Just when the need for a party like Respect is clearer than ever, with the arrival of Brown and the snuffing out of the last vestiges of democracy in the Labour Party, Respect has been passing through the biggest crisis in its three-and-a- half year history.
After a series of statements and resolutions and two National Council meetings, the jury is out on whether enough has been done to re-launch Respect on a broader and more inclusive basis. It is also out on whether the political will exists in the SWP leadership to positively implement the decisions adopted which could take the organisation forward.
The crisis came to a head around two critical meetings of the Respect National Council one on September 22, which failed to complete its agenda, and another the following week on September 29 to complete the business.
At the centre of the crisis was a serious rift between some of Respect’s major components, the SWP on the one hand and George Galloway, Salma Yaqoob, and some of the East London councillors on the other. It was described by George Galloway as a breakdown of trust, and it clearly was and is.
These events were triggered by a letter from George Galloway to the NC which raised a number of legitimate issues. It argued that Respect has not fulfilled its potential either in terms of votes or membership and that in some areas Respect is effectively moribund. It implicitly criticised the method used by the SWP regarding decision-making and priorities. It also implicitly challenged the SWP approach to Respect which is to treat it as an electoral united front (of a special kind).
There did not have to be a crisis over such criticisms, however, a number of which some of us have been raising for a long time. The SWP leadership grossly over-reacted seeing the letter as an attack on the SWP itself, and John Rees in particular, and responding in that vein. A positive response and an undertaking to make some changes (even some concessions) and tackle some of the issues Galloway was raising could have created a very different situation.
By the time of the September 22 NC therefore, instead of compromise, the debate was ratcheted up. In internal meetings of the SWP (the contents of which leaked into the public domain) inflammatory charges of communalism had been levelled at George Galloway, Salma Yaqoob and some of the East London councillors. The clash was presented as a left versus right issue or the socialists versus the communalists. These accusations were then repeated in the course of the National Committee meeting. It was bound to raise the heat whether or not it was designed to do so.
There was heavy criticism of Tower Hamlets group which reflects Respect’s unique breakthrough into the Muslim community by the predominantly white left. It is not surprising that there are problems following such a breakthrough, but these problems have never been brought to the NC for collective discussion. The question is not whether there have been political problems and disagreements. The question is whether political steps were taken to discuss these problems and bring about a common political development.
John Lister and I had submitted a discussion paper to the NC taking up these issues and other aspects of the debate as had Salma Yaqoob who made a very powerful case against the communalism allegation.
In the debate on all this on the 22nd, speaker after speaker from the SWP (of their 19 members on the NC) attacked George Galloway, in particular, around these issues. The result was a blow-up in which George Galloway announced that he would not be a candidate in the upcoming election and came close to walking out.
Fortunately he did not walk out, and fortunately he has reversed his decision and is putting himself forward in Poplar and Canning Town.
I have been amongst the harshest critics of George Galloway particularly over the issue of accountability. But the notion that Respect could fight a successful election campaign in six weeks time (or six months time), or successfully approach other sections of the left and the trade unions in order to expand outwards after a fractious split with George Galloway, was an illusion. We could have said goodbye to a new left party for a long time.
The meeting moved on to discuss the practical proposals in George Galloway’s letter, which he moved in summary form. His most controversial proposal, as far as the SWP was concerned, was for a new post of national organiser to function alongside the national secretary (aimed at broadening Respect out at the top).
The SWP, however, saw this as a direct challenge to the authority of John Rees and therefore to the vertical control which is implicit in both the method of the SWP and its model for Respect as one a number of united fronts in which they work. It was this which made a simple proposal emerge as a pivotal issue.
The argument the SWP used was that any elected position took precedent over any appointed one. This arose because the new post would need to be appointed if it was to be open to the whole membership rather than just the NC. But why would an elected post take precedent? Providing they were both responsible to the same elected committees, which could regulate their work there was no need for one to be the line manager of the other. There is nothing in Respects constitution which requires such a thing. And when the issue was to re-establish trust it made no sense to insist on such an arrangement.
