Thursday, 20 September 2007

RESPECT: Debate between Galloway and SWP leadership

The Respect coalition in Britain has gained a lot of attention from socialists and leftists worldwide since it was launched in 2004. It's an example of a broad left strategy that's been pursued by socialists in a number of countries.

The driving force in the formation of Respect was the British Socialist Worker Party (SWP). They've described the Respect model as a "united front of a new type".

Any new initiative that seeks to relate to the broad movement is going to come up against a range of organisational and tactical challenges in the real world of practical politics. After some early successes it appears that Respect has run into some difficulties. This has led to a public disagreement between George Galloway, former New Labour MP and now Respect MP for Bethnal Green & Bow, and leaders of the SWP.

Included below is the recent statement by George Galloway, followed by a reply from the SWP's central committee.

We're publishing both on our UNITYblog because of the important issues that Socialist Worker-New Zealand sees contained within both these statements.

After the upcoming local body elections in New Zealand, we will work on a statement on the broad left strategy, which will generalise from our initiatives and experiences, as well as looking at other organisations and strategies internationally.


Statement on Respect by George Galloway


The Shadwell by-election victory has stunned the New Labour establishment, turned the tide in Tower Hamlets and opened up the real possibility of winning two parliamentary seats in East London which, together with the potential gain in Birmingham, would make us the most successful left-wing party in British history.

New Labour’s decision to try to rehabilitate Michael Keith – the former leader of Tower Hamlets council who we first defeated last year – raised the stakes in this election enormously. A victory for him in a ward where we had all three councillors would have thrown us into a grave crisis. Instead, it is Labour that is suffering shattering demoralisation and we are enjoying a post-Shadwell bounce.

Ealing Southall, on the other hand, just a few weeks before, marked the lowest point in Respect’s three-year history. The failure to harvest even the vote we had secured in just one ward of the constituency in the local elections 12 months earlier was a sharp reminder that what goes up can come down and should shatter any complacency about the London elections next May.

It is clear to everyone, if we are honest, that Respect is not punching its weight in British politics and has not fulfilled its potential either in terms of votes consistently gained, members recruited or fighting funds raised. The primary reasons for this are not objective circumstances, but internal problems of our own making.

The conditions for Respect to grow strongly obtain in just the same way as they did when we first launched the organisation and had our historic breakthrough in 2005. Anyone who was at the 1000-strong street celebration after the victory in Shadwell will attest that the idea of Respect remains very much alive and, as Jim Fitzpatrick MP said in Tribune, it’s clear that ‘the Iraq war hasn’t gone away’.

Michael Lavalette’s advancing position in Preston shows what can be done with imaginative and dedicated work. In Bristol, around Jerry Hicks, and in Sheffield around Maxine Bowler, we have placed ourselves in pole position to enter the council chamber. But to achieve that we must recognise our serious internal weaknesses which are becoming more apparent and which threaten to derail the whole project.

Membership

Despite being a rather well known political brand our membership has not grown. And in some areas it has gone into a steep decline. Whole areas of the country are effectively moribund as far as Respect activity is concerned. In some weeks there is not a single Respect activity anywhere in the country advertised in our media. No systematic effort has been able to be mounted - in fact, a major effort had to be launched to get back to the levels of membership we had, despite electoral successes, widespread publicity and the continuing absence of any serious rival on the left. This has left a small core of activists to shoulder burden after burden without much in the way of support from the centre, leading to exhaustion and enervation.

Fundraising

This is all but non-existent. We have stumbled from one financial crisis to another. And with the prospect of an early general election we are simply unable to challenge the major parties in our key constituencies. None of the Respect staff appears to have been tasked with either membership or fundraising responsibilities. Or if they have it isn’t working. There is a deep-seated culture of amateurism and irresponsibility on the question of money. Activities are not properly budgeted and even where budgets are set they are not adhered to. Take, for example, the Fighting Unions Conference which was full to the rafters but still managed to lose £5000. The intervention at Pride, where we gave away merchandise rather than sold it, lost £2000.

