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The SWP's "Scottish turn"? 

Andy Newman

 

How good is Respect?
There is no doubt that Respect's electoral success combined with George Galloway's barnstorming performance before the US senate has had an enormous impact - Galloway even got an ovation at the end on BBC TV's Question Time, a quite unprecedented occurrence. Galloway is a natural popular orator and has taken like a fish to water to the international stage, which has given added impetus to Respect, as thousands who opposed the war cheer him on. Over 26 million people watched the senate hearings on Al Jazeera TV. The Respect Office reported that over 2,500 people contacted them in response to find more details about the coalition, some from far a field as Texas, Bulgaria and Iceland! Respect's website traffic has also taken a terrific upturn since the election.

The editorial of Socialist Outlook #6 (monthly from the ISG - British section of the Fourth International (USFI)) concludes that "Respect is here to stay and the conditions for building it are good ... ... Respect has to broaden its support from its current strongholds to wider sections of the working class. Respect has to become a campaigning organisation between elections, at both a national and local level." Based upon the experience of the Socialist Alliance some of us had been apprehensive that the SWP would not consistently follow through with Respect. As I wrote elsewhere: "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."

It was therefore remarkably encouraging to read two weeks ago in the SWP's internal mailing, Party Notes: "If we are going to capitalise on the success of the East London and Birmingham votes, we are going to have to throw everything we have got into building Respect. Over the coming weeks and months 90 percent of our activity has to be based around Respect. We want to turn it into a mass organisation." [my emphasis added]. A week later any ambiguity was removed in the next Party Notes: "Our job is to go all out to build Respect - there can be no ifs and no buts. Sunday's National Committee argued that we have to make a complete turn. There are no longer "Respect specialists" in the SWP we are all Respect specialists. Every member has to join Respect. Every SWP member has to build Respect wherever they are, in their workplace, college or community. We need to turn the huge media coverage for Respect and the public sympathy for Galloway into mass membership."

At one recent Respect meeting an SWP member argued that Respect should intervene on the picket line during the upcoming BBC strike. This is something that - in most parts of the country - they would not have argued in the Socialist Alliance; as industrial work was regarded as the function of the SWP acting under its own banner. Party Notes argues: "We have to repeat the starting point has to be Respect. If we start with the internal question of the organisation of the SWP - we will just be gazing at our navels and miss the best opportunity we will ever have to create a new left. The SWP has to fit around Respect not the other way round. For the time being we will have to be flexible about the form the SWP takes.". This is in marked contrast to the emphasis on new internal SWP structures that followed last November's SWP conference.

Given that the SWP does not have internal discussion bulletins, and there is a long established tradition of "just getting on with it" - there is a tendency for some people outside the organisation to over-analyse nuanced differences between written or spoken contributions from leading comrades. Quite often the resulting conclusions are quite wrong - a specialism of Weekly Worker, paper of the "Kiss and Tell" sect the CPGB - who regularly as clockwork pronounce "the end of the SWP is nigh". It must be remembered that whatever differences exist between leading SWP members, nowadays they all owe their influence in the movement to their role within the party, and given the relative size of the SWP compared to any other beast stalking the forests of the left, then this will exert a strong disciplinary influence on any debate. However the difference in emphasis between the articles by Chris Harman and John Rees in the May issue of Socialist Review was simply too striking to ignore. The current tone of Party Notes suggests that the wind within the SWP is blowing towards Respect and encouraging a whole new way of working, and those comrades in the SWP most open to cooperative working with other parts of the left are - for the moment - in the ascendancy.

But what does it mean?
It is necessary to disentangle some related but nevertheless different threads. Firstly - what are Respect's actual prospects? and what is the general situation facing the left? Secondly, what are the SWP actually planning to do differently, and are they able to overcome organisational inertia to achieve it.

The first thing we must recognise is that Respect's electoral performance was fantastic, but that does not mean we should shy away from analysing it. Respect's best results were undoubtedly in the constituencies with a large non-white, and specifically Moslem population. The following graph plots Respect's six best results against the 2001 census results:

 

 

But if we compare this situation to all Respect's results, it is clear that away from the few constituencies with relatively very high Moslem populations the results are no better than those achieved by other left candidates:

 

 

Indeed in one third of constituencies, and especially in those most closely tending toward the general population's average composition, Respect did very poorly. Respect's results outside of the areas with large concentrations on Moslems follow the same general pattern as the results for the Socialist Green Unity Coalition (SGUC), and Socialist Labour Party candidates: generally slightly lower than in 2001. Despite left candidates from both Respect and SGUC running outward looking campaigns this did not turn into votes. This is an important consideration as we assess the prospects of Respect spreading beyond its core support.

