The last few months have seen vigorous arguments over the future of Respect, culminating in George Galloway leading a split from the coalition. Martin Smith looks at where we are now and the enduring need for a left electoral alternative to Labour.
Over 350 people came to the fourth annual Respect conference last month. It was a broad and inclusive conference attended by PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka, victimised health worker Karen Reissmann, six Respect councillors, ex-Labour stalwarts like Valerie Wise and Kumar Murshid, and lots of local activists.
South Manchester Respect candidate Nahella Ashraf said, "It was great for so many of the delegates to get a chance to contribute from the floor. It was especially good to see so many Muslim sisters speaking and attending - we have a voice in setting the agenda in Respect."
The success of the conference was remarkable, given the circumstances. Recent months had seen George Galloway's systematic attempts to undermine Respect, culminating in his split from the organisation and holding an alternative meeting, "Respect Renewal", on the day of the conference itself. The success of the conference means that it's now time to shift the focus of the debate and look to the future.
Our vision for Respect since its inception has been of an inclusive, pluralistic, anti-imperialist, anti-neoliberal, campaigning coalition whose policies and leadership are democratically chosen at its annual conference. Many have asked why Galloway now seems to reject this vision.
The single biggest pressure that has produced this development is electoralism. It's not that Galloway does not want the votes of workers - after all, he has been seen on picket lines - but he also wants the votes of people who have little or nothing in common with the labour movement, even in its broadest definition. Moreover, he is willing to support these people in taking leading positions within Respect and to select them as candidates at the expense of the left. On many occasions in Tower Hamlets, where there has been a conflict between these two visions of Respect, Galloway has backed the right against the left.
At the Respect Renewal launch rally Galloway defended himself from this charge, saying that when you throw the door open sometimes flies get blown in, an inevitability in a broad party. But, even if we momentarily accept Galloway's rather insulting terminology, the problem is not that "flies" get blown in. The problem arises when people attracted to Respect, with no labour or socialist background, or inclination, are then selected as councillors, promoted as leaders, and used to intimidate the left.
Such developments prompted one observer, usually hostile to the Socialist Workers Party (SWP,) to tell the Independent (9 November 2007): "The split will strengthen the weight of the Islamists in Respect Renewal, some of whom have links to Jamaat-e-Islami [Pakistan's largest religious party]. I don't think that's going to make the party very hospitable to socialists."
What has evolved around Galloway is a coalition of interests more resembling a popular front - not consciously created as by the Communist Party in the 1930s, but more a spontaneous expansion of allies to include those far from the roots of class politics. This logic of electoralism has led Galloway and his supporters to be drawn into making alliances across the whole Muslim community, where he feels the key to winning elections lies.
Instead of patiently working to create roots and campaigns in local communities, Galloway has looked for shortcuts. Over the last few years more and more of his time has been spent on radio and television shows in the belief that this will bring electoral success. The opposition to this strategy created tensions inside the organisation.
Independent observers of the Respect Renewal meeting state that it was dominated by speaker after speaker attacking the SWP. One described the four Respect councillors who resigned the whip as "scabs", and another said that she would "rather vote for Boris Johnson than Lindsey German". Such vitriol may be enough to hold disparate individuals together for a one-off rally, but is not the basis for building an organisation.
As Mark Serwotka argued at the Respect conference, "There can never be unity in a party to the left of Labour if people attack and witch-hunt other socialists."
The split in Respect was not something of the SWP's choosing, and certainly not something we wanted to see. The tradition of the left in Britain is that political and organisational differences should be decided by democratic conferences and elections. Sadly, George and his supporters did not go down this path.
The only person who benefits from a split in Respect is Gordon Brown. That's why we call on all those who attended the Respect Renewal meeting to rejoin Respect and take part in the democratic process. Maybe something positive can come from this split. For many Respect members this debate has clarified what Respect stands for and the direction they believe the coalition should take.
One of the problems Respect has faced in the past has been its over-reliance on one high-profile individual. We have to fight to draw in more union officials, branches and activists, and possibly other MPs, into a left alliance. This can provide a stable bedrock for regrouping the left and stops us being prone to crises caused by the vagaries of one person. Our task has to be building the biggest possible united left opposition to the government.