It is a moot point whether the turn to building Fighting Unions which occupied the National Office for four months was the correct prioritisation of slender resources, following our breakthroughs at the local elections last year. What is not moot is that mismanagement turned an event which ought to have been a money-spinner into a money-loser.

Equally the Pride intervention, which occupied a great deal of the organisation’s time (I personally was telephoned three times to be asked if I would make it, and others report similar pressure) can be compared to the total lack of a presence at the Barking Mela last weekend - the biggest in Europe - or the minimal campaigning presence at the recent London Latin American festival. Again, while it is arguable that Pride was the priority, what is not arguable is that fundraising at it should have been included in the plan.

Further, what ought to have been the unalloyed success of the Pride intervention was seriously marred. Instead of a simple encouragement for members to attend – with a logical emphasis on LGBT members and young people – several members in elected office were subjected to a high-handed “instruction” from the national office to take part. It appeared to them to be some kind of misplaced test of their commitment to the equality programme of the organisation. This is frankly absurd. There are LGBT people who don’t feel comfortable being on a float on a parade. It would be a serious mistake to read off someone’s commitment to equality from their willingness to be dancing on the back of a truck on the Pride parade.

Having done that and spent £2,000 there was no effort to publicise our intervention externally by ensuring that all the relevant media and organisations were made aware that we were the only political party to have a float on the parade.

Staffing

This is a mystery to me and others. People pop up as staff members in jobs which have not been advertised, for which there have been no interviews and whose job descriptions are unclear and certainly unpublished. One staff member was appointed at a meeting at which that same staff member was present, making it obviously embarrassing for anyone to query whether they were the right person for the job, whether they could be afforded or why the job should go to them rather than someone else. This unnecessarily poor management leads to tensions, even animosity and the suspicion that staff are recruited for their political opinions on internal matters rather than on a proper basis. Sometimes the conduct of some staff buttresses this suspicion. For example, at the selection meeting for our Shadwell candidate two members of staff were openly proselytising for one candidate and against another - including heckling - and even after the decision had been taken. This undoubtedly contributed to the exceedingly poor involvement of the wider membership in the subsequent election. No paid member of staff attended the Shadwell victory celebrations and when I asked one of them if they would be attending I was told ‘no, I will be watching the football’. This was noticed widely by the activists who were present at the celebration and commented upon. It is again bad management to allow such culture and practices to proliferate.

Internal relations

There is a custom of anathematisation in the organisation which is deeply unhealthy and has been the ruin of many a left-wing group before us. This began with Salma Yaqoob, once one of our star turns, promoted on virtually every platform, and who is responsible for some of the greatest election victories (and near misses) during our era. Now she has been airbrushed from our history at just the time when she is becoming a regular feature on the national media and her impact on the politics of Britain’s second city has never been higher.

There appears to be no plan to rescue her from this perdition, indeed every sign that her internal exile is a fixture. This is intolerable and must end now. Whatever personal differences may exist between leading members the rest of us cannot allow Respect to be hobbled in this way. We are not over-endowed with national figures.

Decision making and implementation

There is a marked tendency for decisions made at the national council or avenues signposted for exploration to be left to wither on the vine if they are not deemed to meet priorities (which themselves are not agreed). For example, there was a very useful discussion at the last national council on what initiatives we should explore following Brown’s succession and the then anticipated failure of the McDonnell campaign to get out of the starting gate. Among the varied suggestions were seeking to cohere wider progressive opinion around a minimal five point programme; approaching McDonnell to organise an open meeting in Parliament; seeking a joint conference with the RMT, CPB, Labour left and others; and organising a people’s march to London as an agitational vehicle for rallying forces and struggles against the Brown government. None of these have been seriously followed up. The overall emphasis – that the departure of Blair and the failure of the Labour left’s strategy opened up possibilities for us both to build Respect directly and to place it at the centre of a progressive realignment – was allowed to run into the ground.

