The Necessity of Respect

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As Respect is launched John Molyneux looks at the political and historical context of the coalition - and seeks to answer the doubters.

The launching of Respect: the Unity Coalition to mount an electoral challenge to Blair and New Labour is a new political development. It is new for those directly involved - George Galloway, Salma Yaqoob, the SWP, the thousands of ex Labour supporters or formally uncommitted people who will join. It is also new in that no political formation like it has hitherto existed in British history.

The newness is part of its attraction, both for those of us who are already socialist activists and for the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, who currently feel betrayed, unrepresented and are yearning for something fresh and better to get behind. But newness also generates fears, doubts, and questions. This article is an attempt to allay some of those doubts and to argue that the Respect project is both a necessity and an immense opportunity - one that everyone who reads Socialist Review should seize with both hands.

Credible alternative

Of course we cannot guarantee success in advance, any more than workers going on strike can know for certain that they will win. But when workers go on strike, it is not usually a choice between fighting, and perhaps losing, or standing still. It is a choice between resistance or defeat without a fight. The same applies to the present political situation. The left takes the chance to move forward or we will be forced back.

At the moment there is a huge vacuum, a veritable gaping hole, in British politics. There is no major political force, no electorally credible alternative, to speak for the grievances and aspirations of the millions of working people, disadvantaged and oppressed, whose conditions of life force them to hope for a better world. For generations this was the role of the Labour Party, even if it always sold out when it came to the crunch. It is one of Blair's 'achievements' that he has systematically insisted on New Labour vacating this space.

But politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. If the left is unable to fill it, others will. Let us consider the potential contenders.

First and worst, there is the BNP. Of course we are not, generally speaking, competing for the same individuals. But in so far as it seems that there is no real opposition, no one fighting back, no one standing up for 'ordinary people', the fascists will be delighted to place themselves at the head of the bitterness and direct it against asylum seekers, black people and all other scapegoats that come to hand. The absence of a left alternative greatly assists in this.

Second, there are the Liberal Democrats. The Liberals are not really left wing at all. They are a party based on the middle class, not the working class, who were once the major party of the British bourgeoisie and would like to be so again. They are hostile to trade unions, and a big strike always brings out their most reactionary side (much like the Guardian). But they are adept opportunists and are willing to 'tack' left en route to their real goal. They showed this over the war and the 15 February demonstration, and they reaped the benefit in the Brent East by-election. Time and again on Question Time and similar media forums the Liberal representative has no difficulty sounding to the left of the New Labour clone. If the Liberals were able, temporarily, to colonise the left's natural territory, it would be a serious defeat and step backwards for the working class.

Third and getting better, there is the Labour left. But they have been in the game all along and if they were going to do the job there would be signs of it by now. In reality they couldn't even manage a protest against Blair at the Labour Party conference. Nor is the 'Reclaim Labour' project of Tony Woodley and Billy Hayes making any headway. The most they could have delivered - had Lord Hutton not delivered a whitewash, and the backbenchers a retreat over top-up fees - is Gordon Brown, and Brown by no stretch of the imagination represents a reclaiming of the Labour Party for the left.

This leaves the existing organisations of the left. The Socialist Alliance was created for this purpose, but it is plain, despite the odd good result, such as Michael Lavalette's victory in Preston, that it is not up to the task. The Socialist Alliance is not linked in people's minds with the opposition to the war and is not distinguishable on the ballot paper, except to a small minority, from any sect that can afford a deposit.

There is simply no alternative, therefore, but to turn to the most important new phenomenon in British (and international) politics - the mass of people who took to the streets to oppose the Iraq war. And, frankly, why should we look anywhere else? The evidence of our eyes showed us who these people were: all ages from pensioners to school students, whose magnificent role has been much celebrated; tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of trade unionists (all the main unions supported the Stop the War Coalition); a new generation of student activists (especially evident on the Bush demo); Muslims in unprecedented numbers and other ethnic minorities; innumerable women, many playing leading roles in the coalition, nationally and locally (symbolised by Lindsey German, Ghada Razuki and Salma Yaqoob and on the demos by the posses of Muslim schoolgirls with the headscarves and the chants); CND and other peace campaigners, and so on.

Key principles

Regarding their political consciousness, the evidence of the demonstrations, above all the fantastic anti-Bush march, was clear for all with eyes to see. There is a remarkable degree of consensus. The large majority (1) were and remain totally opposed to the Iraq war; (2) are not just critical, but contemptuous of Bush and Blair; (3) are completely opposed to the US Project for a New American Century; (4) are strongly anti-racist and broadly internationalist; (5) are pro-Palestinian; (6) are splendidly together and free from sectionalism (there was no sense of divisions in the movement - trade unions versus politicos, respectable versus unrespectable, or anything like that). In other words they are in general terms anti-imperialist and anti-system.

