A Rejoinder on Respect

— Liam Mac Uaid

RESPECT HAS PROVIDED a place in the political ecosystem for those with an inclination to substitute anecdote and slander for an analysis of what’s happening in British politics today. Bywater and Ismail have chosen to make this their habitat.

A comparison of Respect and organizations such as the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) or the results obtained by the French far left are very favorable to Respect. Yes some of Respect’s results were derisory in the elections for the European Parliament. So too were some of the Socialist Alliance’s, which had lots of results in the 1-3% bracket in other elections.

However, Respect’s founding conference was in January 2004. In June 2004 its mayoral candidate topped the poll in one London borough, came second in another and got into double percentage figures in others. It took the SSP years to achieve its current level of electoral success.

More recent election results have been just as impressive. In Tower Hamlets, east London, it had a councillor elected in one ward. A few weeks later Respect’s candidate, a well-known socialist activist, came second and humiliated Labour who came third. In this borough it is poised to depose the two pro-war Labour MPs and win a significant number of council seats.

Outside London, in parliamentary by-elections Respect won 5% and 11% of the votes. With the British “first past the post” system of voting this means a significant number of working-class voters are prepared to vote for parties other than Labour. Alongside this process is the opening up of the debate in the unions about providing unconditional support for New Labour.

The entire history of working-class parties tells us that it takes big events to change the political landscape. The Socialist Alliance failed not principally because of the SWP. It lacked a catalysing mass movement generated by an imperialist war.

This war had a radicalizing effect on parts of the British working class, most acutely on British workers who happen to be Muslim. They were able to break from Labour first. Others have started to follow.

Two opposing points of view were argued out at Respect’s founding conference. One of these held that everyone who wanted to create a political opposition to New Labour had to immediately adhere to positions identified with the revolutionary left. So a series of small Trotskyist groups hostile to the project put forward their particular shibboleth, knowing that it would be voted down and giving themselves the pretext to disengage from the process.

It was a very transparent attempt to exclude newly radicalizing forces and pitiful to watch. How would they have spoken about the socialists who worked with Malcolm X?

Those of us who are serious about creating a new mass workers’ party, who understand that social democracy is gradually disintegrating and who can tell the difference between a beginning and an end, viewed the matter differently.

Tactical concessions were made on some issues in January. From October onwards Respect branches are being established in areas where they have real roots. There the questions of the organization’s politics will be thrashed out with real people, and the socialists in Respect are confident that it will have a program which stands up for the rights of women, gays and lesbians, which offers an alternative to capitalism and imperialism. It will be a socialist program for a small mass party.

As for George Galloway: He is from a Scottish Catholic Stalinist background. He is opposed to abortion and makes it clear that this is a personal view. Respect will take a position at its October conference in favour of the right to choose. There is no doubt about this.

Galloway likes the high life. However, for the last two years he has been addressing meeting five nights a week all over Britain and is the highest profile antiwar leader. He isn’t a Trotskyist but neither are a lot of people. It’s absurd to expect someone from a non-Trotskyist background to start behaving like one just because Workers’ Liberty insist on it.

Galloway has successfully sued newspapers which have printed allegations that he benefited financially from his contacts with Iraq. It was only in the imagination of Workers’ Liberty that he was a propagandist for Saddam Hussein. Most other people got the impression that he was campaigning for a end to the murderous sanctions.

People and organisations can evolve very quickly. Galloway has been moving steadily leftwards since the war began.

Much more importantly, in several parts of Britain a new socialist party is being created, one which is starting to seriously worry large numbers of Labour councillors and MPs. It will make Labour pay the price for its neoliberalism and lack of internal democracy. To abstain from this development is empty-headed sectarianism.

ATC 113, November-December 2004