Building the organisation

We must be much more systematic in building Respect’s profile in the wider arenas our members are active in. There is no question that struggles such as Stop the War, Defend Council Housing, anti-racist campaigns, activity around trade union disputes and so on are the lifeblood of a progressive political force such as ourselves. But the great lesson of the Stop the War movement in 2003 was that these movements do not automatically give rise to a force that can punch through on the political scene. That requires – as it did when we founded Respect – patient, detailed work and single-mindedness about ensuring that Respect grows out of the wider radical milieu.

Two of our outstanding members are at the helm of Defend Council Housing; many of our members are active in it in their localities. Yet as an organisation we have done far too little to raise the Respect banner inside the campaign and, to put it bluntly, cash in on the work our activists have put in and the turmoil the campaign has caused among disaffected Labour councillors and Labour-supporting tenants and trade unionists.

At the successful Stop the War demonstration outside the Labour Party conference in Manchester in September last year the nationally produced propaganda was for the Fighting Unions conference. It was thanks only to the Manchester comrades that we had a tabloid promoting Respect as a political formation. It was again thanks to the Manchester comrades that we had such a publication for the protest outside Brown’s coronation.

In every area of activity we need to encourage in our members a focus on recruitment, fundraising, establishing the profile of our candidates and unashamedly promoting Respect as the critical force in the wider reconstitution of the progressive and socialist movement.

Internal selections

Then there is the practice of the creation of false dichotomies between candidates for internal elections. Neither Oliur Rahman nor Abjul Miah nor Haroon Miah is Karl Liebknecht. And Sultana Begum is not Rosa Luxemburg. Yet in internal election contests these four contested in Tower Hamlets the divisions between them were deliberately and artificially exaggerated and members mobilised about “principles” which never were. This has led to deep and lasting divisions which show no signs of healing in the current atmosphere. So we must make a new atmosphere. If we are to rally to win the prize of a seat on the GLA, and three members of parliament, we must start right now.

Relations between leading figures in Respect are at an all-time low and this must be addressed. I have proposals to make which are not aimed at a change of political line, still less an attack on any organisation or section within Respect. They are aimed at placing us on an election war-footing, closing the chasm which has been caused to develop between leading members, together with an emergency fundraising and membership drive to facilitate our forthcoming electoral challenges. Business as usual will not do and everyone in their heart knows this.

The crossroads at which we now stand can take us either down the Shadwell route or the road to Southall. Instead of three MPs and a presence on the GLA we could have no MPs and no one on the GLA by this time next year. A few honest moments thoughts should suffice to calibrate where that would leave us. Oblivion.

I cannot imagine that any member of the National Council wants to see us arrive at the destination where now lies the wreck of left-wing politics in Scotland and so I hope that these proposals will be considered with the best interests of the Respect project uppermost in our minds.

A way forward

It is abundantly clear for a variety of reasons that the leadership team must be strengthened and all talents mustered. I therefore propose the creation of a new high-powered elections committee whose task would be to rapidly evaluate our election strengths and weaknesses, proposed target seats, supervise the selection of candidates - national and local - and to spearhead a national membership and fundraising drive. This committee must comprise the leading members of Respect, including Salma, Linda Smith, Yvonne Ridley, Abjol Miah (as the leader of our 11 councillors in the central election battleground of Tower Hamlets), me, Lindsey German, Alan Thornett, Nick Wrack as well as the National Secretary.

I also propose a crucial new post of National Organiser, preferably full-time, whose task would be the aforementioned re-organisation and re-energising of the key clusters of Respect support and the encouragement of members everywhere. This position would sit alongside the position of National Secretary. It must be advertised and subject to competitive interview overseen by the elections committee.

