Galloway and that missed vote.
The full implications of Blair’s convincing defeat over the proposed 90 day detention of terror suspects will take a while to show themselves, but it is certainly a landmark event. And quite rightly it overshadows the significance of the previous week’s amendment where George Galloway failed to vote and Blair survived by one vote. Those who enjoy knocking Respect have made mischief out of the fact Galloway was away in Cork doing a one man show, and the tone of some of the criticism has been perhaps unproductive, but the affair does nevertheless raise some issues worth discussing, and trying to get beyond the polarised posturing.
Clearly the fact that Galloway missed the vote on the first amendment to the terror bill was regrettable, particularly as Respect’s web page had been calling on supporters to lobby their labour MPs over the issue to increase the size of the rebellion. But it is not a hanging offence, and it is not a scandal. A minor political party with only one MP is obviously going to be disadvantaged in the Westminster cock-pit, and is therefore more likely to make tactical blunders. Galloway is not supported by a whips office, or a professional party bureaucracy at Westminster; and the whole structure of the British parliament is run as a private club, with the business of the House organised by formal collaboration and collusion between the government and the opposition – even the Lib Dems struggle to make an impact commensurate with their number of MPs, let alone their wider social base.
Clearly also there is some hypocritical and self-serving criticism of Galloway, for example the article in the Independent, that exaggerates the importance of Galloway’s failure to vote in terms of saving Blair’s position. It is much more pertinent that the left trade union leaders allowed Blair a relatively easy ride over the issues of war and "terror" at Labour Party conference, and that despite a significant number of rebels, the majority of Labour MPs still support this quasi-fascist legislation. We could also note the continued non-appearance of Sinn Fein MPs at Westminster (who know something about this issue, and whose supporters will be affected by it), which is no longer consistent with their preparedness to join a coalition government at Stormont that is predicated upon the continuation of the 6 counties as a part of the UK.
In Galloway’s favour, he is completely fantastic at what he does, touring the country (and now the world) galvanising and inspiring opposition to imperialism in the Middle East. So it is not surprising that Respect as an organisation, and Galloway as an individual, are seduced into doing what comes most easily, which is relating to the rank and file activists and the wider anti-war constituency. (Of course this work also has its own problems, and until and unless Respect overcomes the misgivings about its internal commitment to democracy and accountability, it cannot fully capitalise upon its successes). The Guardian reports that cancelling the meeting in Cork would have involved a financial penalty of Ł1000, and the gig was a fundraiser for Respect.
But although Galloway’s priorities are tactically understandable, and therefore his failure to vote is forgivable, there is still a need to make a strategic assessment of whether or not Respect is going in the right direction.
The strategic opportunity to build a party to the left of Labour resides in the adoption of neo-Liberalism and neo-colonialism by the Labour Party, which engages it in a structural antagonism with the trade unions, and with progressive campaigners. The extraordinary breakthrough of Die Linke/PDS in the recent German elections is evidence of how great this potential can be.
After Galloway’s victory, and Respect’s other very strong results in areas with a high immigrant and specifically Muslim population, John Rees continually laboured the analogy of a beachhead. Respect had to either make further gains or be pushed backwards. In order to progress Respect needs to examine what its actual strengths are, and how it can leverage these to make progress in the concrete political circumstances in which it finds itself.
The big achievement of Respect is actually getting Galloway elected, and also winning a sufficient electoral base among one section of the population to sustain future electoral ambitions. We can stretch the analogy too far, but in some ways the PDS were in a similar position having a very small numbers of MPs, and an electoral base just in the former DDR. But because the PDS were able to hold onto what they had, they were able to contribute to and benefit from the wider breakthrough occasioned by Oskar Lafontaine and the WASG leaving the SPD. (In this sense Rees’s analogy of a beachhead being either Normandy or Gallipoli was always flawed, a beachhead could also be Anzio, where you just hold on until the wider circumstances change)
If we are objective we can see that Respect has a very narrow activist base, it does not have operational democratic structures in most of the country, and has no greater (and perhaps less) currency amongst trade union activists than the former Socialist Alliance had. But it does have an MP. In order to overcome the weakness it is necessary to leverage the strengths effectively.
