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What the election means

Andy Newman

 

Those of us on the left who are not enamoured of the Respect project must resist the temptation to damn with only faint praise. Instead we should recognise that the victory of George Galloway in Bethnal Green, and the almost as good results for Salma Yaqoob, Lindsay German and Oli Rahman, is of historic importance.

New Labour has been punished for the crimes of the Iraq war, and the authority of Blair as the war leader who can deliver British military support for George Bush has been crushed. Although Labour won the election, Blair stands personally defeated in the eyes of his party, of his country and of the whole world. As George Galloway says: "Within minutes the voicemail and text memory of my mobile phone were full with messages of congratulation from Fallujah, Baghdad, Lebanon and many other places that have so much reason to detest what Blair has done in our name." The victory is all the sweeter because Blair has been humbled by those beneath his consideration, the poor of London's most deprived borough, the families of immigrants and those of us who Blair describes as the "forces of conservatism", we who believe that the solidarity of organised labour is still the hope of the world.

Writing in the Independent last week, Mo Mowlem commented that with a dramatically reduced parliamentary majority, Blair must now negotiate with his back-benchers, and his weakened authority may increase the preparedness of backbench Labour MPs to resist the neo-labourist agenda. Mowlem points out that Blair probably lacks the personal parliamentary skill, and background in the traditions of his Party, to accomplish this. Whether he survives or not, the abiding image of Blair will now always be of his haunted eyes, hiding behind an impassive mask, as he stood just feet behind Reg Keys, the man whose son Blair has killed, as Keys in a dignified and moving speech stripped any comfort away from Blair's pyrrhic triumph.

But in order to understand the implications of the election, we must also look at the bigger picture. I was very surprised to read the following in the SWP's internal mailing, Party Notes: "Some comrades are asking why party notes on Friday didn't concentrate more on the poorer Respect results. The answer is simple. Galloway's election victory means that all bets are off. Even if your local result was disappointing, the Bethnal Green and Bow result means that we can build a whole new Respect in your area in short order. Of course we have to learn many lessons from each local campaign. Of course we have to ask if we were able to tap into the networks that Respect keyed into in East London and Birmingham. But it would be crazy to generalise from a poor vote when we have just had an MP elected. Votes in Birmingham, Tottenham and Preston show that this was not East End exceptionalism. The main lesson to learn is that Respect is now in a completely different league from anything else the left has produced in this country for 60 years."

Respect's good votes predominantly came in about 10 constituencies, where there was no prospect of a Tory victory, and where there were large Moslem populations. Some of the poorer Respect votes, in safe Labour seats like Luton South, or Bradford North probably do reflect weaker campaigns, and the SWP's argument is correct here that the positive energy gained by Galloway's victory may be able to correct any such problems. However, many of Respect's other poorer votes are indicative, along with the poor votes of many other left candidates, that in much of the country the issue of the Iraq war was subsumed under a much greater imperative of stopping the Tories winning. This is a very important consideration, that most class conscious workers still have loyalty, however reluctantly, to the electoral party of organised Labour. Where the opposite prevailed, and the contest became a close Tory/Labour marginal then Respect's vote suffered badly - this is particularly clear in Respect's results in Hove and Dorset South, as with the Socialist Green Unity Coalition results in North Swindon and Crawley. We must understand this if we are to explain how excellent candidates like Tony Staunton in Plymouth, or Heather Falconer in Neath, who will have fought energetic and imaginative campaigns, performed so poorly.

So there are three questions to be answered: i) is the political context behind Respect's victory going to continue sufficiently to sustain it, ii) do the community and faith networks that sustained Respect's campaign in Birmingham and East London even exist in other parts of the country; iii) can Respect attract wider support, particularly from trade unionists breaking from New Labour?

Galloway's article in response to his victory makes an interesting argument. "Not since 1945 has a party to the left of Labour in England won a seat in parliament. Then it was Phil Piratin, Communist hero of the Jewish East End. Today it is Respect, standing in his old constituency. Sixty years ago Piratin's victory came as the Labour Party was cementing its hegemony over the British working class. Today it comes as New Labour is shredding those bonds, leaving in its wake the bitter tears of those it has taken for granted for far too long. The meaning of our victory is that those people can no longer be taken for granted."

I don't think it is nit-picking to point out that in 1945 there were 4 left of Labour MPs elected. In addition to the Communist, Phil Piratin, in Stepney, Willie Gallagher retained his Fife seat for the CP, Naomi Mitchison won Chelmsford for the left wing Common Wealth party; and Independent Labour candidate, D N Pritt (the Galloway of his age?) was also returned to parliament. Piratin and Gallagher both built their success on years of solid campaigning in their communities, and in particular Phil Piratin had built his reputation fighting over housing issues. In contrast, Pritt was elected as Labour MP for Hammersmith North in 1935, but was expelled from the Labour Party for supporting the Soviet invasion of Finland. He fought the seat again in 1945 and beat the official Labour candidate in a bad tempered, acrimonious battle.