George Galloway’s proposals were therefore accepted with the proviso that the apparently vexed issue of the authority/constitutionality of a national organiser alongside the national secretary would be discussed by a working group comprising Ger Frances, Lindsey German Linda Smith and myself in an attempt to find solution. We met but failed to agree. I could agree with everything Lindsey German wrote with the exception of the last three words “and individual officers”. These words reversed the proposal (that both officers are responsible to the EC) and put the national secretary back in charge. I discussed it with her prior to the 29th (we met over another issue) but to no avail.
The first item on the agenda on the 29th was Respect’s approach to the looming general election. It was a good discussion. It is clearly crucial the left is able to mount a credible challenge to new Labour under Brown in a snap poll. And that means Respect because no other left grouping has the ability to ripple the surface of the water.
Respect has at least the possibility of winning in three constituencies in such an election. Two of these are in East London: Bethnal Green and Bow which is currently George Galloway’s constituency, and Poplar and Canning Town where Respect recently won the Shadwell local by-election and which is the constituency of Government Minister Jim Fitzpatrick. The other is Birmingham Sparkbrook and Small Heath where Salma Yaqoob came a close second in 2005.
It is a mammoth task, of course. But just being a serious challenger in these seats informs the shape of Respect’s election campaign. It means that Respect will stand in a limited number of seats chosen (probably less than the 25 seats Respect stood in in 2005) so that support can be given to the constituencies with the best chance of success whilst mounting a challenge in other selected areas.
The meeting voted unanimously to urge George Galloway, who had not yet made a decision, to put himself forward for one of the East London seats. He said he would seriously reconsider in light of the decision, and many other such requests he had had. A letter was handed to him by Jerry Hicks to this effect from Bristol Respect. The meeting then returned to the issue of the national organiser. The old debate began to re-run but it was difficult to sustain. When I said that I could accept all Lindsey German was proposing other than the last three words she said that she had no problem in deleting them. John Rees said the same and that was it. The two would work side by side and report to the elected committees. We had an agreement which we could have had a week earlier.
George Galloway’s other proposal for a new, broader, and more inclusive executive committee is also very important. The narrow nature of the existing committee led myself and John Lister to decline nomination to it after last year’s conference. It was too narrow to function effectively and was not in reality an authoritative decision making body. Changing this and broadening the committee out will be the task of the incoming NC after the November conference. Also the overpowering size of the SWP delegations on the committees has to come to an end.
Resolutions for conference
The next item on the agenda was NC resolutions to Respect conference. Here the meeting unanimously adopted a resolution I moved, which incorporated the resolution tabled by myself and John Lister at the previous meeting and the resolution adopted at that meeting moved by George Galloway. This combined resolution was seconded by John Rees who had proposed some amendments to it prior to the meeting. It was crucial that this went through. The resolution offers a new way forward for Respect both in terms of tasks and priorities and in terms of opening up Respect to the broader movement. In fact if fully implemented it could re-launch Respect on a more open and attractive basis.
Central to the resolution is the need to engage others on the left such as the RMT, the CPB, Bob Wareing and John McDonnell who are currently discussing the issue of labour representation in the light of the rise of Brown.
The resolution urges that: “These discussions to be on the basis of no organisational preconditions as far as Respect is concerned, with the aim of initiating a process towards a wider regroupment of left forces.” This could hardly be more urgent given the escalating debate around this issue.
The resolution proposes approaching these organisations and individuals with the view to jointly organising a conference with them on the crisis of representation and the forward. This should be held as soon as practically possible and build on the broadest possible basis.
The resolution also proposes a number of other measures designed to build Respect more effectively, recruit new members and reinvigorate the branches: … On public profile: “To build a much higher public profile for Respect. To have an effective means of getting our ideas across through broad sheets and leaflets, and an improved, revitalised website and improved media management with a well resourced press officer. We agree in principle to produce a newspaper or a magazine. This should be discussed by a working party and brought back to the NC for implementation in the New Year”. … To end the slate system of election at Respect conference which has been contentious with individual activists, from the upcoming conference in 2007, and the introduction of a form of STV, to be agreed. … To introduce a partly delegate based National Council with delegates from the branches from the 2008 conference … To improve communications and accountability and overhaul the organisation of the national office. On electoral policy the resolution stresses the need to ensure that Respect has clear working class politics in the campaign. “This means that the ethos of Respect as expressed in its acronym Respect, Equality, Socialism, Peace, Environment, Community, Trade Unionism, has to be the framework of its work, its activities and its policies. Any left party wanting to make its mark under the current conditions will have to have clear and distinct and radical politics on which to build an election campaign”. It resolves to ensure that Respect plays an integral part in the struggle of the trade unions against the Brown wage freeze and the attack on trade union rights, and against privatisation and deregulation and to continue to support the activities and campaigns of the StWC both in terms of opposition to the war and the defence of civil liberties and human rights.
