An assessment of the Respect conference
This attack on broader coalitions is completely out of kilter with the needs of the political situation. We are facing the most important and dangerous general election for a generation, and we cannot approach it just through the prism of getting Respect candidates elected — important as that is. The left, and Respect as a part of it, has a responsibility to provide an alternative to the widest possible spectrum of the electorate as is possible — difficult as this may have repeatedly proved to be in the recent past.
The Tories are poised to launch an even bigger attack on the working class than Labour if they are elected and the far right is waiting in the wings in the form of the BNP and the racist UKIP to capitalise on the unprecedented unpopularity of the main parties through the expenses debacle. The left has a responsibility to maximise its intervention into the election not just to provide a desperately needed alternative to New Labour but as a cutting edge against the far right — which no one else is going to provide. This was absolutely clear from Nick Griffin’s appearance on the BBC’s Question Time where the only response from the main parties to the BNP was that they were perfectly capable of cracking down on immigration themselves.
The conference actually started very well, and on precisely this subject, with a substantial session on “one society many cultures’ introduced very strongly by Salma Yaqoob. She presented racism, Islamophobia and the rise of the far right firmly in the context of state racism and the economic and social policies of Brown’s Labour Government. This triggered a very good debate on the far right and how to confront it and on state bans against the BNP and where the left should stand on them.
It was a real discussion over legitimate differences and exactly the kind of debate which should take place in a broad organisation like Respect. Socialist Resistance speakers argued against state bans on the basis that they are generally used against the left whilst Socialist Action, the only other organized current inside Respect, appeared to be the main proponent of the opposing point of view.
This positive atmosphere changed rather dramatically, however, with the arrival of George Galloway — who first introduced and replied to a question and answer session, and later replied to the session on electoral strategy. His response to an emergency motion by Nick Wrack and others, proposing a positive response to the new No2Eu type initiative, turned the conference inwards. It was also contrary to the National Council resolution on the agenda which called for a positive approach to such developments.
Even if the movers of the emergency motion overestimated the possibilities of the new No2Eu, at the present stage at least, and underestimated its potential problems and were not prepared to accept that the issue was already covered by the NC resolution the reaction to them was completely misplaced and contrary to the ethos we should be building inside Respect.
Respect is part of the answer
It got worse, however, since George Galloway went on to use his interventions to launch a sustained attack on any idea of supporting the new coalition, or similar initiatives, in any way, and he included some very unpleasant references to the far left and the Communist Party. The perspective he projected was that Respect can provide an alternative single handed and this starts with success in its three target seats in the general election.
But Respect has never seen itself as the answer to the crisis of working class representation in this way, certainly not since the split with the SWP. Both the founding conference after the split and last year’s conference both stressed that Respect was, hopefully, a part of the answer along with others.
George Galloway was strong on electoral arrangements with the Greens following Respects support for Peter Cranie in the North West and the Greens standing aside for Salma in Sparkbrook. This is very welcome and necessary as has been shown in the North West Euro elections and recently in Sparkbrook. But it cannot be a substitute for a united left of Labour electoral initiative since the Greens will not join such an initiative in the foreseeable future, however positive collaboration with them becomes.
He claimed that the division inside Respect is between those like himself who want to reach out to our right and others who want to reach out to our left. But that’s not correct. Everyone in Respect wants to reach out to our right, but this needs to be done from a basis of maximum left unity. If you cannot unite the left itself how can you unite with those to your right? A left alternative without the left is a contradiction in terms.
We need to unite the broadest number of workers, campaigning activists, members of ethnic and religious minorities (some of the most oppressed section of the working class), socialist organisations, trade unionists, and all who want to fight for a left, anti-racist, alternative to new Labour around a broad campaigning platform.
This should include — as Respect policy already does — opposition to the war, the neoliberal agenda of privatisation and to redundancies and cuts in pay and public services to pay for the crisis. It should be in favour of the nationalisation of banks and bankrupt companies under proper democratic control to protect jobs and of large–scale government investment into the national infrastructure based on, in particular, renewable energy and measures to tack climate change. There is a wide spectrum of individual activists or of those currently organised to our ‘right’ who would agree with such an action platform, particularly at a time of crisis.
