After Big Brother. Where now for RESPECT?
By Andy Newman
Better Rula Lenska’s cat than George Bush’s poodle.
There is no doubt that Galloway’s appearance on Celebrity Big Brother has had a huge impact. On the day after his eviction he was on almost every newspaper front page, and every TV and radio broadcast. His eviction and subsequent interview with Davina McCall was watched by 6.5 million people, a full 26% of all TV viewers.
It is also clear that there is a media witch-hunt, only partially orchestrated by New Labour, where the pro-establishment political parties and news media have taken the opportunity to attack Galloway, and by implication all anti-war and socialist activists. It can be no coincidence that on the same day as his eviction, the Sun newspaper revealed pictures of Galloway seeming to hob-nob with the butcher Uday Hussein. It can also be no coincidence that on the same day as his eviction, stories appeared in the press raking over the tired old allegations surrounding the Oil for Food programme, and the possibility of prosecution by the Fraud Squad.
It must also be observed that Galloway has voluntarily entered into the world of light entertainment and the tabloids, and much of his negative coverage is simply the instinctive reaction of the press pack to any wounded celebrity. He has received no special treatment, and indeed the coverage of Jodie Marsh was often more personal and crueller. We should remember the appalling press that Jade Goody received, and the humiliation poured onto Kinga Karolczak, during previous Big Brothers.
It is important to at least partially separate these issues of popular culture and entertainment from the politics, because the two dynamics do play differently, although they are both intertwined.
On the political front, there must be no hesitation. The media witch hunt against Galloway must be resisted. In exactly the same way that the media sought to exploit Tommy Sheridan’s private life to discredit the SSP in 2004, they are now using the personality of George Galloway to attack, not just RESPECT, but the whole concept of a left alternative to Labour, and the integrity of anti-war activists. We argued at the time of the Sheridan crisis that it was irresponsible for anyone on the left to seek to exploit the SSP’s difficulties to boost their own political project, and exactly the same applies now in relation to Galloway and RESPECT.
There is now a responsibility for all of the left to point out the hypocrisy of the Labour Party in particular. How much time does Hilary Armstrong spend on constituency matters, or Tony Blair? How many junketts and jollies do labour MPs take away from parliament? Galloway may have embarrassed himself pretending to be a cat, but he hasn’t taken Britain into illegal wars, or attacked public sector pensions like Blair.
Galloway’s personal reputation
Whether we like it or not, George Galloway’s personal reputation does matter, and not just to RESPECT, but to all the left. Should RESPECT crash and burn following Celebrity Big Brother, then that will be a huge set-back for the prospect of building a viable political alternative to New Labour in England and Wales.
On a personal basis, George Galloway will probably ride the storm. As Davina McCall observed he was probably the best ever contestant on Celebrity Big Brother. He showed that he was not above participation in the group activities and the pantomime. At various times in the programme he came over as diplomatic and sensitive. However during his grilling by TV chat hosts Richard and Judy they did point out that he also came over as a verbal bully, and he spectacularly failed to maintain the loyalty of other house mates who had genuinely respected him such as Rula Lenska and Samuel Preston. In truth, the psychological pressure of incarceration for three weeks under constant surveillance and subject to cruel manipulation was probably more acute on Galloway because he carried greater responsibility.
Nevertheless, Galloway has established himself as a media celebrity, and it is the nature of our popular culture to venerate the very fact of celebrity. Other Big Brother housemates have endured vilification in the press, and come through it. It is simply too early to tell how bad the damage to Galloway’s personal reputation has been.
John Rees made a statement at the SWP’s recent conference that “come May, people will not decide to vote Respect or New Labour on the basis of Big Brother.”
This is almost certainly wishful thinking. The elections are only a few weeks away, and Galloway’s appearance in Big Brother has had a massive impact, that will surely affect the vote – and not in a good way. The conference on working class representation organised by the RMT union pointedly declined to offer RESPECT a speaker.
Certainly much of the press coverage was orchestrated, and many of the “Bethnal Green residents” quoted were Labour Party members. Nevertheless, the press also found no difficultly in finding apparently genuine Respect supporters who are very disillusioned. As the Times reported; “A former supporter, who canvassed for the Respect party, said that voters regretted their decision to support Mr Galloway. Akik, a 27-year-old charity worker from Stepney, said that he had cancelled his membership of Respect after Mr Galloway entered the Big Brother house. … … “If Respect had a good tenure, it would have motivated other communities to go for independent parties. Instead, people will see what happens when you take a chance. They will go back to the blue and red parties. It’s an opportunity that’s been missed.”
