Thursday 4 October 2007

Debate on RESPECT in the British SWP - a contribution

(thanks to Socialist Unity)

No alternative?

Nick Bird

Some reports of the Respect National Council meeting on 29 September suggest that an amicable compromise was agreed and that all is well. That was not the impression given at the SWP’s Party Council meeting held the following day.

Over 200 delegates gathered in central London for the meeting, the core of the SWP’s cadre from across the country. On arrival we received a document containing all the main documents so far published in the Respect debate – from the SWP Central Committee, John Rees/Elaine Graham Leigh, George Galloway, Salma Yaqoob and Alan Thornett/John Lister, plus (for good measure) a view from the SWP in Ireland (an uncontroversial piece agreeing with the British leadership). This was the first time the party had circulated the non-SWP documents, though clearly many members would have seen them on various left websites.

Unfortunately it quickly became clear that this was not a meeting for examining the complexities of this debate. It was a case of: which side are you on? (I believe Chris Harman put it in those exact terms). Pat Stack announced from the chair that after the debate, the meeting would vote on the CC and Rees/Graham Leigh documents. No amendments would be accepted. (And clearly no alternative documents could be heard, since no agenda had been issued and no call for such alternatives had been made.) As usual, the CC speaker who introduced the debate (Rees) had twenty-five minutes to elaborate the CC’s position, while everyone else had four minutes, making it difficult to present a coherent case.

However, there certainly was a debate. It lasted over three hours and a number of long standing members opposed the CC position in forceful terms. The CC line amounted to this: Galloway had launched an attack on the SWP and attempted to split it. There was a left/right battle being fought out in Respect and on the right were Galloway and his allies, some of whom were in danger of succumbing to communal politics. The electoral achievements of Respect had led to these pressures and dangers and the SWP had to counteract them and defend the idea of Respect as a “united front of a special type”.

Now this is a remarkable turnaround. In the first years of Respect, the SWP leadership would countenance no public criticism of Galloway. Indeed, at meetings on Respect at the Marxism event, John Rees introduced Galloway in such terms that I half expected him to descend from heaven rather than walk in the door. But now it is open season – every long suppressed criticism is coming out and being used to justify the CC’s new line. Equally, if anyone used the term “communalism” in relation to Respect a few years ago, they were denounced as sectarians and Islamophobes. Now the CC itself is using the term to attack its opponents in the coalition.

The truth of course is that there has been no sudden lurch in Galloway’s politics. He has always been in some senses a contradictory figure for the radical left. He was not an angel when we agreed to form Respect with him and he is not a devil now that the SWP has fallen out with him. He remains a consistent opponent of war, imperialism and racism yet I still scream inwardly (to avoid people staring) when he defends his appearance on Big Brother.

The reason that the SWP lurches from one extreme position to another is rooted, I believe, in its method of work; in a lack of openness and a stunted democratic structure within the party. The (lack of) coverage of this debate in Socialist Worker is one example. To date, there has been one wholly inadequate report following the Respect NC statement which mentioned that some people were ready to write Respect’s obituary but failed to make any reference to the participants in, or terms of, the debate. Anyone whose only source of information on the subject was SW must surely have been rather confused.

When the whole future of Respect is at stake, surely that is worth mentioning in Socialist Worker? The debate about what type (special or otherwise) of party or coalition we need is not one to conduct behind the backs of SW readers, Respect members or potential members. Nor, within the SWP, can the debate be properly held when only the CC documents are put to a national meeting on a “take it or leave it” basis. When Gordon Brown says the only vote Labour members will have is to say yes or no to the manifesto before an election, we do not accept that it is an adequate expression of democracy in the Labour Party, and we should not accept it in our own organisation. Had other documents been invited, we could have heard the alternative view at greater length, and I got the feeling there was much more that could have been said by those opposing the CC position.

The SWP will not split over this. Some of the members – well known cadre, I might add - who were arguing against the CC were criticised in very strong terms and I can only guess what their intentions might be. Despite the chair saying that everyone who opposed the CC line would be called to speak, at least a couple of us were not, but that would not have altered the overall balance in the debate. The bulk of SWP members seem happy to go along with the view that this is a left/right battle and they know which side they’re on. There is a tendency for dubious contentions to be seized upon and repeated until you believe them. The SWP’s style of polemic is not its finest feature.

As for my intentions, I have been an SWP member for 17 years, but frankly I’ve had enough. This is a bit of a wrench for me, since I feel that I learnt the core political ideas and principles that I hold from the SWP. But for some years I have felt my belief in the good things that the party does being qualified by frustrations at its practises and methods. I agreed with many of the points made by John Molyneux when he challenged the CC at conference a couple of years ago (and was disappointed to see him backing the leadership so fulsomely at the weekend), but his words went unheeded. I have come to realise that without a more open and democratic approach, it will never be the party it wants to be; the party the radical left needs. I will stay in Respect and align myself with those who want an inclusive, democratic party that fights for peace, justice, equality and socialism.

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