No "Respect" for Class
— Jim Bywater & Sacha Ismail
IN HIS ARTICLE on Britain’s ‘Respect Coalition’ in ATC 111 (July-August 2004), Liam MacUaid used the indisputably anti-working class record of the Blair government to justify the highly disputable claim that Respect is a supportable alternative. We want to reply.
Standing against Labour
The last decade has seen the collapse of traditional forms of working-class representation in Britain, with the Blairites using their control of the Labour Party to stifle the mechanisms through which organized labor once expressed itself in politics. Labour’s conference is becoming a rally; the once- feared National Executive Committee is a rubber stamp; candidates are imposed from a hand-picked list of neoliberal clones.
A reformist, bureaucratized expression of the workers’ movement is becoming something which is not really of the workers’ movement at all.
Even “new” Labour is not the Democratic Party; the unions still have significant leverage in the party structure and could challenge Blair if their leaders wanted to. Nevertheless, with such limited space to fight, it is no longer possible to call for a blanket Labour vote while campaigning within the party for class-struggle, socialist policies and leadership. Left electoral challenges to Labour are indeed vital.
Respect: Below the Bottom Line
In many European countries, left coalitions have broken through traditional social-democratic loyalties to gain sizeable votes, from the 7% won by the Scottish Socialist Party in Scotland’s regional elections to the 10% achieved by the revolutionary left in the last French presidential ballot.
Such formations vary politically, but their success has invariably been on the basis of a clear orientation to the interests, concerns and struggles of the working class. Good election results have thus helped to build grassroots movements.
In England, 1998 saw the founding of the Socialist Alliance, encompassing all the major left organizations plus some thousands of unaffiliated activists.
Unfortunately from 2002, as the antiwar movement burgeoned, the Alliance’s dominant element, the British Socialist Workers Party, began a drive to systematically downgrade the Alliance. Unwilling to put in the consistent and patent work necessary to build a base in the labor movement, the SWP chose instead to look for allies in some increasingly bizarre places.
‘Respect — the Unity Coalition’ is the product of a flight from class politics. It is not clearly left-wing, let alone socialist. At its founding conference, the SWP-led majority voted down not only principles such as republicanism and free immigration, but the whole concept of working-class representation.
Respect has combined incoherent populism with appeals to the “Muslim community,” mass producing leaflets urging workers of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin to vote along communal lines. The SWP’s war-time alliance with the right-wing Muslim Association of Britain has been extended to the electoral sphere, with Respect’s Yorkshire Euro-elections slate headed by MAB’s Anas Altikriti — a man who condemns homosexuality, thinks “there will always be rich and poor” and wants an Islamic dictatorship in Britain.
With only the SWP and its satellites supporting Respect, it has unsurprisingly failed to make a breakthrough, scoring no better than the Socialist Alliance did in its heyday except in a few mainly Muslim areas.
George Galloway, the Glasgow MP expelled from the Labour Party during the Iraq war, is unquestionably the capital-L leader of Respect, with his name in brackets after the coalition’s on every ballot paper. Who is this man?
Unlike some other antiwar MPs, Galloway has never been a principled left-winger, supporting or not opposing Blair on issues from tuition fees to health service marketization. (See <a href="http://www.workersliberty.org/node/view/1380">http://www.workersliberty.org/node/view/1380</a>)
He supports the death penalty and vocally opposes abortion rights (Independent, 5 April 2004) — so Respect has not taken a position on abortion! Without embarrassment, he says that he “couldn’t live on two or three workers’ wages” and that £150,000 a year is the minimum he needs to “function.” (Scotsman, 19 May 2003)
This has led the SWP to abandon the long-standing socialist demand for “workers’ representatives on a workers’ wage,” despite the enormous salaries paid to many British politicians (£72,000 for a European MP, roughly $130,000).
But there is much worse. Galloway spent the nine years up to 2003 as a propagandist for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, probably the most viciously totalitarian and anti-working-class regime on the planet. From 1994, when he famously “saluted” Saddam, he met top Iraqi officials monthly, acting as a go-between for the regime with business people and journalists.
All this was paid for by funds from the semi-feudal monarchies of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia; Galloway denies none of it and justifies himself by arguing that “needs must.” (Independent, 24 April 2003)
Some comrades may be tempted to compare Respect to the presidential campaign of Ralph Nader, highly flawed but meriting critical support. However, the differences are crucial.
In Europe, there is a weakened but still living tradition of working-class and socialist organization; “radical,” non-workingclass populism is a barrier to progress, as has been shown by the right-wing record of government Green Parties in France and Germany. In the United States, by contrast, the urgent need is for labor to break out of the two party corporate system, and Nader’s populism can arguably be part of this process.
Moreover, while Nader is not a socialist, he is not an enemy of the working class either. He has spent decades working for reforms of great benefit to American workers, while Galloway betrayed their Iraqi brothers and sisters.
Supporting Nader means affirming solidarity with America’s exploited and oppressed; support for Respect is a betrayal of the oppressed, from the renascent Iraqi labor movement to feminists, democrats and socialists in Britain’s mainly Muslim communities.
British socialists should combine work in the Labour Party with support for independent working-class electoral challenges, while rejecting Respect as a reactionary blind alley.
ATC 113, November-December 2004