And as the BBC reported: “Back in Brick Lane, chairman of the traders' association Abdus Salique told BBC London: "I don't think he has got any support now. "People are so upset, even the people who desperately asked people to vote for him, they have also talked to me - they are really upset about the whole thing." Respect says that much of the criticism of Mr Galloway has been politically motivated. But Mr Haque, who supported and hosted Mr Galloway at his restaurant during the election campaign, said he had changed his mind.
"He should pack up and resign and go and let us get represented by someone who people think is distant enough, wise enough and honourable enough," he said. Shajjad Miah, one of the directors of the Brick Lane Mosque, also said he thought there were a lot of people who would call for the MP's resignation.”
Probably the press are selective in who they quote, and in fairness the Independent did quote several electors still loyal to Respect. "I'll tell you what I think of George Galloway," said Rajib Ahammad as he discussed his MP outside the East London Mosque in Whitechapel after prayers yesterday. "He's a star. He is still the man who had the courage to say all the right things about Iraq. He is still the man who stood up to Tony Blair. So what if he went on TV and was told to act like a cat?" Mr Ahammad, a 23-year-old Bangladeshi-born student from east London, was not alone in his show of loyalty to Mr Galloway. Despite an avalanche of negative publicity and polls suggesting plummeting popularity in his Bethnal Green and Bow constituency, the Bangladeshi community of Whitechapel appeared fairly unperturbed by the politician's three-week stint on Celebrity Big Brother. Mr Ahammad said it was mostly the "elder" generation of Muslims who had initially objected to the MP's appearance on the reality television show, and even many of them had come round to seeing its benefits.
However, I know several anti-war activists who have said they now want to keep a distance from Galloway, as they fear the connection with him makes us a laughing stock.
Much will depend upon how RESPECT – and George Galloway – responds in the next few weeks. Credit can be made out of the fact that by going on Big Brother Galloway has probably raised something like Ł200000 for the excellent charity Interpal, that will directly aid the victims of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
It will also depend upon whether or not RESPECT allows a democratic expression of the very real disquiet from its membership, and on how Galloway responds to the inevitable criticism.
How RESPECT responded
There is no doubt that Galloway put RESPECT in a very difficult position. He had clearly discussed his appearance on Big Brother with his close friend and business associate Ron McKay, but had not done so with the officers of RESPECT. And in particular the SWP had not been informed until the last minute. The RESPECT leadership therefore just had to make the best of a bad job.
John Rees did really well on Radio Four https://www.socialistunitynetwork.co.uk/counter/rees01.htm striking the balance between defending Galloway without endorsing the decision to go on the show. However, RESPECT’s web site was almost silent. Even Galloway’s statement on why he went on Big Brother was pointedly described as a personal statement. Pro-Galloway coverage was only to be found on Neil Wiilliam’s Respect-Blog.
Galloway had exposed RESPECT to an asymmetrical battle. The Labour Party press office did brilliantly well, with their press releases uncritically covered around the world, they were able to set the agenda about the Crossrail debate, about the signatures on the early day motions about the “get back to work campaign”, about disgruntled constituents. Almost every day they had a new angle.
In contrast, Galloway did not have an efficient press operation outside the Big Brother house to defend him, and to take advantage of any opportunities that his appearance might give. The press releases from Ron McKay seem to have been too belligerent, whereas press releases should be written so that newspapers can carry them virtually unedited. McKay’s robust Glasgow humour backfired when a recording of him offering as a joke to thump a BBC journalist on Galloway’s behalf was broadcast as a serious threat on Radio 1’s flagship morning show. The need for competent and professional press office support was a situation that Galloway was arguably negligent in not foreseeing and preparing for.
It must also be mentioned that as a consequence of increased press interest in RESPECT, Salma Yacoob did appear on the prestigious BBC show Question Time and did very well. The next few weeks will undoubtedly give Galloway increased exposure, and his views will not be censored as they were on Big Brother. He is a skilled orator and he may be able to limit the damage.
The SWP and RESPECT
As I have argued before, it is impossible to discuss RESPECT in isolation from the internal politics of the SWP.
The founding of RESPECT was a product on the one hand of the objective circumstances of the anti-war movement, and the decay of Labourism, both features expressed by George Galloway’s expulsion from the Labour party. However on the other hand it was also the product of the SWP’s contradictory attitude to left regroupment, which Phil Hearse has described as an unfinished cultural revolution. There is no doubt that the SWP as an organisation (and most of its members as individuals) are sincere in their belief that it is possible and desirable to build an inclusive and significant organisation to the left of Labour, that can become the natural home for activists alienated from New Labour, or radicalised by environmentalism, anti-war or anti-globalisation campaigning.
