Britain: Rumbles in Respect

October 19, 2007

Fractures have emerged in Respect — the Unity Coalition, a group formed in January 2004 by an alliance that drew together expelled Labour MP George Galloway (now Respect's sole MP), the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and anti-war activists. On August 23, Galloway issued a letter to Respect's National Council titled "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" criticising the group's lack of organisation and "custom of anathematisation in the organisation which is deeply unhealthy and has been the ruin of many a left-wing group before us".

Galloway appears to have broken with positions he held in conjunction with the SWP and one of the party's leading members John Rees (Respect's national secretary), over the nature of Respect. The SWP was a key initiator of Respect.

Galloway previously supported the SWP's position of maintaining Respect as a "loose coalition" rather than a party. Many left-wing activists had become somewhat disillusioned by the state of Respect, despite its emergence as the main left-wing electoral opposition to the right-wing Labour government.

Respect was formed in the wake of unprecedented opposition to the government's support for the invasion of Iraq. Millions had taken to the streets in opposition to the war, yet no popular electoral alternative to Labour had emerged to reflect this.

Galloway, then MP for Glasgow, played a central part in Respect's formation. He had been a central leader of the national Stop the War Coalition. He had been expelled from the Labour Party after almost 30 years as an MP on the basis of specious claims of being a supporter of Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime (in reality it was a reaction to his fierce criticism of the Blair government's participation in the invasion and occupation of Iraq).

The SWP formed an electoral alliance with Galloway. An important layer of Muslim and ethnic minority activists also joined, including dynamic Birmingham-based anti-war campaigner Salma Yaqoob. Other independent leftists also joined, though many other left groups did not.

Respect experienced early successes. It scored well in the May 2004 London Assembly and European Parliament elections. The biggest success was in May 2005, when Galloway ousted pro-war Labour MP Oona King in the general election.

As a Labour MP, Galloway had the distinction of developing a tireless commitment to internationalism and solidarity with struggles in the Middle East and Latin America. Yet he was not without critics. He appeared at times to express a cavalier attitude to accountability and questionable personal judgement, and be a little too close to some politicians and officials in the Middle-East. In Respect it quickly became clear that he was not going to be very accountable to any party structures.

In 2005 Galloway joined with Rees in opposing attempts by others on the left to consolidate Respect into viable party with its own publication and accountable structures. These were rejected in favour of demagogic calls for "more campaigning", in spite of the discernable lack of substantial local branches to undertake such work.

In early 2006, Galloway demonstrated exceptional bad judgement by deciding to appear on Celebrity Big Brother without consulting other Respect leaders. He was criticised for establishing a media profile at the expense of maintaining a presence in his own constituency and supporting more traditional struggles. This led to increasing tensions with other Respect members, including the SWP.

Respect managed to secure 16 council seats in elections in May 2006, though the result was below what some had hoped for. Almost all the candidates who were elected came from ethnic minority groups, to be expected given that these groups suffered the brunt of the Blair government's attacks on civil liberties. However, Labour Party sources and — shamefully — sections of the Left even raised allegations that Respect was a "communalist" party.

But the depth of depth of commitment of some of the ethnic community leaders who played a role in mobilising votes for Respect to the group's "socialist" platform was questionable. Many of these people became councillors.

Meanwhile, Respect's structures atrophied. Membership declined sharply. Some initiatives such as a Fighting Unions conference were modest successes, but these did not lead to significant initiatives.

Many concluded that Respect had become wholly a front for the SWP with no real independence. The small Socialist Resistance current and other activists that formed the "Respect Party Platform" (RPP) caucus were marginalised.

It was widely expected that Galloway would retire at the next elections to pursue a media career, so it came as a considerable surprise when Galloway issued his letter on the state of Respect.

The immediate context was the outcome of two council by-elections. Where Respect's support and base existed it held onto its seat. Where Respect had fizzled as an organisation it won a miserly vote.

Gordon's Brown succession of Tony Blair as prime minister had resulted in a recovery of support for Labour in the polls and there was talk of an early general election.

Galloway announced in early August he would stand again for parliament — with or without Respect's knowledge is not clear — but in a neighbouring seat against Labour minister Jim Fitzpatrick.

After helping the SWP block most attempts to make Respect into a functioning party-like organisation, Galloway's letter argued: "It is clear to everyone, if we are honest, that Respect is not punching its weight in British politics and has not fulfilled its potential either in terms of votes consistently gained, members recruited or fighting funds raised.

"The primary reasons for this are not objective circumstances, but internal problems of our own making.

"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."

His letter noted the decline in membership, an almost complete absence of fundraising and a failure to relate to important political events and campaigns.

He called for measures "aimed at placing us on an election war-footing, closing the chasm which has been caused to develop between leading members, together with an emergency fundraising and membership drive to facilitate our forthcoming electoral challenges. Business as usual will not do and everyone in their heart knows this."

The main proposal was for the creation of an election campaign committee that included some members of RPP, other Respect leaders and a smattering of SWP members. The SWP was rather miffed by the letter, and it has interpreted it as an attack on the SWP and Rees.

A party delegation met with Galloway and other Respect leaders on September 4. An SWP central committee statement claims that a demand was made that Rees resign, which the party refused to countenance. The statement reiterated its support for Respect and the proposals made in Galloway's letter.

However, there are other divisions between the SWP, Galloway and East London community leaders over candidate pre-selections. The SWP says it is concerned over the prevalence of older males being pre-selected and has argued for a diverse range of local candidates who are recognised as leaders in campaigns against the war, against attacks on civil liberties, for trade union rights and in defence of public services.

Rees has also argued that "the work of our elected representatives is rarely effectively reviewed by the democratic bodies of Respect, not least because, with a few honourable exceptions, the leading elected figures in Respect rarely attend them or report to them".

Yaqoob — Respect's national vice-chair and a Birmingham councillor — issued a letter in late September that argued: "George's document accurately outlines the two biggest challenges and responsibilities we face today: 'to build Respect directly and to place it at the centre of a progressive realignment'. In order for Respect to rise to these challenges there are some foundation stones that must be in place.

"Firstly, if Respect aspires to be a coalition of individuals and organisations from quite divergent political backgrounds, but united against imperialism and neo-liberalism, it is imperative that the internal political culture inside Respect is one that is at ease with difference and pluralism and not threatened by it.

"Secondly, Respect has to proactively seek to embrace the broadest currents of progressive opinion if it is to fulfil the aspirations behind its launch."

She called for an open culture of debate and reorganisation of Respect, and condemned some comments purportedly made in internal SWP documents that appeared to suddenly discover a "communalist threat".

Respect's National Council met on September 29 to consider Galloway's proposals. It unanimously adopted a resolution that made a series of proposals reflecting Galloway's concerns. The unanimous vote of the National Council suggests the SWP has accepted most of Galloway's proposals. However, in October the party expelled three members over Respect-related issues — Kevin Ovenden and Rob Hoverman, for refusing to stop working in Galloway's office, and Nick Wrack, for refusing to reject a proposal that he be made Respect's national organiser.

The implications of all this either for Respect or for forming an anti-neoliberal or anti-capitalist party is unclear, with some predicting Respect's imminent demise. Galloway has latched onto criticisms Respect's lack of organisation despite siding with the SWP in earlier disputes over these questions. The extent that it comes from a commitment to building a real party or simply a desire to be re-elected is unclear. The future of Respect will most likely be determined at its next conference scheduled for November 17-18.

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