The Socialist Unity Network
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A mixed bag of results

Andy Newman


Immediate reaction to RESPECT election results: What a mixed bag.


A very strong showing in London. RESPECT actually topped the poll in Tower Hamlets and came second in Newham. Getting nearly 5% in the Euro poll (91175 votes) was a fantastic result, beating the BNP. This is much higher than I was expecting, and also remained undetected by the professional polling organizations - suggesting that RESPECT's vote was perhaps demographically weighted to ethnic minorities, the young, and people who don't normally vote. This level of support for RESPECT was even missed by those web sites
specializing on predicting election results for betting.


The result of 1.9% across Yorkshire and Humberside was also good, reflecting the strong lead candidate, Anas Altakriti. Had the left vote not been split with the Alliance for Green Socialism in this constituency, a deposit would have been comfortably saved. The West Midland vote of 2.41% is also very good - reflecting the first class campaign conducted in that constituency.


Unfortunately, some of the results outside these strong regions are comparable to (or worse than) those achieved by the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) in 1999 - who did not produce a leaflet for universal mailing, but did have the well established brand name "socialist". It is notable that in the South East RESPECT got less votes than the Senior Citizens Party and the English Democrats, and did no better than the "Peace Party".

 
In some regions, in electoral terms at least, RESPECT seems to have no better than the Socialist Alliance might have done. Given that the launch of RESPECT has been very divisive to the left in the towns and cities in these regions, it is legitimate to ask whether things could have been done differently.


Interestingly the RESPECT vote in Wales (0.6%) was no lower than in South East England (0.6%), suggesting that they may not have been directly competing with Forward Wales for the same votes.


What does this say about the prospect for a left unity project?


The necessity for left unity arises out of the current state of the class struggle - in that sense it is independent upon the success or failure of any particular initiative. We therefore need to look at the specific circumstances that gave rise to RESPECT.


Across Europe the traditional Social Democratic parties have embraced neo-liberalism, and the opposition currents within these parties against open class collaboration are extremely weak. The anti-Globalisation movement has presented a diverse series of ideological challenges to the neo-liberal orthodoxies that has opened a space up for the left. In some countries there has been significant strike action against neo-liberal policies. As a result
parties to the left of Social Democracy have been able to make modest but significant and sustained electoral advance, for example in France, Italy and Scotland.


What is important to understand is that this space can be filled by those prepared to go beyond left reformism. It can be filled by class-struggle parties, who in-between and alongside elections involve themselves in the day-to-day fights to improve conditions for the working class. These parties can unite those who believe the eventual overthrow of capitalism may be achievable by constitutional means along with those from revolutionary
traditions.


It is this context that provides the significance to a left unity project to the left of Labour.
Indeed the crisis of Labourism is such that in Wales mainstream Labour politicians John Marek and Ron Davies have been won to creating a left of Labour party, Forward Wales, that includes socialists such as Cymru Goch who were previously engaged with the Welsh Socialist Alliance.


A further factor that indicates it is possible to create a broad, multi tendency socialist party in England is the evolution of the British revolutionary left. The organisational model adopted in one form or another by the WRP, Militant and SWP was to aspire to a relatively homogenous political party that would seek to build through direct recruitment to the revolutionary left, although they were also involved in single issue campaigns and the unions.


This model of working has been left behind completely by some comrades, by others only partially. The Scottish Socialist Party does not necessarily represent a blueprint for a party in England, but it must be recognised that the participation of comrades from both the Militant, SWP and other traditions in building a broad party that can also provide a home for non-revolutionaries is a step forward. In England there has been uneven but very significant involvement from the SWP in building the SA.

 
We must of course recognize that the political context in Scotland is quite different from England or Wales. We cannot simply assume that transposing the SSP model to England would be the best way forward. What is required is a concrete analysis of each different national situation - accounting for both similarities and differences.


The most significant developments over the last 18 months has been that the movement against the war in Iraq involved tens of thousands of activists, and built bridges between socialists and various faith communities, including not only Moslems but also Christians and others. Alongside campaigns over the environment and GM crops, and against racism there are considerable numbers of activists who desire fundamental social change.



Why RESPECT?

 
The impetus for RESPECT came specifically from the success of the anti-war movement, particularly in the experience of close collaboration between the left and Islamic and green activists.


Furthermore, the Socialist Alliance in England was unable to take advantage of the opportunities that the anti-war movement afforded.

