New left coalition for the Respectable

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FRFI 177 February / March 2004

The past few weeks have seen the left give birth to two new coalitions to add to those it has spawned over the past few years. The personalities behind Respect (Respecting Equality, Socialism, Peace, Environmentalism, Community, Trade Unionism) and Unite against Fascism differ only in minor respects, since both represent the same opportunist political trend. What socialists need to assess are the conditions that have forced the left to create these alliances, and how we should relate to them over the coming period. BOB SHEPHERD reports.

The backdrop to these developments is the fact that Labour cannot serve any more as a ‘bourgeois labour party’, in Lenin’s terms. It can no longer play out its historic role which communists describe as opportunism – placing itself at the head of working class movements in order to behead them. It has become an open party of the ruling class whose former links with the working class have withered away to nothing. However, events have shown how necessary a new opportunist current is for the ruling class if social stability is to be maintained in imperialist Britain with the massive demonstrations against war on Iraq. Lenin showed that the growth of an opportunist current was inevitable in imperialist countries: we are seeing that historical necessity being played out today.

Two forces are central to these new opportunist alliances: the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and the Labour left. The goal of both alliances is the same: to reclaim the Labour Party from New Labour. Respect is attempting to do it from without, since its figurehead, George Galloway, has just been expelled from the Labour Party. Unite against Fascism is attempting to do it from within, with Ken Livingstone as its champion, cock-a-hoop at his recent readmission to the party of war and racism.

Both Livingstone and Galloway are challenging each other for the mantle of the leader of the Labour left. We should not, however, be fooled by their very public spat about who owns the ‘Respect’ trademark (Livingstone has threatened legal action against Galloway claiming Respect as his own because of the annual anti-racist events bearing that name in London, whilst Galloway dismissed this, saying: ‘Mr Livingstone clearly doesn’t know anything about self-respect, having just crawled back on all fours to the Labour Party’). Both are loyal to Labour, both are complete egoists, both are very rich, and both see the movements that they head as a means to further their very lucrative political careers. Galloway is determined to get on the European gravy train. Livingstone’s ambitions too embrace Europe, but he has chosen to achieve them through his sponsorship of the European Social Forum event in London later this year.

SWP: sucking up to Galloway and Livingstone...
And what of the SWP? It dances attendance on both Galloway and Livingstone. Complete obsequiousness is the order of the day. That Livingstone has rejoined the Labour Party is not a problem, for as SWP leader Professor Alex Callinicos assures his readership: ‘Of course in returning to the Labour Party he hasn’t broken with the left altogether. There will be many issues on which we will be fighting side by side with him, against neo-liberalism, racism and war.’ (Socialist Worker 17 January 2004). The SWP is not just a cheerleader, however. It has the apparatus both to run the coalitions, and, most importantly, to police them, to drive out any sign of revolutionary sentiment or anti-imperialist consciousness. This role is opportunism par excellence.

First Galloway...
How does it work? Very simply, it involves the SWP using the weight of numbers to suppress any semblance of democracy, prevent any open debate, fix key decisions in advance and expel those who attempt to challenge it. The way Respect was established shows this very clearly. First, Galloway set the terms for the movement: it was to be an electoral coalition to challenge New Labour. It would support left MPs who are ‘fighting to reclaim Labour’. It would stand candidates in the 10 June European elections because ‘there is no threat of a Tory victory’ – which could jeopardise any future Galloway return to the Labour fold.

The SWP took its cue from this. There could be no attack on the tradition of Old Labour. Hence in a Socialist Alliance national council meeting on 17 January, the SWP and its allies voted down a number of motions proposed for consideration at the founding convention of Respect. One of these called on Respect ‘to make freedom of movement and open borders coalition policy.’ This had to go, since Old Labour has always favoured immigration controls. A second motion tried to commit Respect candidates to be ‘workers’ representatives on a worker’s wage.’ Fancy Gorgeous George agreeing to that, with his three houses and £200,000 annual income! To drive the point home, the SWP also rejected motions calling for the Respect convention to be organised in an ‘open, democratic and transparent way’ with ‘space for debate ...(for) different views, declarations and amendments’. The Declaration to serve as the foundation of Respect therefore excludes any demand which may prove anathema to Old Labour – for example, the withdrawal of troops from Iraq or the right to a living minimum wage.

