Socialist Unity wants to hear from you.
Got a comment?
Respect can be a real advance for the radical left
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
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.