Top down control
This is certainly the way it has been done in other parts of Europe where successful left alternatives of different varieties have been built — first unite the left and then reach out from there on the basis of concrete policies. This was the case with the Left Bloc in Portugal, Die Linke in Germany, the Red Green Alliance in Denmark and the Scottish Socialist Party— before it split. They were all successful because they drew together all, or most, of the existing left and then reached out to others from there.
All these examples have another lesson within them as well — that of internal democracy. We have seen an epidemic of top-down control on the British left in recent years which unfortunately had a reflection in the kind of intolerance shown at the conference. Socialist Resistance supported George Galloway’s letter to the Respect NC two and half years ago — the reaction to which by the SWP precipitated the split — precisely because it was an appeal for democracy and pluralism in the structures of Respect. Let’s continue on that path — since it is excluded that a strong and viable left alternative can be constructed without a strong and viable democracy.
Responding to a question as to who he would advocate voting for in the general election in constituencies where Respect was not standing he said Labour — the only exceptions he could see to that was where a green or left of Labour candidate had a chance of winning, as was the case with Caroline Lucas in Brighton. But as I pointed out in my intervention, this is far too pessimistic an approach and would reduce the left of Labour votes to single figures — a point George Galloway acknowledged.
But we have to be clear about it. We should call for a vote for Labour against the Tories and the far right where there is no left alternative. But where there are credible left or green left candidates we should support them irrespective of whether they have a chance of winning. We have to give as many people as possible an alternative to the three main parties, and we have to establish a tradition voting to the left of Labour in order for an alternative to evolve.
Nor it is clear yet as to what left candidacies will be in place by the time of the general election. There are a number of local initiatives developing which are likely to be supportable and with which Respect should work closely. It should work with the greens on avoiding clashes and mutual support for key candidates. An open and positive attitude at this stage is therefore very important both at the national and local level.
The task for Respect, and its newly elected NC, following the conference, is the implementation resolutions adopted by conference. These were very good and wide ranging — from electoral reform to free public transport — and provide an excellent basis for the election campaign as well as guidance as to how Respect relates to any new left alliances which might emerge whether it is a successor to no2eu or anything else at local or national level.
At the same time Respect needs to prepare to defend the working class against attacks launched by either Labour or the Tories either before or after the election.
The move to the right by Respect in Birmingham and turning its back on the developing formations on the left is a real set back. No matter, I would suggest we wish the leadership of Respect and Socialist Action well (their politics are well suited!)and good luck to them in their target seats -they will have a real fight on their hands.
Socialists, trade unionists and campaigners should seek to reach out, work together and unite with the much bigger and significant forces developing. In Lewisham we have done this -the left have come together, adopted a constitution and now formed a political party -Lewisham People Before Profit! http://www.lewishampeopleb4profit.org.uk.
We are considering organising a conference in the New Year inviting the local progressive parties that are developing -from Wigan, Walsall, Northampton, Liverpool, Newcastle, Barrow and Cambridge. New parties are in the process of being registered. Lets seek to unite and bring the best of these forces into any broader trade union and socialist alliance that takes shape in the coming weeks. These are real forces in working class communities that are much better building blocks for a new party of the left.
Left Unity is paramount to the future of the Respect programme, but not at any price.
The hot and cold appearances of NO2EU at only election time shows a tendency to disrupt rather than unite left unity organisations that have an established history of standing in elections.
I do not believe we have the time to put any energy into helping the “sensible ones” and I like many on the left are wary of their half hearted commitment to elections and extra parliamentary activity
“They [Left blocs in Europe] were all successful because they drew together all, or most, of the existing left and then reached out to others from there.”
No, their uneven success to date is mainly a function of the fact that they represent something real in the class struggle, and not a telephone directory of the Far Left. It is also that fact which prevents the regurgitation of petty sectarianisms characteristic of this article.
The SR desire to see all the ‘Left’ in one big tent falls at the very first hurdle; if No2EU had a mass base, other breaks to the Left of Labour would be obliged to respond to them. But it doesn’t- as seen by its pitiful electoral results.