All of the far-left MPs elected in 1945 were elected on the back of resentment over the issue of the delayed second front. There was a widespread perception in the Labour movement that the US and British governments had deliberately delayed the invasion of France in order to allow the Soviet Union to endure the brunt of the fighting. This was particularly true of the Common Wealth party, who had won a series of spectacular by-elections during the war. But the high point of their electoral success was also a catharsis over the issue upon which it was predicated.

Two very real questions for Respect are whether its electoral success is solely based upon opposition to the Iraq war, and the degree to which Labour has "shed its bonds" as Galloway puts it with the working class. One lesson that may be drawn in Millbank from this election is that by playing a big scare card about the Tories they have got way with it, and under our current electoral system, they can indeed take the working class vote for granted. If Blair goes and is replaced by Brown, and particularly if British troops are withdrawn from Iraq over the next 12 months, under whatever terms, then the electorate may consider the task of electorally removing Blair as "mission accomplished". Like in 1945 the protest vote may itself have given catharsis, and allow the Labour Party to move on, under a new leader.

Although Respect's achievements are great in forging an alliance with Islamic leaders and community activists over the question of the war, it is not a recipe that can easily be used in areas with only small Moslem faith communities. The Iraq war is unlikely to dominate the British political agenda indefinitely, and once the issue becomes less important then unless Respect can present itself as a national organisation with aspirations to real influence, then it will struggle to maintain relevance for its Islamic component. Another very real danger is that the backbone of Respect in many parts of the country is the SWP, but they will only prioritise Respect work in elections, in the same way they did in the Socialist Alliance. Even where there are good intentions, the "party building" imperative will push them on to building for G8, then Marxism, then an autumn Stop the War demo, etc. For each of these (in themselves commendable) activities their activists will work wearing their SWP hats, not through Respect.

The strategic opportunity for the left resides in the conflict between the Labour Party's neo-liberal agenda, and its own base in the trade unions, particularly in the public sector. The structural and constitutional changes in the Labour party symbolised by the removal of Clause Four also marginalise the left, and it is hard to see how the Labour Party will ever again attract and retain lay union and community activists. To a certain degree our opportunities to build something out of this have been severely compromised by Arthur Scargill's authoritarianism in the SLP, and by the behaviour of the SWP in destroying the Socialist Alliance.

Nevertheless, Respect seems poorly placed to engage with this constituency. It should be remembered that leading members of the Socialist Alliance from a Labour Party background were hounded out of Respect at last year's conference. The organisation is profoundly undemocratic, as we have seen from the bully boy tactics used in Birmingham and Cambridge Respect to exclude any non-SWP socialist voices. Similar murky goings on were reported from Luton. What is more, there is a disregard for conference decisions, last year's conference voted that there would be a national publication in the lead up to the general election, but this has not appeared. Even though this decision was hailed as an important gain by the International Socialist Group (ISG), as a stepping stone for Respect becoming a broad party, their members of the national steering committee seem to have been unable to ensure that it was enacted. Nor is Galloway an uncomplicated figure, or one who will draw support from the trade union movement.

The victory of Labour for a third term will be of historic significance. New Labour seems set for an early confrontation with the public sector over pensions. The limited concessions given to the unions at Warwick will need to be enacted by Labour in full; and rebellions by left Labour MP's may have an effect on the government's legislative programme not seen since the Callaghan government. This is a far better situation than we would have been in had Blair enjoyed a landslide victory or had the Tories won. But we should also be clear that the result is not the product of the popular will, but of our peculiar and undemocratic electoral system, where governments are won or lost by a few thousand, undecided, swing voters in a handful of marginal constituencies. This means that the Labour government is still out of step with the electorate, and we can expect battles where the left inside and outside the Labour Party must support each other.

The recent victory of Matt Wrack, a socialist with an impeccable record of struggle and respect for democracy, as the leader of the Fire-brigades union; combined with the current position of the railworkers' union the RMT, whose general secretary Bob Crow recently called for a new workers' party, may also create exciting possibilities in the medium term; although the composition of the national executives of each union will also prove influential.

Respect have made a significant advance, but for the workers' movement to capitalise upon that gain requires that Respect resists hubris. Overall the Greens did better than Respect, and are a more mature organisation with less precarious electoral base. What is more the Greens continue to evolve in a leftwards direction. There remain many thousands of socialist activists without a home, most of whom do not find themselves attracted by Respect, for many reasons, but not least due to its undemocratic internal structure. Many thousands of others will remain in the Labour Party believing that they can recapture it from the neo-labourites.

To win we must work together. But this will only be done by practical collaboration over immediate issues. There will be no shortage of campaigns to unite over, from ID cards, to the No campaign for the European constitution, in defence of the public sector pensions, over the environment, and in opposition to George Bush's imperial ambitions. The leadership of Respect must take their responsibilities seriously and work to ensure that their organisation becomes inclusive and democratic, and a sea-change is required in the activities and behaviour of those members of the SWP who regard Respect as their personal property.

 

May 2005

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