While this document may seem stark in black and white it reflects a widespread feeling which has surfaced in various ways - including at the National Council - and it is clear that the status quo, or minor tinkering, are not options. Time is short, renovation is urgently required and we must start the process now.

George Galloway MP


The Debate in Respect: The SWP Response

The SWP is deeply committed to the Respect project. If a snap general election was called next month we would throw our all into campaigning to secure the election of every and all Respect candidates. We will be working to build up our campaigns for next years GLA and local elections.

We share a sense of pride, along with all those in Respect's ranks, to have one of the youngest councillors in Britain, a Bengali woman, and a pensioner representing a Derbyshire council seat whose name resonates with a history of working class struggle.

So it is with a deep sense of regret that we have to address differences which have emerged between the way George Galloway sees Respect developing and the way we see it, following the sending of a document by George to members of Respect's National Council.

The enemies of Respect have, unfortunately seized on this, with the 'East London Advertiser' reporting this as an attack on the SWP claiming: 'He [George Galloway] is believed to want to move Respect away from the Socialist Workers Party groupings that have been upsetting Muslim supporters who he needs in order to maintain his Westminster career.' George has since then issued a rebuttal saying his document is not "an attack on any organisation or section within Respect".

Regarding the three points with which George concludes his document – the strengthening of the Respect national office by the appointment of a national organiser, the creation of an elections committee and an end to the supposed 'anathematisation' of Salma Yaqoob - we hope that it will be possible to come to agreement around the three proposals raised by George and have made it clear we are happy to discuss these. But, tragically, the argument has been pushed beyond that and beyond this simply being a discussion of how to improve and strengthen Respect.

A Record of Success

The success that followed the launch of Respect was staggering. In the June 2004 GLA and European elections George Galloway got 91,175 votes for the European Parliament in London while the Respect list polled 87,533 in the Greater London Assembly (which meant Lindsey German came just short of the 5% needed to win a seat) while Respect got 20% of the vote in East London in the GLA elections. In Birmingham Respect averaged 7.4% and in Leicester 10% in the Euro elections.

In the June 2004 Leicester South and Birmingham Hodge Hill parliamentary by-elections Respect candidates Yvonne Ridley and John Rees polled 12.4% and 6.4% respectively.

In Tower Hamlets Oliur Rahman won our first council seat in August 2004 and a month later Paul McGarr polled 635 votes in Tower Hamlets Millwall ward, coming second behind the Tory winner who gained 828 votes, and pushing New Labour into third place.

Then in the 2005 general election not only did George Galloway secure a truly historic victory in Bethnal Green and Bow but it was accompanied by strong votes in Birmingham Sparkbrook, both Newham seats and in Canning Town and Poplar.

In May last year success followed with councillors elected in Tower Hamlets, where we are the second biggest party, Newham and Birmingham. That was followed this year with Michael Lavalette storming home to win an overall majority in his ward, another councillor elected in Birmingham to join Salma Yaqoob and Ray Holmes winning Shirebrook North West on Bolsover council. Significant advances were made elsewhere, from Bristol to Cambridge to Sheffield.

Then in August a tremendous effort ensured we held the Shadwell council seat in a by-election caused by the defection of one our councillors to New Labour. That made up for much of the disappointment of the Southall parliamentary by-election where the established parties squeezed us in a snap poll following Gordon Brown's anointment as Labour leader.

The Nature of Respect

Respect was conceived as a pluralistic coalition and therefore has always been based on compromises among its main constituent parts. The SWP has made plenty of compromises and is ready to make more in the future. But we fear that what is being demanded of us now would amount to the subordination of socialist left within Respect and would therefore drastically undermine Respect's nature as a genuine coalition.

Respect grew from the coalition of forces at the centre of the great anti-war movement, which organised Britain's biggest ever demonstration against the invasion of Iraq - and so much more. Naturally not everyone in the Stop the War Coalition was prepared to take the step of joining the new coalition but many of the leading figures in the movement did take that step.

