Salma Yaqoob’s resignation from Respect can, or so it seems from the outside, only mean the death of the organisation writes Liam Mac Uaid. The announcement on her website says “I feel necessary relations of trust and collaborative working have unfortunately broken down.” This can only be a reference to her public criticism of George Galloway’s defence of what he termed Julian Assange’s “bad sexual etiquette” and, perhaps, his remarks on disabled people.
We can assume that it alludes to intense discussions inside the party and the decision by Kate Hudson to stand down as a parliamentary candidate. It’s rare that two such prominent figures in an organisation are willing to take a public stand on a matter of principle and it it is obvious that political responsibility for this setback for Respect is entirely George Galloway’s. If a Labour MP had made similar statements he would have had the whip withdrawn from him and would, most, likely be facing expulsion from the party. “He” is used deliberately in this context. Only a particular type of man would be so cavalier in his attitudes to alleged sexual offences.
The end of Respect is a defeat for the left in Britain and George Galloway holds the unique distinction of having had three opportunities to build a new party to the left of Labour and ruining every one.
In the period after his election in Bethnal Green Respect was an attractive force to many on the traditional left and, more importantly, had achieved real support in some of the poorest parts of England, areas with large immigrant communities. Galloway actively resisted converting this potential into the reality of a party, preferring, with the SWP, a looser coalition which was often hard to distinguish from a personality vehicle. While it’s true that electoral parties need publicly recognisable figureheads with good media skills, his undoubted talents in that area allowed him a freedom from the party’s authority which resulted in the Big Brother charade.
Priorities and limitations
Unexpectedly, most of all to supporters of Socialist Resistance, Galloway appeared to accept many of our criticisms of the old way in which Respect operated. This led to the split with the SWP and the re-establishment of Respect. It retained a good proportion of the independent left and a strong electoral base in Tower Hamlets, Birmingham and other areas. Salma Yaqoob came very close to winning another Westminster seat. However the old ways of working won out. Although she developed a good media presence the party reverted to being dominated by its MP. Its priorities were his priorities and severe limitations were imposed on building Respect as a party. By not opposing this method and endorsing Galloway’s priorities, including his quixotic attempt to stand in Scotland, Salma had some responsibility for these setbacks.
The Bradford by election which Galloway won was the third and final opportunity to put Respect at the centre of creating a new force on the left of British politics. New blood, including Kate Hudson, flowed into Respect with the vision of linking it to the emerging European left. SYRIZA was an explicit point of reference and there was little difference between the ideas of those comrades and supporters of Socialist Resistance on the urgency of, and possibility of, building a new left party in Britain.
For those who were members and those who voted for it, Respect was a party which offered an alternative to capitalist austerity; it was the anti-war party; it had good positions on ecology. If the leadership had seen, as part of its role, the importance of equipping its members with the political confidence to go out and argue for its programme and to feel able to assert their own voices inside the party George Galloway may not have felt able to come out with the outrageous statements he did. Perhaps also those who wanted to take a principled stand against him would have been able to do so inside the party. The tragedy is that the apologist for poor “sexual etiquette” remains in Respect and those who want to hold him to account are forced out.
Salma Yaqoob retains the potential to be a major figure on the British left, at a time when the ecological crisis is about to become a major factor in people’s lives and every day they feel themselves getting poorer and more economically insecure. At the same time Respect has many important lessons about what to do, and what not to do, for the left. What seems to be lacking is a willingness to rise to the scale of the challenge on the part of the existing organised left.