The political left is currently humming with talk about the events that led up to the UK Socialist Workers Party expelling three of its leading members. For those who are not up to speed with the minutely of UK left wing politics, in early 2004, along with the former Labour Party MP George Galloway, the SWP leadership set up what they regarded as a Front organization called the Respect Party. The main purpose of the new organization was to act as an electoral front to hover up the votes of those people who had become disillusioned with the Labour Party due to the war on Iraq. Galloway and the SWP tops calculated that this was a sizable constituency, not least because they believed it included a majority of the UK’s Muslim community.
Whilst naming the new organization the Respect Party [RP] it was no such thing in reality, as it had none of the normal democratic structures that are common to most political party’s within Western democracies. From its inception Respect was a top down outfit with two competing power centers, the SWP Central Committee and a group who increasingly coalesced around the personality of George Galloway. Whilst Respect was on a roll this absence of inner party democracy seemed not to matter, however when recruitment to the new organization slowed to a trickle, members began to look for the reasons why.
There is no doubt that Respect managed to recruit from and gain the votes of a sizable section of England’s muslim communities, especially in east London where Galloway was elected an MP and parts of the north west like Preston. However in order to maintain this support its leadership increasingly tailored Respect’s platform and propaganda to meet the approval of the more conservative elements with in the muslim communities. Thus Gay Rights and women’s equality became an elephant in the corner when ever Respect held a public meeting or produced an election leaflet.
Instead of challenging these more conservative elements within the muslim communities on these core equality issue in the hope of winning them over to progressive politics, just as the Left had done with the white working classes in the 1960s-70-80s. The RP leadership, especially Galloway and those grouped around him went out of their way to accommodate those who held bigoted views on these issues.
Matters came to a head after Galloway, perhaps sensing that there was a SWP plot against him, moved first; and demanded that a new post of RP National Organizer be created, having already lined up a close supporter to fill the post. His methodology being that this post would make the current RP national secretary John Rees, a leading member of the SWP who Galloway detests, all but redundant. The SWP Central committee had other ideas and to cut a long boring story short, the current brouhaha broke out within the SWP CC when three of its members sided with Galloway against Rees and his CC cronies..
On the internet, Left wing political activists, anorak’s and the odd gossip have pondered this matter until the cows come home and as is often the way with us leftists drawn all the wrong conclusions. Basically the common thread of their criticism is that either Galloway is to blame due to his right wing politics, or the SWP CC is for entering into a popular front which was based on communal politics. Now whilst there is a germ of truth in both theories they are far from the main reason why this situation has arisen.
For one only has to glance at what has occurred in the Respect Party since its formation and the fault line that has caused this kerfuffle jumps out at one and bellows the reasons into one’s ear. For a start it is worth remembering that the SWP CC has a long history of forming front organization which allow them to punch way above their actual political weight. They also have a history of imploding these Fronts if it looks like they are losing control of them.
The problems within Respect have evolved because many, if not a majority of its non SWP membership believed that in the Respect Party, they were joining the embryo of a new left of Labour political Party. Which as I have aforementioned was never the intentions of the Party’s founders George Galloway and the SWP CC. That Respect never had the democratic trappings of a normal political party should have forewarned new members, for both of the founding factions understood clearly that were the RP to have these democratic structures, it would quickly gain a life of its own, and they would lose control of the organization to the Party membership.
If anyone still doubts this then perhaps they should ask themselves what the SWP Central Committee was doing deciding who would or would not become National Organizer of the Respect Party. Whilst members of the SWP CC like John Rees and Rob Hoveman are active members of the Respect Party, a majority of the SWP CC are not. One could also ask why the two full time employees of Respect, Hoveman and Rees are discussing the internal affairs of the Respect Party with non members. Can you imagine members of the LP NEC discussing who should become a full time employee of the Liberal Democrats, in their dreams perhaps.
But for those who exist in this ‘mockney revolutionary’ world this is not thought of as a strange undemocratic occurrence. Why should it be, for within the Respect Party [and the SWP] there are no mechanisms which allow the party membership to hold its leadership to account. Members for example have very little say as to who is to be placed on a candidates list, what happens is a slate comes down from on high, presumably endorsed by those non members who sit on that august body the SWP CC.
There are real lessons here for the English left, not least that whilst a new progressive party to the left of the UK Labour Party is desperately needed, the Respect Party debacle is yet another example of why it is never going to emerge from groups like the SWP. The British trade unions are the only organizations in the country that have the support of millions of working people. Thus the honor will fall to a section of this movement to act as midwife to a new Left Party. That is not to say the members of organizations like the SWP should not be welcomed as individual members into a new Left Party, but their leaderships are so steeped in top down Leninist politics that it is difficult to see them playing anything but a destructive role.