Unfortunately Labour has not suffered the kind of mass defection which took place in Germany with trade union leaders and prominent members of the SPD breaking away to create the new Left Party. Rather New Labour has seen a haemorrhaging of its membership and support with people leaving individually.

Respect was thrown out of balance from the start by the failure of other leading figures on the Labour left to take the kind of principled stand that George did and break with New Labour. This made Respect disproportionately dependent on the excellent support it won from Muslims, as became particularly clear in last year's London elections. It is the effort of the SWP, in response to this weakness, to widen and diversify Respect's working-class support that George and his allies have been attacking.

Respect and the Remaking of the Left & the Working Class

For the SWP it was vital Respect broke the pattern of left wing candidates securing one or two percent of the vote. That meant concentrating forces in our strongest areas to guarantee success. After this year's elections we argued at the Respect National Council we now had to move beyond that to ensure we developed into a truly national force.

Yet Respect was for us something else: “We have always understood the deep Labourist tradition within the British working class will not just be swept away with one blow. Respect has the potential to become a long term home for traditional Labour supporters who are in revolt against their leadership's pro-war and neo-liberal policies.

For is the coalition was premised on it bringing together the dynamic forces at the heart of the anti-war movement, forces which also represented a potential new tide of class fighters. These forces were caricatured from the start by the B-52 left as being a Muslim-Trotskyist alliance. Yet the lists which contested the 2004 Euro and GLA elections brought together much more - experienced trade union activists, African-Caribbean figures, candidates from the Turkish & Kurdish community, women and LGBT activists, pensions fighters and student campaigners.

A Fight Not of Our Choice

This is a fight the SWP did not choose. We chose not to rush into print with a reply to George and approached George on a number of occasions to secure a meeting with him to try to discuss the issues raised.

Eventually a meeting was held on 4 September between SWP representatives (John Rees, Lindsey German, Alex Callinicos & Chris Bambery), George Galloway, Salma Yaqoob, Ger Francis, Abjol Miah, Linda Smith and Glyn Robbins.

It is important to say that at this meeting we made it clear we were happy to discuss and come to consensus on the three proposals George concludes his letter with - and that remains the case.

That, however, was not what the meeting centred on. This was not an argument or discussion about how best to build Respect. In a 30 minute introduction George discussed his proposals for five minutes and then the rest on attacking John Rees.

The main plank of this was an attack on us for 'endangering the whole project' by our actions in Shadwell, in particular by our support at the selection meeting for a young woman Bengali candidate rather than the eventual winner, Harun Miah. This was true but it should of course be added that it did not stop us throwing everything we could into support for Councillor Miah, a fact demonstrated by the thanks we received afterwardsfrom both him and Abjol Miah.

In the discussion that followed George's introduction both Salma and Abjol called for John Rees to resign with Abjol calling for 'a complete change of leadership.' The SWP representatives made clear they were happy to discuss George's three proposals but were not prepared to swallow demands for John Rees's resignation. This is not just a question of loyalty to a comrade who has pursued a strategy on which the SWP is in agreement. The attack is not on John but on the SWP - as the emphasis on Shadwell indicates. If, say, we were prepared to accept this demand any replacement National Secretary could face a similar ultimatum in event of future disagreements.
So what is at stake here?

In Preston and Newham in particular Respect has built itself into a force representing that original vision of Respect. Michael Lavalette has acted as a real 'tribune of the oppressed' organising locally in defence of the NHS, in opposition to the invasion of Lebanon and over a host of local issues. Recently he helped organise an OFFU social which drew 70 local trade union representatives. That model is in the process of being repeated in areas where Respect has a strong possibility of getting councillors elected following advances in this year's local elections - Bristol, Cambridge and Sheffield are among them.

We all shared a vision of Respect as being a broad coalition. It is our enemies who are so intent as portraying it as an 'Islamo-Trot' marriage of convenience. What we fear is a withdrawal into the electoral common sense that only particular 'community leaders' can win in certain areas.