Today the stranglehold of Brown means that the Labour left finds itself in a weaker position than even a year ago. Tucked away in September's edition of Tribune was a short article by Tony Benn about this year's Labour Party conference: "Bournemouth saw the beginning of the end of the Labour Party as a representative organisation seeking to use parliament to meet the needs of its supporters... and its transformation into a mere support group for this new management team now called National Labour."
While Benn argues that leaving Labour is futile, he adds, "I hope that the big four trade unions that have so far stood aside will now join the LRC [Labour Representation Committee]. I would be glad if it could widen its appeal to include others like those unions not affiliated to the party including the RMT and FBU, the National Pensioners' Federation, the NUS and the Stop the War coalition - all of which are campaigning organisations but do not put up candidates."
John McDonnell went further still in the Morning Star (16 November 2007): "The Labour Party is increasingly no longer seen as a vehicle for progressive change... In the coming months and years the left has a choice of whether it opens up to new movements and new ways of working or it continues as before and faces isolation and irrelevance... The left, both inside and outside the Labour Party, has to learn these lessons. We can open up and build links with others or we can waste our time on ineffective bureaucratic manoeuvring, squabble internally and engage in sectarian warfare."
These are very important developments. There are now key Labour Party figures and activists who believe that to strengthen the left in Britain they will need to work alongside people outside Labour. We have seen such a development before, with the formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1889. The LRC brought together trade unionists, social democrats and revolutionaries in order to get more workers elected as MPs. Despite all its problems, it played an important part in creating an independent Labour party away from the Liberals.
Brown's attempts to maintain the rightward shift of Labour constantly create new tensions inside the party. In Liverpool, Labour left MP and anti-war campaigner Bob Wareing was deselected and replaced by Blairite Stephen Twigg (does this man even know where Liverpool is?). Wareing has said that he will stand as an independent candidate against Twigg. Respect supporters should give him 100 percent support in his campaign.
On the industrial front two unions, the RMT and FBU, have already broken from Labour. Liverpool firefighters plan to stand 15 candidates against Labour (all of whom are representatives of the fire authority) in the May council elections. The bitter struggle in the postal service has seen hundreds of CWU members withdraw from the political fund, with key branches talking about leaving the union's political fund and setting up their own so as to support "left wing" candidates who will challenge the government. Likewise, ten branches of the London region RMT have come out in support of Lindsey German, the Respect candidate for London mayor.
The crisis of political representation both inside the Labour Party and in the unions is going to open up new possibilities for left realignment. When Mark Serwotka said at the Respect conference that what we have at the moment "is not the finished article", he was expressing the feelings of many that we can involve new forces in the project in the future.
But we cannot just rely on creating new alliances. We must redouble our efforts to build Respect right now. Respect was, is and has to continue to be a campaigning coalition - a vibrant part of working class struggle in every locality. We want to be involved in every campaign and strike. It was a very proud moment when Karen Reissmann thanked Respect conference delegates for their solidarity during her strike. Many Respect activists had collected money and visited her on the picket line.
We have got to keep the Respect flag flying on other fronts too. Meetings and events around issues like gun crime, housing and the events in Pakistan have drawn a wide and diverse audience for our ideas.
But for Respect to really provide a challenge to Labour it has to have electoral successes. We have to lay the groundwork now for the London and council elections in May. Our first challenge of 2008 will be a council by-election in Preston where our councillor, Michael Lavalette, and the Respect group have built a serious base. We are going to run a strong campaign in the ward, which has given Respect a good vote in the past, and we want to get activists straight out on the campaign trail.
The row in Respect does not mean that the world has stopped. Opposition to the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq is at an all time high and there is the real possibility that Gordon Brown might support a US attack on Iran. On the home front Brown is attempting to drive down the real take home pay of public sector workers. The need for a left alternative to New Labour is as strong as ever.
We have a vision of Respect that offers hope to those fighting imperialism and neoliberalism. Our job is to turn this vision into reality.