As I have analysed elsewhere- a large factor in the election was the relative success of New Labour in exploiting the pendulum nature of the electoral system by exaggerating the apprehension of a possible Tory victory. This indicates that although the activist base of the Labour party has been undermined - and there has been an observable decline in loyalty to the party from trade union activists as well as a decline in absolute membership and participation - the voting loyalty of millions of working class people still resides with Labour. What is more, although Respect gained the very creditable total of 68,071 votes in 26 seats, the Liberal Democrats increased their vote nationally by 1.2 million, almost exactly the same number of votes that Labour lost! The predominant pattern was therefore for voters protesting against the war to switch to a different establishment party, indeed one that is to the right of the Labour Party on some core issues.

Undoubtedly Respect is receiving more press coverage than other English left parties have done for a quite a while. Undoubtedly Galloway is a star performer. (But before English comrades get carried away we should remember that the Scottish Socialist Party has had a high profile over a number of years, and Tommy Sheridan has been a national media sensation north of the border, and without Galloway's negative baggage.) The question is whether the momentum gained by the election results and Galloway's national profile is enough to justify the SWP's optimism.

Let us examine their expectations. Party Notes says: "There is one big danger "everyone agrees with this strategy but think it relates to East London and Birmingham. There can be no exceptionalism. Of course in some areas around the country we are further forward than others with this project. But Galloway's election and the trip to the senate mean that we can build Respect in every town and city. Let's look at Watford (I am not picking on them - it was just the first town that sprung into my head). Of course we are not saying that Watford can become Tower Hamlets overnight but we can make real gains in short order. On average we get about 6 members to an SWP meeting. It should be possible if we do the work to build a Respect group of 50 - 100 members. This is the way to build a new left. What we are not talking about is taking over Watford council, but what we are saying is that it is possible to win a councillor and build a vibrant organisation on the ground." [My emphasis added]

This is a pipe dream with no grounding in reality. Outside of Respect's support from Moslems it must operate on the same terrain as the rest of the left. Respect can be justifiably proud of the localised success in Preston, but the base in Preston was built patiently over years as the Socialist Alliance, and Michael Lavallette was elected as a Socialist Alliance councillor. Respect's results in Preston, Hackney and Tottenham (where there are fewer Moslems than in their top performing seats) were very good in the general election, but were not in a different league from the results that the Socialist Alliance received in the same areas.

So how does the SWP believe this growth can happen. John Rees argues in Socialist Worker: "In this project the socialists in Respect, who have the clearest understanding of the general situation in which we operate and the greatest organisational ability to create the alliances, have a crucial role to play. Where they are capable of engaging and leading the wider forces, Respect will succeed. If they fail, Respect will fail. There is too much at stake to allow this to happen, and too much to be won not to succeed" But who are these wider forces? Party Notes argues: "networks... exist in every working class community - trade unions, community groups, churches, mosques etc. They are the networks that we have to brake into if Respect is to be successful. We can work as hard as we [like], but if we reduce Respect down to the ˜left" then we will stand still. A good Respect campaign is also about motivating these people to see Respect as their own and to help build it and make it a success."

It is undoubtedly true that any broad organisation of the left must spread beyond the existing meagre forces of the organised groups and the flotsam and Jetsam from the wreckage of the Trotskyist left. It would be a caricature of either the Scottish Socialist party or the Socialist Alliance to suggest that the SSP does, or the SA did, limit themselves to such a composition or ambition. It is of course the ABC of class struggle politics to engage with "the networks that exist in every working class community - trade unions, community groups, churches, mosques etc". But in the absence of class struggle is this engagement sufficient to make the breakthrough that Respect envisages?

There are three problems. Firstly, that in the absence of class struggle the prevailing ideas in the working class will not be challenged by their direct experience, and we currently have not only a historically low level of struggle, but also a desperate weakness in workplace organisation. What is more, the terrain that Respect are competing on is not uncontested - the Liberal Democrats and the Greens are engaged in fighting for the same constituency, and even the populist right such as UKIP may develop in that direction - certainly in some areas UKIP are closely entwined with evangelical Christians.

The second problem is that the networks do not exist in sufficient depth - even where socialists are able to win influence in them - to allow them to be used to construct a mass base. In the 1980s, when the Communist party (at that time revisionist Euro-communist led) used to hide their retreat from class politics by a fig leaf (somewhat bizarrely) constructed out of a neo-Gramscian view of gaining hegemony in civil society, Tony Cliff argued that the characteristic of modern capitalist societies was alienation of workers away from such civil society institutions and towards atomisation, which Cliff described as the weakening of mediating structures, including the social democratic parties. This is absolutely correct, it is notable that participation in the civil institutions mentioned: trade unions, community groups and churches, is sparse, routinised and with an increasingly elderly base. The Mosques do have many younger people attending, but this simply underscores the difference.