In Tower Hamlets it was important Respect had councillors elected from the Muslim community - representatives of the most oppressed community in Britain - but it would have been good to have returned other candidates too, who reflected the totality of the working class in the East End.

In Birmingham in the seven target seats in May's local elections, those with the greatest chance of achieving election, the candidates selected were all men from the Pakistani community. Helen Salmon was voted out of being the candidate for Moseley & Kings Heath ward. (See Socialist Worker 3 February 2007, http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=10591)

That is something we opposed but when we lost we accepted the result and continued to strive to build Respect locally.

At the recent meeting with George and others we were told by Abjol that a white candidate would not be able to win a seat in Whitechapel for ten years. We were put under pressure to support Abjol's nomination for the Bethnal Green & Bow seat being vacated by George. At least two other challengers are in the ring, one the young Bengali woman councilor previously mentioned and the other a long time Bengali Labour activist. It is perfectly acceptable for us or anyone else in Respect to vote for one candidate and if they are unsuccessful to then campaign loyally, whoever wins the nomination.

What's Changed, What's not Changed

In his document George argues: 'The conditions for Respect to grow strongly obtain in just the same way as they did when we first launched the organisation and had our historic breakthrough in 2005.'

Well the answer is yes and no. The war remains central but other issues have gained in importance. Blair has gone to be replaced by Brown and while we dismiss the hype about the 'Brown bounce,' the replacement of Blair has had a certain impact, in particular rallying dissident union leaders.

We face the strong possibility of there being a general election between now and next spring but that was not at the centre of the 4 September meeting.

In the Muslim community the battery of security laws has helped intimidate people while Brown and Livingstone have consciously attempted to co-opt Muslim leaders in a way Blair never could.

On the plus side there is growing unrest over pay, with Brown trying to police his public sector pay limit. On the post and Metronet picket lines we saw the wider politicisation filtering down as activists were open to the need to mount a radical challenge to New Labour in a way that wasn't true two or three years ago.

George's document makes considerable criticism of the Organising for Fighting Unions initiative, although this was decided upon by Respect's highest bodies. Yet the whole initiative was premised on the need to expand Respect's base of support within the organised working class and to re-connect with a layer of trade unionists who are not yet ready to embrace Respect.

Similarly the criticism of Respect's intervention on this year's Pride seems strange given that since the SWP started going on Pride two decades and more ago Labour, the Lib-Dems and major trade union have been consistently represented on it. The criticism is even stranger given the slander constantly thrown at Respect by our enemies that because of Respect's support in the Muslim community it is somehow soft on homophobia.

That need to extend Respect's base of support is something SWP members believe is vital. That's why we encouraged the local meetings on gun crime, which drew a good response from the African-Caribbean community and beyond.

The original vision of Respect lay behind the whole selection procedure for the GLA that has seen a list of candidates that reflect fully the London working class. A retreat into a party whose elected representatives are overwhelmingly male and Muslim would be to retreat into the caricature of us drawn by our opponents. It would be also unacceptable not just for socialists but for so many who come from the trade unions, from Labour backgrounds and from the anti-war, women's and so many other movements.

We want to fight for Respect, Equality, Socialism, Peace, Environment, Community, Trade Unionism.

The Central Committee, Socialist Worker Party (Britain)

2 comments:

Liam Mac Uaid said...

Well done comrades. You are the first in your tendency to let the world know that this debate is happening.
There's a healthy discussion taking place about it at the sites below.

http://liammacuaid.wordpress.com/
http://www.socialistunity.com/

John B said...

The response from The CC of the SWP and subsequent actions- expulsion of two leading comrades involved with GG and Respect for not towing the line- will only lead to more decent comrades leaving. It may however help to strengthen Respect as they are likely to remain active there and it may become more atractive to substantial numbers of Labour left. See below

http://www.indymedia.ie/article/84593