 
Although the Socialist Alliance made good early progress, its character changed over the last few years because it suffered the loss of many of the original ex-Labour people who got the local SAs going from the early/mid 90s onwards and who piloted the discussions with the SWP, locally and nationally which led to the SWP joining the SA, and the SA extending into London.

My own experience, based upon the experience in Wiltshire, and through talking to relatives still in the Labour party in other parts of the country, is that the Labour Left no longer exists at grassroots level.


However a very important question is why the thousands of activists who used to promote a left social democratic agenda within the party, did not gravitate towards the SA. To a certain extent the issue of distrust towards not only the SWP but also historically the Militant probably played a part.


Certainly the SA project suffered over the last two years from the defection of the Socialist Party and a rupture with some of the most significant Labour Lefts in the national (and in some cases, local) leadership.

It was also unfortunate that the Socialist Alliance was not allowed to have a higher profile in the anti-war movement. The decision by the SWP, as the largest component of the SA, to prioritise their own publications and prioritise Socialist Worker placards on 15th February meant that the left made less permanent impact on the anti-war movement than it could have done.


The gap between the 2 million demonstrators and 1000 revolutionaries was too great, not just numerically, but also politically. The Socialist Alliance would have been able to act as a cog in between. A united left could have made a significant impact on the demonstration, however this opportunity was missed.


However the charge that the SWP deliberately sabotaged the SA during this period is unfounded.
The fact that there is a culture within the SWP of committing comrades for brief spurts of activity, and then going to do something else has been misinterpreted as lack of commitment, and in all honesty is very similar to the pattern of activity of many Labour Party activists who lie fallow between elections.

 
It is in this context that the 2003 conference of the SA agreed to explore the possibility of opening out the Alliance, and seeking to relaunch it in conjunction with wider forces. This was partly in recognition that the SA had not fulfilled its rich potential, and also recognition that the war on Iraq, and the friction between the Labour Party and the trade unions had created a rich opening for the left. Out of this initiative grew RESPECT.


The Socialist Unity Network believes that the decision made by the 2003 conference was correct. We welcomed the decision to launch RESPECT as a step towards an inclusive mass socialist party to the left of Labour. In various parts of Europe there are red-green electoral alliances. If it is legitimate for socialists to enter structured electoral alliances with environmentalists then it is equally legitimate to enter structured alliances with anti-war and anti-imperialist activists.


Nevertheless it is important that the socialist component of such alliances has an independent and organised voice. For this reason the Socialist Unity Network was formed to support the maintenance of the Socialist Alliance as a distinct current within RESPECT.
Was RESPECT the right vehicle?

 
John Nicholson has already commented that there were a number of assumptions behind RESPECT that were open to question. Read here



"Of course it could have been predicted that George Monbiot (and any Greens) would not last the course, and of course it could have been predicted that only one section of the "Muslim community" would jump in Respect's direction (it was always tokenist to generalise about the "Muslims" in this way - and both anachronistic and patronising to assume that the whole of this population would follow the lead of any one of its "leaders" - a mistake old Labour has been learning for over 20 years). And it was no real surprise that the CPB/Morning Star would (through its mass meeting in double figures) argue for "voting labour with no illusions". And clutching at the straw of George Galloway was really the very tail-end of the SWP's 15 year long drive to recruit dissident Labour Party members. And so on. But still, the SWP can be forgiven for trying (wishfully) to construct something electoral out of the anti-war coalition."


Nevertheless, an organisation combining very varied political, ideological and even religious components cannot remain static and it may evolve quite fast under the pressure of events. For example, at its founding conference in January 2004 RESPECT decided not to back the call for open borders, but then signed the Anti Capitalist Manifesto for a Different Europe published on 29th April with the following commitment to open borders: "We are in favour of the free movement of persons! No to the Schengen Agreements!"


From the outset therefore RESPECT had the potential to evolve to be a socialist organisation provided its could create an open and democratic culture, and build bridges with those socialists outside the project.
The necessity of RESPECT forming alliances with European socialist groups was one factor influencing its development. Another has been the active involvement of experienced socialists from various traditions within the SA.


