Britain: Attempts to renew anti-war party

Issue 

The split in the English anti-war party, Respect — The Unity Coalition, which has scored the most successful electoral results for forces to the left of Labour since World War II, saw two conferences by the different sides of the split held simultaneously on November 17. One side are those backing Respect MP George Galloway, including some left-wing Muslim leaders and other independent socialists. On the other is mainly the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the largest socialist group in England, which has played a leading role in the anti-war movement and been a key component of Respect from its inception.

The recent split is between those who wish to commit to building Respect as their primary political project, and those who wish to build both Respect and the SWP in parallel. The "Respect Renewal" project supporting Galloway has also attracted to it (not necessarily yet whole-heartedly) a number of other people who wish to see a pluralistic and inclusive socialist organisation, but who had become disillusioned with Respect because they perceived it as an SWP front.

This is a significant factor in generating hope, because without the bureaucratic conservatism of the SWP leadership, Respect Renewal can potentially build bridges with other strands of organised progressive opinion, including a range of socialist activists.

Of course the recent split in Respect was a defeat, in the same way that all divorces are the defeat of the original marriage. The early days of Respect did see constructive contributions from many SWP members, but the launch of Respect also excluded many independent socialist activists who had been part of the Socialist Alliance — a left unity project that preceded Respect.

Despite the number of activists and the energy the SWP was able to contribute, its participation in Respect came at too high a price. Its "united front of a special type" theory meant that the SWP kept tight control over Respect. The current crisis started because after three years of existence, despite winning a member of parliament and 20 councillors, Respect had fewer members than when it started (just 2000), had no money in the bank, and had no candidates selected for what looked like an imminent general election. This was the potential disaster that the SWP's "leadership" had led Respect to.

Last weekend's Respect Renewal conference — organised by the non-SWP wing — was the product of several difficult weeks. During this time a number of us have found, sometimes to our own surprise, that we have a similar approach and understanding. But this has occurred in a very short time, and without any pre-planning, largely in response to the SWP's unfolding reaction to criticisms raised by Galloway that sparked the split.

During this time, a number of SWP activists have gone through the trauma of expulsion, or resigning after decades of membership, in opposition to the SWP leadership's course. Other non-SWP Respect activists have been slandered as "ballot riggers", or "Stalinists", descried as "right wing", or "communalist". So there was an element of catharsis in the Respect Renewal conference, particularly for some long-term former SWP members — including two of their most experienced industrial militants, Jo Benefield and Jerry Hicks. They expressed, in a very political way, their outrage at the attempts of the SWP leadership to lie, slander and pack meetings to get their own way.

The final session sought to address the future. One socialist grouping in Respect, Socialist Resistance, are giving over their paper and an issue should be out in December. In London, Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol there are already viable branches. A target was set to raise £100,000 to fight elections, and to recruit 10,000 members. Plans were discussed to begin serious discussions with the rest of the left to find grounds for cooperation.

On the same day as the Respect Renewal conference, the SWP held its own Respect conference. It made a huge effort to ensure that non-SWP members were there, and had some success, including the socialist leader of one of Britain's biggest unions. But the political base of this project is much narrower, and the conference was unable to find enough people to fill the available 50 National Council places, and of the 45 elected, over half are SWP members. It is tragic that the SWP, which remains formally committed to left regroupment, has now isolated itself with few significant allies, and a greatly damaged reputation. Had it been prepared to relax its control of Respect, this would have benefited the whole left, and it would have benefited the SWP as well.

However, we have to put the faction fight behind us. The two organisations can get on with the task of building themselves, and we must all remember the real enemy are the boss class and the imperialists.

[Andy Newman is part of the Socialist Unity Network )http://socialistunitynetwork.co.uk>).]

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