondazione Votes for War”, International Socialism 113, (winter 2007), www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=284