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Respect - in retrospect

We look at the shipwreck of yet another attempt to organise a left-of-Labour reformist party.

Respect acronym for Respect, Equality, Socialism, Peace, Environment, Community, Trade unionism was set in January 2004 by George Galloway and the Socialist Workers Party to try to make political capital out of the widespread opposition to the Iraq War.

The SWP is a Leninist vanguard party and as such is always on the look-out for protest movements to take over with a view to recruiting more members and followers for itself. Before the Iraq War the front organisation which the SWP pushed, in a bid to create a left-of-Labour political party it could influence, was the Socialist Alliance. But they had been thinking about playing the Muslim card since the time of the first Gulf War.

According to author and academic Jamal Iqbal, writing in the East London Advertiser (8 November):

Leading figures in the SWP had been advocating the alliance with religious groups for some time. In the 1994 pamphlet, Prophet and the Proletariat, Chris Harman then as now one of the SWPs chief ideologists argued that the party should make common cause on the issue of anti-imperialism with Islamists, in part as a way of recruiting their members.

Much to the annoyance of others who had participated in the project, the SWP decided to pull the plug on the Socialist Alliance so that its members could concentrate on building up and controlling Respect. For a while the strategy of building up Respect as a left-wing alternative to Labour seemed to be working. In the 2004 European Parliament and London Assembly elections Respect polled over a quarter of million votes. Then, in the General Election the following year, Galloway scored a spectacular victory in the Bethnal Green and Bow constituency in the East End of London over the sitting Labour MP, Oona King, becoming the first left-of-Labour MP to be elected at a General Election since 1945.

Galloways victory was followed by an equally spectacular breakthrough at local level, when 12 Respect councillors were elected to Tower Hamlets borough council where they became the official opposition to Labour ahead of the Tories and the Liberals. Some on the left saw this as the beginning of an electoral challenge to Labour from the left which could spread. But they overlooked two things. First, that all 12 Respect councillors were of Bangledeshi origin and had been elected, not as leftwingers, but on the basis of Muslim communalism, of playing the Muslim card to win the Muslim vote. Second, that not far away in Dagenham there was another spectacular result: the British National Party with 11 councillors emerged as official opposition. Their votes had been obtained by playing the white working class and anti-Muslim” card and there are more white workers in Britain than Muslims. What Respect and the SWP were doing was splitting the working class on religious and communalist lines and in effect opening the door for the BNP.

Now the whole thing has blown up in their face. In September Galloway issued a circular denouncing the SWPs stranglehold on Respect. He and his supporters began to organise to put the SWP in its place. The SWP responded by expelling some of its members who refused to break with Galloway and then provoking a split in Respect.

At local level, in Tower Hamlets, this took the form of four councillors breaking away from the Respect group and forming a new Respect (Independent) group on the council. Their leader was Councillor Oliur Rahman who, as Respect candidate in Poplar and Canning Town at the 2005 General Election, had come third, polling a respectable 6573 votes or 17 percent. According to the local paper, their press conference on 29 October to announce the breakaway was overseen by John Rees, the main man in the Socialist Workers Party and still currently the national secretary of Respect (East London Advertiser, 1 November).

In a letter in the local paper the following week, expelled SWP members Ken Ovenden and Rob Haveman revealed that two of the breakaway councillors were card-carrying members of the SWP. Their letter was also revealing in other respects as it was written by two people who until a month or so ago had been leading SWP cadres (even though, as Galloways parliamentary assistants, their salaries are paid out of his expenses as an MP):

“It is extremely regrettable that a fundamental division has occurred in the Respect between the leadership of a very small organisation called the Socialist Workers Party and almost everyone else in Respect. The SWP acquired a stranglehold over our organisation, which has caused a deep rift at national level. Our MP George Galloway (Bethnal Green and Bow) raised criticisms of the direction the national organisation was heading in August. Instead of a reasoned response from senior SWP members, the criticisms were met with growing hysteria. This has finally come to a head, with the SWP leadership seeking to undermine the democratic structures of Respect and abusing many of its leading members. The SWP has also sowed the seeds of division which have seen four Tower Hamlets councillors turn their backs on Respect after trying to stage a coup against the democratically-elected group leader. Two of these councillors are SWP members and the other two are the SWP's closest allies. If they had any principles, they would stand as SWP candidates – but know they would get no votes.” (East London Advertiser, 8 November).

Respects annual conference was to have been held on 17 November. What happened was that two conferences were held that day, one organised and controlled by the SWP and the other by Galloway and his supporters. Respect has split into two rival organisations. It remains to be seen what the political fall-out will be.

There are a number of lessons to be learned from this.

First, the dishonest tactics of Leninist groups such as the SWP which set up front organisations to attract the support of well-meaning people concerned about some issue. The honest approach would be to say we are the SWP, this is what we stand for, join us if you agree. But this is not how Leninist organisations operate. For them, workers are not politically intelligent enough to work things out for themselves and so need to be led by them. They see themselves as leaders and discontented workers merely as foot soldiers to be used to further their political influence and, ultimately, to help them into power. They really are officers looking for infantry.

Second, as workers are not that stupid, they eventually get found out. This happened once before, in the 1970s, when the SWP (and its predecessor IS) managed to obtain considerable influence over the rank-and-file shop stewards movement of the time. They thought they were using the movement for their own Leninist ends. The shop stewards went along with this because they welcomed the research work done by SWP academics and students and the printing facilities the SWP provided. At some point the SWP leadership decided to tighten its control. The shop stewards demurred and eventually a whole section of the SWP was expelled for syndicalist deviationism.

Third, playing the Muslim card always was playing with fire. The Islamist groups the SWP worked with and hoped to influence were never going to be manipulated by secular Leninists. Once again it was a question of who was using who and of when those who the SWP thought they could manipulate would turn on them. The SWP – together with Galloway and his supporters – must take a heavy responsibility, having encouraged a split in working class in Britain on communalist lines. The SWP might now try to take up a more secularist position, but the damage has been done. Not only have they burnt their own fingers, but they have left a legacy which genuine socialists will have to undo by re-asserting the need for working class to organise on class, not communal, lines.