It also stresses the need to ensure that: “Respect gives a high profile to material on the environment and climate change in its election and general material. To become more involved in the climate change campaign and the climate camps and their activities. Support the climate change trade union conference”. This is not only necessary in its own right given the huge urgency of the issue but essential if Respect is going to challenge the greens and attract young people to its campaign. These proposals do offer a way forward at a time of great potential opportunity. Ultimately, however, it is in the hands of the SWP. According to the various reports of the SWP party council the day after the NC business as usual was apparently the order of the day. If this was the case the signs are not good.
To maximise the impact of Respect in today’s conditions, the culture of the organisation has to change and this has to go right down to the branches. The opportunities to build a broad-based left alternative have never been greater but if the left manages to miss it, it could be a long time before it comes around again
Ironically within 24 hours of last Saturday’s Respect NC democracy had been finally snuffed out in the Labour Party without resistance and by an overwhelming majority. For the first time for nearly 100 years Labour Party conference can no longer make policy for the Labour Party. The need for a party like Respect could hardly be more clear.
Fortunately Saturday’s NC represented, in my opinion, a new opportunity for Respect to break out of the impasse it has been in for the last two years and make some real progress. This has not been achieved yet. But the meeting was a step, even if a faltering step, in the right direction. It confirmed my view that the old top-down structure dominated by the SWP is no longer an option. Respect will either change or it will go into repeated and ultimately terminal crisis. That was my conclusion from the meeting.
The catalyst for change has been George Galloway’s letter to the National Council circulated a month or so ago. It was the main item discussed last Saturday and produced the biggest debate the National Council has ever had, and its fullest attendance. The meeting ran out of time and is being reconvened this coming Saturday Sept 29 to complete the agenda.
George Galloway’s letter pointed to a number of uncomfortable truths which some of us have been raising for some time: that the poor result in Southall was a wake-up call; that Respect has not fulfilled its potential either in terms of votes or membership; that in whole areas of the country Respect is effectively moribund; that there are problems of office administration and procedures and that relationships had broken down amongst key figures in Respect. The resolution George Galloway put to the meeting on Saturday was a series of action points in the framework of his letter designed to address this situation. These include: a serious approach to developments on the left such as the debate in the RMT, the end of the slate system of election at conference, a major membership drive, a better organised and more inclusive executive committee, improved communication and accountability, overhaul of office organisation and the creation of the position of national organiser alongside the national secretary.
John Rees and Michael Lavalette moved several amendments to this. The contentious one being on the issue of the national organiser. This was to the effect that the national organiser would not work alongside the national secretary but would work under the direction of the elected officers i.e. the national secretary. This caused a heated debate but in the end George Galloway’s resolution was adopted unanimously with an “in principle”decision to have a new national organiser with a sub committee to discuss the practical implications and report back.
In my view George Galloway’s proposals are a good start but the process of changes must go a lot further. John Lister and I have a series of proposals on this in the form of a resolution for the Respect conference which are to be discussed on Saturday which would if adopted reshape Respect. Yet even this would not be enough unless Respect successfully turns itself outwards towards new forces like the CPB and the RMT who have in various ways started to discuss the acute crisis of working class representation which now exists. This was the main point I tried to make as strongly as possible in the meeting.
At the present time however the ball is in the court of the SWP. They must have the political will to carry through genuine change otherwise there will be no viable way forward. The bottom line is that the SWP must loosen their grip and put Respect in a position to engage seriously with those on the left and in the unions who are grappling with yet another new stage in the crisis of labour representation.