Respect: it all ended in tears

On 17 November the split in Respect was made final as Respect-SWP and Respect-Galloway (aka Respect Renewal) held simultaneous con- ferences in London. At the Respect-SWP conference the SWP bent over backwards to present some spurious democratic credentials; however, it was evident that the split represented a shattering blow for the organisation, four leading members having resigned or been expelled over the preceding days. The Respect-Galloway conference saw Galloway launch a vitriolic attack on the SWP leadership; his faction includes a motley collection of non-SWP social democrats as well as much of Respect’s base in Tower Hamlets. Robert Clough reports on the collapse of yet another social democratic alternative to Labour.

When Respect was set up in November 2003 we described it as a ‘reactionary movement for the privileged’, ‘an attempt to rebuild a coalition between sections of the middle class and the better-off sections of the working class – the labour aristocracy.’ (FRFI 176 December 2003/January 2004). The coalition, we argued, ‘is not trying to build anything new. It is another attempt to recreate some magic formula of the Labour left.’ Our conclusion was that socialists should not aid such a coalition but build a revolutionary working class movement.

Time has proved us right. The coalition was a shoddy and reactionary compromise between the anti-abortion Galloway and the anti-Cuba SWP. ‘Respectable’ politics took precedence over political principle. At its founding convention Respect rejected a call for the abolition of the monarchy and opposition to immigration controls to ensure it remained in step with the left of the Labour Party. The SWP used its numbers to prevent Respect from taking a position on abortion so as not to embarrass Galloway. It also ensured the defeat of a demand that Respect candidates be ‘workers’ representatives on a worker’s wage’ – there was not the slightest chance of this being acceptable to £200,000-a-year Galloway with his three houses. 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.’

Four years on, Galloway and the SWP have been trading insults about each other’s anti-democratic behaviour; such allegations represent the rare occasions that either faction have spoken the unvarnished truth: both relied on each other to suppress any vestige of democracy within Respect. The SWP complained about its shabby treatment at Galloway’s hands, reminding him how it had defended his unilateral decision to appear on Big Brother. More fool the SWP! More recently the SWP have also suggested that Galloway’s trend was ‘communalist’ in seeking to organise only within a limited Muslim constituency. Yet it had been party to all decisions that could have given rise to such accusations. Moreover it had never distanced itself from the coterie of businessmen who had funded Respect in its Tower Hamlets centre and who proved to be Galloway’s principal allies.

Within months of its establishment Respect became no more than a vehicle for the electoral ambitions of its leadership. Even on those terms its success was extremely limited: one MP and some 20 local councillors despite the hopes of its founders that it would capitalise on the anti-war sentiment of 15 February 2003. Its achievements were pitiful where there was no sizeable Muslim population. Its early refusal to stand candidates in opposition to Labour lefts, or to stand where a split vote might let in the Tories, proved that it did not represent a break from Labour, and that it could not serve as a pole of opposition to Labour imperialism and racism.

By coincidence 17 November saw another left conference: that of the Labour Representation Committee, set up by the Labour left, in its own words ‘to secure a voice for socialists within the Labour Party’. Speakers included Tony Benn and MPs Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, people whom the SWP has courted for the last few years through the Stop the War Coalition but who will never give up their positions of privilege. PCS trade union general secretary Mark Serwotka also spoke; on his way, he addressed the Respect-SWP conference calling for a ‘united left alternative to Labour’ – code for saying that there should be no rupture in the alliance with the Labour left. The SWP echoed this in its proposal to its Respect conference that there should be discussions with ‘the RMT, the Labour left, the CPB and others’ on ‘the possibility of a jointly organised conference to extend the discussion on a solution to the crisis of Labour representation.’ The possibility of breaking with Labour is completely ruled out.

Respect joins the list of those failed attempts to build a social democratic alternative to the Labour Party. The Communist Party of Great Britain and its anti-monopoly alliance, Socialist Alliance, Scottish Socialist Party and many others have all collapsed. However, in one very important sense they have succeeded: they have diverted attention away from the need to build a real anti-imperialist, anti-racist movement that breaks with the imperialist Labour Party. That job still needs to be done.

FRFI 200 December 2007/January 2008


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