Unfortunately, within the Socialist Alliance there was opposition to the 2003 conference resolution on broadening the scope of the alliance. This opposition also ran concurrent with those who wish to see a commitment from the SA to build a new "Workers Party" and to establish its own newspaper, which would effectively delimit the appeal of the SA to those seeking to build a revolutionary party. There was also concern that the disproportionate ability of the SWP to influence decisions made within the SA was sometimes counter-productive. These intertwined issues led to the formation of the Socialist Alliance Democracy Platform in November 2003. The SADP is a diverse group, at one extreme it includes within it a minority who have never been serious about building the SA; at the other extreme it includes very committed comrades who wish to use the SADP to strengthen the socialist unity project. The SADP now exists effectively as a tiny competitor to RESPECT.


What could have been done differently


The fact that RESPECT was a distinctly different project from the SA, combined with the particular circumstances in which it was formed, means that different comrades will come to support RESPECT at different paces.


This was correctly recognized by Simon Joyce of the SWP at the February 2004 SA exec meeting (<Read the Weekly Worker report here>). Unfortunately, the majority of the "Task Group", those comrades on the SA executive responsible for promoting the unity project, did not acknowledge this unevenness, and forced through a motion at an SA special conference barring local Socialist Alliances from contesting the local elections in June as SA candidates.


This was tactically a very bad move, as it meant that a number of comrades who were simply ambivalent or undecided about RESPECT were thrown into the same camp as those who, for whatever reason, were opposed to the project altogether. A manifestation of this was the very unwise decision of Pete McLaren of the SADP to appear on Radio 4's Today program criticizing RESPECT. Pete was na´ve to believe that this came over as anything other than a "life of Brian" squabble, and his inclusion in the programme was manipulative by the BBC as an attempt to discredit RESPECT.


The decision to block SA local candidates was a strategic mistake by RESPECT as local elections are extremely significant. One of the reasons that the Socialist Unity Network sought to avoid this prohibition on local candidates was that there are a number of activists who are motivated to campaign in their own communities but are less enthusiastic about the more impersonal campaign required for a Euro elections. Where comrades have spent some years establishing brand recognition for the SA in particular wards they would prefer to use that banner until RESPECT becomes more widely recognized. Many of these comrades would have been prepared to publicly endorse RESPECT for the Euro elections.


As a result of this prohibition on local candidates we believe many hundreds of SA comrades around the country have been inactive over this election period, involved neither with the SA nor RESPECT.


In contrast, it is interesting that for these elections the Greens have made a strategic decision to stand as many local candidates as possible.
Indeed a weakness of RESPECT's campaign was that it did not recognize that our strength is in face to face work, with people on the streets, making a campaigning noise, and mobilising those who could be persuaded towards us.


To do that effectively means identifying those local areas where we can concentrate our forces. It is better to build a base and move up from that (As has been done by the SP for many years - and, tactically correctly, by the fascists last year). That is what Michael Lavalette (elected socialist alliance councillor) has done in Preston - to his credit. The extraordinarily good results achieved by RESPECT in Preston in the June 2004 local elections show the value of this approach. It is also right in principle to do this, rather than parachute in from a parliamentary (or euro parliamentary) level and hope the support will "trickle down".


Some of the poor regional performances by RESPECT in the Euro ballot show that it was always optimistic to believe we could change the minds of millions of people by one leaflet through everyone's letterbox. Whereas local campaigning does get results, for example, in the South West Socialist candidates gained 460 votes in 5 town council wards, whereas RESPECT gained just 10437 votes (22 times more votes) in an electorate more than 200 times bigger.


Indeed the potential support for RESPECT was always exaggerated. Oftentimes George Galloway would remark that 2 million were on the streets, but that was over a year ago, and a more significant figure was the 100000 demonstrating on the first anniversary of the war. In reality although the RESPECT coalition is socially significant it has narrow electoral appeal.


There were other tactical considerations that may have been significant.


Although undoubtedly the Greens displayed organizational conservatism it was unrealistic to expect them to embrace an alliance with the untested RESPECT. A more modest proposal to the Greens, for example RESPECT standing aside altogether in their favour  in the South West and North West and allowing the Greens top spot on a combined London list may have met with a more favourable response, in exchange for simply a joint slate for London with Galloway at the number 2 spot. Although this would have meant foregoing an election broadcast outside London the prize of even limited participation with the Greens in the project would have been worth paying, as a marker for future cooperation.


Similarly, RESPECT could have used their London mayoral candidature to actively promote a Livingstone second preference vote.