The third danger is an over concentration on electoralism, and therefore a lack of patience. It is excellent if SWP members become active in these community networks, but if they are seen as being there to promote a particular electoral project they will be distrusted. The expectation of rich and sudden rewards is unfounded, and could undermine the patient long term work necessary to build in these networks.

I fear that an overoptimistic assessment of the prospects of Respect may lead to real prospects for growth not being realised, and therefore to demoralisation. An exaggerated belief of how big a pole of attraction Respect can be may lead the SWP to think they can make a great leap forward and leave the rest of the left behind. As Tony Cliff argues in his autobiography, in relation to the SWP's electoral interventions during the 1970s: "Unjustified triumphalism and sectarianism are two sides of the same coin."


Is this a "Scottish Turn"?
The commitment by the SWP to Respect is admirable, and if they are able to turn their membership to working through Respect that may prove a lasting gain for the left. However, this may require patience as if we estimate the effective strength of the SWP at 1500, perhaps half of them are deeply wedded to their old way of working, often almost acting as individuals in their workplaces, trade unions, or in various campaigns. It may prove difficult to incorporate Respect into the work of these comrades.

The full time apparatus of the SWP will also still need feeding, and there will be a pressure to maintain numbers of papers sold, and new members signing the dotted line: if the rapid growth of Respect does not happen there will be organisational inertia to fall back on the tried and tested ways. Over a period of years organisational inertia has been a problem within the SWP, and even where this is recognised as a problem by the leadership it is hard to combat.

So the turn to Respect requires the SWP to adopt a different way of thinking. Socialist Outlook #6 is exactly right when it argues "Respect also needs to make new approaches to those sections of the left who are not yet part of Respect." So far this has not happened, and there is a danger that the SWP see themselves as the socialist core of Respect, and will use bureaucratic measures to exclude other organised currents. In Manchester there was a recent meeting of 22 left activists to discuss what to do after the election including the Green candidate and agent, and several leading members of the former Socialist Alliance. Respect declined to attend.

It is impossible for Respect to grow without embracing diversity, and although the organised left groups can be annoying, it is a myth to assume that the ideas of the sects have no resonance with workers. For example in the Socialist Alliance various groups opposed the SA supporting a NO vote for the Euro, and working with organised Moslems, both of these ideas would find widespread support amongst some, but thankfully not all, class conscious workers. These ideas can only be defeated by both engaging them in debate and proving in practice that they are wrong. Sometimes that means losing votes and letting the organisation make mistakes.

A worrying sign is that the SWP still sees Respect as a conduit into its ranks: Party Notes argues: "At Respect's London rally we sold 319 copies of the paper - ¦if you take out SWP members and those on subscription that means around half of the audience got the paper. There is a huge audience for Socialist Worker inside Respect. With a mass Respect we can build a mass audience for Socialist Worker without worrying about the weather on Saturday mornings! That means we now need to organise to get Socialist Worker to every Respect event. And we need to run a systematic campaign to win activists to take out a subscription to the paper. As far as recruitment goes we have already seen a layer of Respect activists joining the SWP. If the SWP is a driving force in building Respect then we can expect to pull many more of the best activists into our ranks - in Newham we are already doing this, building Respect and building the SWP."

However the experience of Scotland and the DSP in Australia is that the tighter Leninist organisations will lose members, not gain them in any broad party initiative. But there will be an overall gain for the whole left - a rise in the tide that in the long run will float all our boats.

So what should we do?
For many socialists this is an academic question as in most parts of the country Respect does not exist, or only consists of the SWP and a few individuals. Where it does exist there is a very strong case for being positively and enthusiastically engaged in it, actively trying to build it and making it better.

We must recognise that at the moment Respect remains divisive, due to the nature and history of its launch, the problematic view that many people have of Galloway, and the deliberate efforts of the SWP in some areas to exclude non-SWP activists. We cannot ignore that many thousands of activists are not going to be quickly won to Respect. Many good activists are also in the Greens, or still hope that the Labour party can be reclaimed to class politics. So in some areas it does not make sense to join Respect.

All we can do is start from where we are and do what we can. That means joint initiatives over concrete issues, only in such long term collaboration will trust be built and the groundwork done for a broad socialist organisation in the future. Respect has a valuable role to play in that process, but it will not succeed if it fails to recognise its own limitations.

 

May 2005

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