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The Debate in Respect: The SWP Response

This is the SWP Central Committee’s reply to George Galloway’s document criticising the failings of the Respect Coalition and in particular the role of the SWP leadership.

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 the 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 us 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 afterwards from 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 councillor 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 unions 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