Failure for Respect – the European elections

The outcome of the 10 June European and Greater London Assembly (GLA) elections was a major setback for the political strategy of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Its Respect coalition failed to get any candidate elected to either the GLA or European parliament. Out of the ten European constituencies Respect stood in, it only broke the 1.5% barrier in three, and only in London did Respect poll more than the British National Party (BNP). Bob Shepherd reports.

In the GLA elections Respect failed to win a seat from the party list; its best showing by far was in City and East London where they got 19,675 votes, 15.0%. The City and East constituency covers Tower Hamlets and areas with a large Muslim community. Within a few days, George Galloway had announced he would stand as a Respect candidate in a local constituency at the next general election – a move that used to be known as carpet-bagging.

The political argument used by the SWP and George Galloway to justify the formation of the Respect coalition and its participation in the European and London elections was twofold. First, the war on Iraq had mobilised hundreds of thousands of people in opposition to ‘Blair and the New Labour clique’. Second, that alongside this there is a crisis of electoral representation, a democratic deficit at the heart of British politics. In the words of SWP leader John Rees: ‘The views of ordinary people in this country are failing to find any register inside the mainstream political process.’

The response of the SWP was to extend the parliamentary strategy it had pursued through the Stop the War Coalition (STWC) for stopping Britain’s participation in the war. STWC tried to create an alliance of anti-war but pro-imperialist MPs, those who were concerned at the potential damage to British imperialist interests in the Middle East if war went ahead. These included the likes of Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy. Having tried to use demonstrations against the war on Iraq to pressurise parliament, the SWP now wanted to use the demonstrators to elect Respect candidates.

Galloway expressed the hopes of Respect: ‘If just half of the people who marched against war in London last year vote for Respect in June, then a new political force will be born. If we get a million votes then we will knock them off their seats in Westminster and change the political face of Britain forever’. The SWP saw that the proportional representation system for the European and GLA elections provided an opening for a ‘left’ alternative to ‘New Labour’.

To this end, the SWP made sure that Respect offered no real challenge to the Labour Party. For instance, during the GLA and London mayoral elections, Lindsey German made it clear that Respect was against Blair and ‘New’ Labour but not against Labour candidates such as Jeremy Corbyn or Ken Livingstone. Within days of being elected, Livingstone was calling on tube workers to cross the picket lines during a one-day strike at the end of June.

The decision to concentrate on an electoral strategy led inevitably to the winding down of an already declining STWC. The consequence of this was clear with the feeble STWC mobilisations for the handover of power in Iraq on 30 June. Street activities against the occupation of Iraq are practically non-existent. Respect achieved its largest votes in Muslim areas. The political mobilisation of these same Muslim communities against the war and in support of the Palestinian Intifada has been pushed into the dead end of electoral politics.

The failure of the anti-BNP strategy
Nor was the SWP’s strategy any more successful in dealing with the BNP. Nationally, the BNP got over 850,000 votes in the European election, more than three times the support for Respect. Worse, however, was the vote for the more ‘respectable’ racists of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which gained over 2.25 million votes and twelve MEPs. Two of UKIP’s MEPs, Jeffrey Titford and Mike Nattrass, are ex-members of the New Britain Party which was founded as a pro-Rhodesia and anti-‘coloured immigration’ party. UKIP fought a campaign which singled out asylum seekers for vitriolic attack, and which rode on leader Robert Kilroy-Silk’s well-known anti-Arab racism. Both the votes for UKIP and BNP were a vote for racism. Only an anti-racist position can deal with this – but the SWP avoided this by allying with Ken Livingstone of the racist Labour Party in Unite Against Fascism. It proved completely ineffectual.

The SWP’s intervention in the electoral arena was a logical extension of the opportunist political line it had peddled in the STWC. It relied on keeping an alliance with sections of the Labour left and its goal was to reclaim the Labour Party from New Labour. This pointless objective has been a disaster for the development of a real anti-imperialist movement in Britain. It sucked the life from the anti-war movement, restricting it to what is acceptable to the Labour left, then led it into the dead end of Respect. For this the SWP must take full responsibility. It put the gravy train of elected office before the real political task that faces any serious movement in Britain, building a militant, anti-imperialist movement on the streets which opposes the Labour Party.

FRFI 180 August / September 2004