What they are not, as yet, is politically represented. The aim of Respect is to mobilise and organise as many of these people as possible to forge their own political representation. To this end, a number of leading spokespersons from the movement have joined together to produce a declaration of key principles around which we can unite as the basis for the new coalition. It was passed with minor modifications at Respect's founding convention.

Now for the doubt - or in some cases criticism and opposition. The main objection to the Respect project has been that it is somehow a repeat of the popular front strategy pursued by Stalin and the Communists in the 1930s - a strategy roundly denounced as class collaborationist and disastrously ineffective by Trotsky and by Trotskyists, including the editors of Socialist Review ever since. The best that can be said for this objection is that it completely fails to understand the respective historical situations and political strategies.

The Respect coalition is being constructed explicitly as a left alternative to New Labour on principles that unambiguously divide it from the leaders of social democracy in Britain, but also internationally - above all opposition to imperialism and imperialist war. By contrast the popular front, created ostensibly in opposition to the Nazis and the rise of fascism, embraced the whole of social democracy and stretched further right to include so called 'progressive' Tories and the 'democratic bourgeoisie', including avowed supporters of imperialist war. The fundamental aim of the popular front and its necessary consequence was to hold back the struggle of the working class so as not to frighten the 'democratic' imperialist ruling classes of Britain and France and thus coax them into an alliance with the Soviet Union. The fundamental aim of Respect is to raise the consciousness, organisation and confidence of working people by beginning the process of liberating them from the straitjacket of New Labour. The popular front and Respect are thus totally opposed in content and purpose.

One reason for the false comparison would seem to be the mistake, quite common on the left, of confusing people's personal class situation with their political class position. They see Respect as involving certain middle class individuals such as George Monbiot and (they think) Salma Yaqoob, who are 'not part of the labour movement' and therefore accuse it of being a cross-class alliance, like the popular front. In fact, left wing movements, whether revolutionary or reformist, have always included non working class and even upper class individuals - think of Engels or William Morris or Tony Benn. The point about the popular front was that it involved an alliance with the political representatives of sections of French, Spanish and British capital. I don't think anyone can seriously accuse Monbiot, Yaqoob, Galloway or anyone else involved of being a political representative of the British bourgeoisie.

Another worry for some and, sadly, a major shibboleth for certain sectarians, is the potential involvement of Muslims in general and the Muslim Association of Britain in particular. In reality this is one of Respect's greatest merits. The starting point is the fact that Muslims are among the most abused, disadvantaged and oppressed groups in British society. As predominantly people of colour they have, of course, always been subject to the general racism of British society and for some time have replaced Afro-Caribbeans as the prime target of the fascist right. Since 9/11 their oppression, media demonisation and persecution by the state have all intensified dramatically. In this situation it should be obvious that the first and overriding duty of every socialist, indeed every democrat, is solidarity. This is not just a matter of humanity but of political necessity. As we know, racism is a weapon of divide and rule. At present Islamophobia is the principal method of divide and rule adopted by our own ruling class and by imperialism internationally. It is therefore incumbent on us, on the left, to do everything in our power to overcome this potentially disastrous split in our ranks, our class.

Uniting black and white, in action on picket lines, on marches and in political campaigning against our common enemies - ie Bush, Blair and what they represent - is the best possible antidote to racism and other divisions. To achieve this it is essential that the first steps towards unity are met with an enthusiastic welcome and that respect and sensitivity is shown towards cultural and religious differences. What absolutely must be avoided is the slightest hint or suggestion that the condition of unity in action is that 'they', the oppressed, abandon or compromise their religious beliefs. In so far as unity is established it will work both ways. It will be a barrier against the racism and Islamophobia of the system and, at the same time, counter those forces of extreme separatist Islamism that are at work in the Muslim community. This is true nationally and internationally. As I know from personal experience and testimony in the Middle East, the best argument against the Islamist advocates of jihad as 'terrorism' is not tirades or lectures on the evils of Islamic clericalism, but the practical evidence of hundreds of thousands of Muslims and non-Muslims marching side by side on the streets of London, Barcelona or wherever. It was this that gave Salma Yaqoob the possibility of declaring to the Cairo conference in December that, 'The main division in the world is not between different religions but between oppressor and oppressed. The main issue is justice and the unity of the oppressed.' In this regard Respect offers the chance to build on the excellent work done by the Stop the War Coalition and raise it to a higher level. It must be taken.