However there is also an understandable institutional conservatism in the SWP that resists the logic of this. The SWP has a relatively large layer of capable activists, and an organisational infrastructure built up (and down) over decades. There is an obvious reluctance to bet the farm on any project with an unforeseeable outcome. What is more, a culture has been built in the SWP that very commendably stresses the achievements that can be gained by activism, but which is rather impatient when the democratic process seems to be acting as a restraint on activism. Of course this is exaggerated by the fact that some individuals and groups do actually abuse democracy in pursuit of factional opposition to the SWP.
The interplay of these two tendencies; on the one hand towards a constructive engagement with wider forces; and on the other hand a conservatism that basically sees that the SWP as a model that works and doesn’t need changing, is very dynamic and contradictory. But only by understanding this interplay can we see how for the SWP the winding down of the Socialist Alliance towards RESPECT was simultaneously both a positive move towards regroupment and reconstructing the left; while at the same time it was a conservative move to increase their control over the process. The contradiction is formally expressed as: “Build the movement and build the SWP”, or “United Front of a Special type”. These paradoxes can embrace very different assessments, and very different approaches.
People who have not been in the SWP, or who have only been members for a short time, often underestimate the degree of democratic debate in the organisation, which takes place on a peer to peer level and through informal networks outside official channels. However, the organisation, and particularly its layer of full timers responsible to the Central Committee, is designed to ensure that the policies of the Centre are carried out. For that reason it is very difficult to allow SWP members active in RESPECT (which should be all of them) to be accountable to democratic structures within RESPECT rather than to the SWP – hence the coalition model. Of course a coalition model that doesn’t hold him accountable is also attractive to George Galloway.
Of course the other factor, is that the SWP overestimate the depth and scope of radicalism of the anti-war mood, which leads them to having exaggerated expectations, which in turn makes them reluctant to engage in debate that can seem conservative. In fact the big manifestations of anti-war politics were three years ago, and despite the war being almost without defenders, the peace movement is struggling to maintain impetus or direction. Overestimating the degree to which RESPECT can base itself on anti-war sentiment is a serious error because it leads to the belief that there is a greater pool of potential support than actually exists.
Where now for RESPECT?
We need to be clear about what RESPECT has achieved and what it hasn’t achieved. It has achieved a commitment from the SWP at grass roots level that the Socialist Alliance never did, and there are also a number of serious independent activists in RESPECT, for example Salma Yacoob, Mike Rosen and Ken Loach. It is also true that RESPECT has achieved significant levels of support amongst working class Asians, predominantly Moslems, and that has translated into electoral success. It has given concrete electoral expression to the opposition to the Iraq war, although to a lesser extent than the Liberal Democrats.
What RESPECT has not achieved is to become a natural home for socialist activists, either from the social democratic or revolutionary traditions. Nor has it attracted many trade union activists, nor environmental campaigners. Despite its electoral success its membership base is narrow, and predominantly revolves around the SWP. Very few activists from the former Socialist Alliance have joined RESPECT. While it is possible for RESPECT to recruit new forces - a precondition to that is that it must also recruit the existing activists.
Both RESPECT’s successes and shortcomings are related to the intertwined relations between the SWP and Galloway. Both the SWP and Galloway have been central to campaigning against the Iraq war; both the SWP and Galloway have developed a good reputation amongst tens of thousands of anti-war Moslems. Both the SWP and Galloway benefited from their collaboration, the SWP has many able activists on the ground, and Galloway has the profile and skills necessary for electoral success. Both the SWP and Galloway, for different but related reasons, wanted RESPECT to be a coalition, rather than a more structured and democratically accountable party.
This has led to RESPECT being a very contradictory phenomenon. It is as if there are two souls to RESPECT. On the one hand, RESPECT has achieved very large fringe meetings at trade union conferences, and Galloway speaks to packed public meetings of several hundred people almost every week. On the other hand, RESPECT does not provide the participative structures that encourage people to join, and many of those activists who have tried to work in RESPECT have found they are not permitted to have any influence on policy. It must be remembered that only weeks before the launch of RESPECT the Socialist Alliance hosted a small, but serious and impressive trade union conference - two years later and RESPECT have no where near the same purchase in the trade unions.
A positive outcome of the Big Brother affair, is that it does provide an incentive and an opportunity for RESPECT supporters who are not in the SWP to argue that RESPECT does need to win over activist from the rest of the left. To do that it needs to have democratic structures. It is necessary for figures like Ken Loach to use their prestige and authority before it is too late.
RESPECT has achieved much, but it now stands in a peril. It is not yet clear whether it can survive Big Brother, which will depend upon the events of the next few weeks. Crucial will be its performance in the May elections. Indeed, it is not clear whether the election of David Cameron will presage a return to two party politics, as predicted by many mainstream political commentators, and which seems to be anticipated by the Liberal Democrats. If this is the case then an opportunity to build a stable, electorally credible, challenge to the left of Labour may have slipped through our fingers.
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