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Respect can be a real advance for the radical left

Nick Bird

 

It was worth watching every news bulletin the day after the election for the moment when they would show the clip, as they all did, of George Galloway addressing Blair from the count at Bethnal Green and Bow, with the words “This defeat is for Iraq!” His victory was the high point in a series of startlingly good votes for Respect, which included three second places – with Salma Yaqoob only 3000 votes from unseating Labour in Birmingham – amongst nine saved deposits. Fighting its first general election, Respect has achieved the kind of breakthrough for which we have waited a long time.

And I couldn’t help but smile as political correspondents said that this would be remembered as Blair’s ‘Iraq election’. There is a theory – possibly apocryphal – that goldfish are only prevented from going insane because they have such short term memories that by the time they swim round one side of the tank they have forgotten what the other side looks like, and they therefore lead lives of constant surprise and discovery. I am often reminded of this theory when I listen to reporters and other ‘experts’ commenting on political developments. The initial stages of the election campaign were marked by a Basil Fawltyesque dictum not to mention the war. Opinion polls contrived to tell us that Iraq was ‘not an issue’ for voters. Yet now the same correspondents tell us precisely the opposite without a word of explanation or apology for their previous utterances.

Clearly the Liberal Democrats benefited from an anti-war vote, the Greens made some steady if unspectacular progress and there is even evidence that left Labour MPs suffered less of a swing against them than the pro-war Labour MPs. However, the most significant and dynamic votes from a left perspective were those in the constituencies where Respect really seems to have connected with an anti-war, anti-racist and pro-social justice layer of the community.

The results have inevitably and correctly raised many questions amongst socialists. Can Respect repeat the successes in areas of London, Birmingham, Leicester and Preston in other parts of the country? Coming out of the anti-war movement, can it broaden its base beyond that constituency? Can it develop into the kind of organisation that will be attractive to those on the left and in the unions who have so far kept their distance? I want to argue that it can do all these things if it pursues the right strategy.

There is already evidence that in places like East London and Preston, Respect has developed well beyond being just the anti-war party. George Galloway and John Rees, Respect’s national secretary, have both emphasised the need for campaigning work that addresses the issues of privatisation, housing and poverty. If Respect is serious about making an impact in next year’s local council elections it will have to prioritise such campaigns. Its work amongst sections of the Muslim community has been an unprecedented success for the left. It now needs to find the means to connect with wider layers of the working class and particularly trades unionists. With a major battle over public sector pensions in prospect (and speaking as a civil servant, the appointment of David Blunkett to oversee this does not fill me with a single ounce of joy), a well planned intervention in this struggle is essential.

To achieve any of this Respect will need to develop stable and enduring structures. As a longstanding SWP member who was heartened by the rise of the Socialist Alliance and rather less enthused by the SWP leadership’s subsequent attitude towards it, I am eager that we learn from past mistakes. I also cherish the hope that I am not alone in this. The reason for this hope is an article by John Rees in the May issue of Socialist Review in which he sets out his perspective for the revival of the left. I might add that I find his article rather more encouraging than Chris Harman’s column in the same issue which seems more reminiscent of previous SWP strategies.

Rees makes the point that: “Anyone who believes that we need a fundamental transformation of capitalist society cannot imagine that this will happen without movements and organisations like Respect… In a period like ours an effective far-left organisation can only exist in cooperation, in organised forms, with other people in the working class movement. This is not an aberration: it is the desirable norm.” He refers to the need to join forces with those “who are willing to advance in very long term projects the capacity of working class people to fight collectively.”

This is the kind of Respect that I want to be part of. An organisation that continues to exist between elections and one that develops an open and democratic culture. I sympathise with those people who found the Respect conference last year an unpleasant experience. Some leading members of Respect were unnecessarily hostile to motions they disagreed with, particularly given the overwhelming support the leadership enjoyed on the conference floor. Debate and dissent should be viewed as strengths and a means to clarify our politics, not as weaknesses.

But Respect is not a finished product – on the contrary, its real achievements in the general election should herald the beginning of a period of consolidation and growth in which the lessons of its early successes need to be distilled and creatively applied to those areas where it performed less well or indeed where it barely exists. This is the real test of its value as a vehicle for advancing radical left politics. Standing aside from Respect will not help it become what it needs to become. If there is a chance that Respect can continue to break new ground for the left, we should seize it with hope and with passion.

 

 

May 2005

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