..then Livingstone
If the SWP gets to fawn on Galloway in Respect, it gets two bites of the cherry with Livingstone – first in the European Social Forum (ESF), and second in Unite against Fascism. In both these initiatives the SWP is playing the loyal ally of Livingstone, bolstering his prestige and reinforcing the idea that a section of the Labour Party and the TUC can play a progressive role in British politics.

Don’t mention the war
The ESF has already been stitched up by Livingstone, the SWP and their trade union allies. The first assembly to organise the London ESF was held on 24 January. One announcement – not up for debate – was that there would be an organising committee with limited liability company status, so that no one would have to ‘mortgage their house’. The platform at the meeting was a permutation of the usual line-up at these sort of events: SWP members, usually disguised as something else – left trade union leaders and so on. None of them mentioned the war, or imperialism – both were out of bounds. Alex Gordon declared the purpose of the London ESF was to strengthen the British trade union movement. Professor Callinicos was there, fresh back from jet-setting to the Mumbai World Social Forum. To prove how ‘democratic’ the process was, the organisers allowed a queue of people to come to the mike. The coincidence was that they were nearly all from the SWP...and so all supported whatever proposal had come down from above.

The SWP has also organised Unite against Fascism (UAF) with Livingstone. Its founding statement is a call to stop the possibility of the BNP winning seats in the local and European elections of 10 June: ‘We believe that this dangerous situation requires a new and united response from all those dedicated to freedom and democracy. Now is the time for all of us to combine our forces and unite in a broad and common front against this common threat.’ Some 60 MPs have sponsored UAF including the virulently Zionist Labour MP Louise Ellman.

To vote or not to vote New Labour
What does this mean in practice? Manchester Against Racism (MAR) has been set up as the local Unite Against Fascism branch by the SWP, its allies in the SA and Labour ‘left’. Its launch rally was on 16 January, and it will focus on the fact that BNP leader Nick Griffin is standing in the European elections in the northwest. The main speaker was Tony Lloyd, Labour MP and former junior minister in the Foreign Office. With him were two local Asian Labour councillors. Their message, unchallenged from anyone on the platform, was the need to get the vote out on 10 June, and to make sure there was no split vote that would let the BNP in. In other words: vote Labour, vote for state racism, vote to attack asylum seekers.

Chair of the meeting was long-time SWP member Colin Barker. Neither he nor fellow SWP member Weyman Bennett, who is now carving out a new career as UAF national organiser, had any problem with the vote Labour sentiment. The only challenge to this came from supporters of FRFI who heckled Tony Lloyd from the floor over Labour’s attack on asylum seekers.

MAR spells out its pro-Labour sentiment in its website report on the defeat of the BNP in a local Manchester council election at the end of last year: ‘The result showed that anti-racist campaigning brings results, the BNP were pushed into a very poor second place with 539 votes against a substantial 2,045 for the Labour candidate. This was a significant surge in Labour’s vote from last May.’

Backing these three horses simultaneously pushes the SWP into a potentially absurd situation, given that Respect is about putting up candidates to challenge New Labour, and the UAF is about not splitting the Labour vote, New or otherwise. Imagine SWP members in Respect pushing a candidate in the Euro elections, while SWPers in MAR accuse them of splitting the vote. The upshot is that the SWP will justify anything to maintain the many threads that tie it to Labour, New or Old. It will provide the support for Galloway and Livingstone to further their political careers. It is the force that keeps the opportunists together. It will try to exclude all revolutionary and anti-imperialist sentiment from the coalitions it sets up.

The SWP is of course not alone in supporting the Labour left. The choice of two coalitions has presented difficulties to some, however. The pages of the Morning Star have seen a debate within the ranks of the Communist Party of Britain (CPB). General Secretary Robert Griffiths wants the CPB to join Respect and reclaim Labour from without. CPB chair Anita Halpin and Scottish CPB chair John Foster want no part of Respect, but wish to reclaim Labour from within. Breaking with Labour as a whole is, of course, out of the question.

As we wrote in FRFI 176, our concept of what socialists should be doing now is completely different from and opposed to that of the rest of the left. We need to build a movement which stands with those fighting imperialism – in Palestine, Iraq, Latin America. Such a movement will champion the interests of the oppressed – asylum seekers, those fighting state racism in Britain. It will stand by socialist Cuba. It will be open and democratic. Above all it will demand an irrevocable break from Labour imperialism.