Respect for Labour

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On 20 March, as part of a worldwide day of protest marking one year since the start of the war on Iraq, demonstrators trod the usual route between Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square in London on a demonstration called by the Stop The War Coalition (STWC). Organisers initially claimed 100,000 marchers, later revising this downward to 75,000. However, there were too few protesters to fill Trafalgar Square, the South African Embassy side remaining empty throughout the rally at the end. Furthermore, the march took less than an hour to leave Hyde Park, which makes the police estimate of 25,000 a rare approximation to the truth. The fact is that the demonstration was much smaller than that which took place during Bush’s visit to Britain last autumn, let alone the one before war started on 15 February 2003. What has happened? Bob Shepherd explains.

The left set the limits of the anti-war movement in December 2002 when Lindsey German, convenor of the STWC and leading member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), together with Jeremy Corbyn MP and other Labour lefts signed an open letter calling on Tony Blair ‘to give a clear undertaking not to engage in military action against Iraq without the explicit authority of the United Nations and without an explicit decision of the House of Commons to do so.’

The letter was an attempt to create an alliance with Labour MPs who would not oppose a war in principle but who might be persuaded to vote against if there was no UN agreement. The result was a fiasco. Those Old Labour MPs who might have made a difference – in particular Robin Cook and Clare Short – kept quiet. Even though they knew the war was illegal, even though they knew about dodgy dossiers and suspect intelligence, they refused to break ranks. Their belated resignation from the government came not through a sudden discovery of political principle, but personal pique – and it made no political difference. The war had already happened, the movement had been defeated. The left had proved incapable of building the mass opposition to the war into a force that would make British imperialist participation impossible. The Labour government was able to shrug off the challenge.

The results of the US-British invasion and the subsequent occupation of Iraq include tens of thousands dead. Blair has been shameless in his defence of the war, arguing that pre-emptive strikes against any state that British imperialism perceives as a threat to its interests are justified and that international law should be altered to legalise any such action. But the left has learned nothing from its failure. Instead it has extended its policy of allying itself with any force to its right through the establishment of electoral coalitions with the same ‘left’ Labour politicians and trade union leaders who have been on their platforms since before the war began.

Since we assessed Respect in FRFI 177 the coalition has been organising conventions to select candidates for local and European elections. The turnout for these conventions has been poor – in line with the attendance on 20 March. The Northwest ‘Convention of the Left’ in Manchester attracted 250 – less than half that anticipated. In Liverpool there were 50, in Brighton 80, and in Nottingham 60. 130 attended the All-London Convention. Such figures are not indicative of something new; they are not consistent with new forces being drawn into political activity. Those attending have been the same tired old forces that tried to build the Socialist Alliance – and which then ditched it when they found it was going nowhere.

The politics of Respect are old and tired as well. At its founding convention, the desire to play the electoral game was clear to see as ‘respectable’ politics overcame political principle. Amongst amendments that were debated and lost was a call for the abolition of the monarchy and opposition to immigration controls. In the debate on immigration controls, a leading SWP member argued that whilst his organisation is ‘in abstract and principle in favour of this, it is too advanced for the ordinary people we are trying to win, they would not understand it’. Instead Respect should focus on defending refugees from deportation – but even then only on a case by case basis.

The Anti-Nazi League
The SWP took this standpoint on immigration controls when it set up the Anti Nazi League (ANL) in the mid-1970s. Then too they voted down calls for opposition to immigration controls because that was the view of their left Labour MP allies of the time such as Sid Bidwell, Neil Kinnock, Peter Hain and Tony Benn. Sid Bidwell, a prominent ‘left’ MP of the time, had declared in relation to immigration ‘there is sometimes a case for severe restrictions on entry’. He also signed a racist Select Committee Report calling for stricter controls on immigration from the Indian sub-continent. When a motion was put at its founding conference arguing that the ANL ‘rejects the view that harmonious race relations can be constructed on the basis of immigration acts’, ANL convenor Paul Holborrow of the SWP responded: ‘The ANL is too important to drive back into the straitjacket the majority of us have come from.’ By focusing its attention on the major fascist organisation of the time, the National Front, the ANL covered up for the virulent racism of the 1974-79 Labour government, a government which defended apartheid South Africa, used death squads against Irish Republicans, and sanctioned vicious police attacks on black and Asian people. Whilst the left called for a Labour vote in June 1979, many black and Irish people, fed up with Labour’s racism and imperialism, abstained. In November 1979, a demonstration of 20,000 Asian workers booed Tony Benn when he tried to defend the record of the government of which he had been a part.

Fighting fascism?
Fast forward 25 years and the same arguments are being trotted out again. Once more the left are inflating the danger that the fascists present in order to preserve an alliance with the Labour left. Respect is only standing in the European and Greater London elections where, as George Galloway put it, ‘there is no threat of a Tory victory’. On 13 March, the SWP and its allies ensured that the Socialist Alliance conference agreed that it should not stand candidates in the 10 June elections without the permission of Respect. This opens up the possibility of the left calling for a Labour vote where the BNP is standing candidates. But brutal and racist though the BNP is, Labour is far more dangerous because it has at its disposal all the forces of the state: the army, police, judiciary and prisons. What is clear is that Respect will not mount a challenge to the Labour Party itself. As George Galloway put it at the Northwest Convention of Respect, ‘this is where Tony Blair has taken the Labour Party, into war against its history, against its instincts!’ If Labour’s ‘instincts’ are against war, there is no need to break from it.

The fact is that Galloway’s anti-war Labour Party is a complete fiction: the Irish people know this, as do the people of Malaya, Vietnam, Indonesia and those of many other countries which have suffered at the hands of Labour. Galloway’s invention is important to him however because it keeps open the possibility of a return to its ranks in the future. The left however has no excuse in endorsing this – but, far from fighting to raise the political consciousness of the movement, the left has conspired to keep it at the lowest possible level. What it has created is a movement out of which numerous placemen hope to build their political careers and where personalities count for more than politics. Such a movement will not fight Labour racism, and nor will it be able to defeat fascism.

Real politics today
The STWC and Respect are not engaged in serious politics. If we look around us and see the appalling conditions that face the people of Iraq, the inhuman treatment of the Palestinian people, the promotion of this or that personality – whether it be George Galloway or Ken Livingstone – does not represent a serious response. Imperialist states are jockeying for position, testing each other’s strength. France wants to extend its influence in the Caribbean and in Asia, Britain wants to make Gadafi its own.

Millions of people in Britain know that the Labour Party has lied to them time and time again. Their political interests will not be met through some electoral charade, but through the forging of a real alliance with millions more who are fighting back against imperialism in the rest of the world: in Nepal, Iraq, Palestine, Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba. That is why the RCG calls for the building of a real anti-imperialist movement, one which champions the interests of the oppressed – asylum seekers and those fighting state racism in Britain, one which is open and democratic, and one which above all demands an irrevocable break from Labour imperialism.

FRFI 178 April / May 2004