Ironically this may have actually increased the number of first preferences for RESPECT as we would have been demonstrating that we are different, and also would be honest recognition that Respect would be squeezed in the Norris/Livingstone battle, and that Livingstone is as strong an anti-war candidate as Lindsey German. What is more, because RESPECT would bring out some people to vote who would have otherwise abstained this approach could have led to a more convincing Livingstone victory. Of course, nothing should detract from Lindsey's fantastic performance - I am sure most mainstream commentators are gobsmacked that she beat both the Greens and the BNP.


Generally a weakness of RESPECT's campaign has been a lack of a thought out strategy. Having been involved with electoral politics both in the Labour party and the SA, I have been astounded at how little interest there has been in debating how likely a good RESPECT vote was, and therefore how best to effectively campaign. It is not self evident that a full nationwide mailing was money well spent, and in many of RESPECT's weaker regions it is not clear how the decision was made to pursue that aim. Surely it would have been better to spend money on bill board advertising in London rather than on a mailing in the Eastern region, South West and Wales? Had this money been spent in London - as I have been arguing all along- this may have been enough to get the extra few thousand votes to win a seat in the GLA.


Unfortunately there is a culture in some quarters that it is better to get on with activity rather than discuss first what activity needs to be done.
On more than one occasion I was told we should not be having this sort of tactical discussion, because it was defeatist to suggest we couldn't win a seat in the South West. This unwillingness to engage in debate needs to be addressed if RESPECT is to be an attractive political home for working class militants.


Wales is also a thorny issue. It is regrettable that both Respect and FW contested the Euro election, being unable to agree a joint slate. The results achieved by FW in Wrexham are simply brilliant and it should be noted that had RESPECT's votes gone to FW then the deposit would have been retained. A combined left vote of 2.5% across Wales is a big advance, and a solid basis for progress.


Has respect done well enough to continue?

In a word -Yes - but it is going to need some careful thought how we go about it. I am writing this before all the results are even in - so this is just a first contribution to the debate, but I think there are some things we can say.


Firstly, the political context that gave rise to RESPECT and these fantastic London results is not going to go away. The war is likely to dominate next year's general election.


Secondly, let us be clear, London is bigger than Scotland, and if London was a separate country everyone would be saying that RESPECT was a runaway success. So, a very strong showing in London and reasonable results in Yorkshire and Humberside and the West Midlands mean that we have made a small breakthrough. However the unevenness of the result, alongside some very poor regional showings elsewhere does create problems.

 

Thirdly, I am only talking about England, not Wales.


The task that faces us now is a possible general election in just one year's time. If we are going to build on these results and make the most of our opportunities in the election we need to start work right now. The very encouraging note is that based on this Euro election then RESPECT might have won a parliamentary seat in Tower Hamlets, the first time the left have been in that position in England since Phil Piratin won Stepney for the CP in 1945. One of the reasons RESPECT is able to project a high profile is because it has Galloway in Parliament, the prospect that there is even a possibility of maintaining that parliamentary presence past another election is very significant. We must also face up to the fact that RESPECT represents one particular model that has proven successful in London. However, the Socialist Party can point to a different model with 8617 votes across Coventry, and Forward Wales have yet another model with stunning success in Wrexham.


With all these strong results behind us we need to reopen negotiations over the summer with an aim for a united approach to the Westminster elections.


We know that the Greens will also be amenable to discussing which seats to stand in - as they do not have the resources to contest every constituency either. These negotiations need to be conducted locally and nationally in parallel - locally first.


However, it is vital that RESPECT has something to take to the negotiating table - and that means a fully functioning and lively party on the ground. It will be fatal to the project if the separate components disengage and concentrate on their own campaigns until a few weeks before the next election.


This is especially important where we have had poor results. There is a danger, for example, that support from Islamic figures was based upon RESPECT being an effective way to punish Blair over the war. Where we have a poor result then that support may waver unless RESPECT actively works to maintain it. This in turn means that RESPECT must be more than an electoral organization - it must demonstrate it is different by involving itself in every campaign in the local communities. But if it is to be an effective campaigning group it must be allowed to act like a party. That means members and supporting organizations within RESPECT working through its structures wherever possible instead of using a different party banner for campaigns.


To be a party RESPECT needs structure, a constitution and a culture of democratic debate and accountability.
Up until now the Socialist Unity Network has been arguing that RESPECT needed money, members and momentum. We have tried to get the best possible result in this election. After the election the emphasis must change. Now the task is to ensure that the component parts making up RESPECT stay committed to the unity project, and to extend the project to include those who have until now stood aside. We need an honest and open debate about the lessons of these elections, and we need to start detailed planning for next year's election.


 

June 2004

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