It is absolutely necessary to exaggerate as far as possible the antagonism between New Labour and the traditional social democratic base of the party, and that means taking every opportunity to work alongside Labour activists in their fight within Labour. (Much comparison was made between Phil Piratin (Commnist MP for Stepney in 1945) and Galloway MP, but remember in the 1945 parliament the thrust of the CP’s work was collaboration with the Keep Left group of Labour MPs, (which actually led to a group of MPs being expelled from the Labour party)). What is more, the opportunities for building in the unions must exploit the desire of the trade union leaderships' desire for political representation – and that means MPs turning up and voting! And surely the electorate of Bethnal Green will have voted Respect in the expectation that Galloway would participate in parliament.
Unfortunately, having made a mistake Respect has indulged in ex post facto justification of it, by saying. “Respect would like to underline its commitment to the extra-Parliamentary opposition to the anti-terror legislation which is of far greater importance than anything that is being done in the House of Commons.” This is a mistaken analysis: while it may be true that the driving force of social and political change is outside parliament, whether or not specific legislation is passed is actually determined in the Palace of Westminster. The wider campaign may be a pre-condition of the legislation being defeated in parliament, but the specific social moment at which the legislation can be defeated is in the division lobby.
Mike Marqusee has made the same criticism of the Stop the war Coalition’s inability to maximise the Labour rebellion in the crucial vote on the war in March 2003: fetishising the extra-parliamentary opposition, at exactly the point where the mass movement, and in particular the massive 15th February demonstration, had created the conditions where parliament became the key arena. It is interesting that when Alan Simpson MP visited Swindon to talk to our Stop the War Coalition last year he alleged (and I have no way of verifying this) that Galloway played no role at that time in lobbying or persuading wavering Labour MPs). John Nicholson has observed that when he was national chair of Labour Against the War back in 1990, Galloway was not a member, although a number of prominent Labour MPs were, including Dawn Primorolo, currently a prominent Brownite.
Some of Respect’s self-justification is disingenuous. For example saying “[Galloway] would also like to make clear the difficulty facing a single MP on votes of this kind. The amendment, … was only a marginal improvement on the clause in New Labour's bill. It would still have endangered the freedom of speech of any person who spoke up for people the government defines as 'terrorists'.” But such situations are the small-coin of both parliament and the labour movement. Any trade union activist knows that sometimes you must back an amendment you don’t fully agree with in order to weaken a substantive, and then you can still oppose the substantive, even if the amendment is passed.
In truth, Respect as an organisation has no coherent strategy for working with progressive members of the Labour party, and because it eschews a Party form in favour of the fiction of a coalition, basically Galloway does exactly what he wants; and the job of Respect becomes to cheerlead him when he is doing well, and defend him when he slips up. Obviously a fund raising public meeting in the Irish republic was less important than the terror bill vote in parliament, and the decision of whether Galloway votes or not should be one for Respect’s national leadership, not for Galloway alone. Significantly the SWP’s Party Council (a one day national delegate meeting) voted last weekend that it regretted Galloway’s failure to vote, and acknowledged that it was a mistake.
The dangers of Respect’s lack of structure and accountability were clearly shown in the other blow Respect suffered last week. Councillor Muhammad Ghulam Mortuza, who represents Spitalfields in Tower Hamlets resigned from Respect on Tuesday, just five months after he joined them from Labour. As reported in the East London Advertiser he says "I gave them a chance, but it's not really a political party, it's more of a campaign group and we can't have a campaign group taking over the council." George Galloway responded diplomatically saying: “I’m very grateful to Cllr Mortuza for all the help he gave in the General Election campaign. I trust that he has made the right decision.” (We can only hope that the East London Advertiser is inaccurately reporting the Respect spokesman who allegedly said: “This is probably the only time in history that a rat has gone back to a sinking ship.”) However, the criticism from Ghulam Mortuza is a very significant one, and elsewhere Alan Thornett has pointed out that participating in local government requires an accountable party structure.
The last week has been a wake up call for Respect. If it is to fulfil its potential its elected representatives must be accountable, and Respect needs the appropriate structures to enforce that – that means it needs to grow towards being a party not ossify itself as a coalition.