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Talking about RESPECT

The Socialist Unity Network recently hosted a round table discussion for Respect members. We are in favour of a broad socialist party in England, and there is some tactical disagreement about the possible role that Respect can play in contributing to that outcome. Some supporters of the Socialist Unity Network are members of Respect, some are not. This is part of an ongoing debate, and the comrades are still evaluating their positions.

John Nicholson is a former member of RESPECT's national executive. Kath Owen was a candidate for Respect in the European Parliament elections for the Yorkshire and Humberside constituency. Declan O'Neill, Jim Jepps, Andy Newman and Matthew Caygill are members of the Socialist Alliance national executive

Kath Owen:
I held out great hopes for the Conference, it being the first opportunity members had had to democratically decide the politics and direction of the Coalition.  At the time of the founding declaration in January 2004 there were, for me, question marks over internal democracy and policy positions. However, with the European elections looming there did seem a necessity to get on with the massive task of building an electoral campaign.  But Respect has not developed in a way I feel comfortable with and the Conference was the nail in the coffin.

It is not the fact that the motions which I supported did not pass. I am not so childish as to expect that everyone in an organisation of which I am a member will agree with me on every issue.  How boring that would be.  However, it was the way these motions were opposed by leading members and how the movers were denounced that I found to be undemocratic and disturbing.  Executive members put arguments that forming policies from the controversial motions would 'put people off Respect'.  It was stated that there was 'a dishonesty in the way the motions had been put forward' and they were 'divisive' proposals.  The movers were described as 'people who had done nothing to build the anti-war movement...and if they don't like it they can go off and form their own organisation.' I felt this was not the way to conduct a democratic conference where open debate would result in delegates forming their opinion and voting accordingly.

I still remain hopeful that a broad, democratic, socialist alliance can work together in campaigning and elections in England and Wales.  The Respect Coalition would have been one way to achieve this.  But until I am convinced that it is operating in a principled manner I cannot support it. I will not be renewing my membership for the foreseeable future.

Declan O'Neill
I intend to resign myself.   It is not just the issues you highlight.  I could have argued for comrades to stay in Respect if there was any possibility of acting within the organisation to alter its policies and practice.  However, the efficient way the SWP  packed the "delegate conference" to minimise opposition on the Left, and the decision to vote down the motions on platforms, indicate to me that opposition from other socialists will not be tolerated. ( I believe the SWP has a different position on platforms in the SSP, but of course they are the minority there.)

Perhaps worst of all, as you say,  were the disgraceful and dishonest personal attacks on comrades taking opposite positions to the SWP. Bambery was probably the worst, but he was ably supported by German, Rees and, I regret to say, Michael Lavalette.

Matthew Caygill:
I wasn't at the conference, but I thought beforehand that it would set the tone and politics for Respect in the period up to the general election. I'm glad I wasn't at the conference because I guess it would have annoyed and distressed me as much as the comrades who left Respect as a result. 

However, Respect remains the single national (well, English to be precise) left electoral challenge and because of that I'm still willing to give it some leeway. 

One of the problems we face is that the SWP are masters of phoney and unnecessary polarization and I don't want to get polarised into being anti-SWP/anti-Respect just because they would rather have enemies they don't have to listen to rather than people who support many of the same objectives, but are also critical of aspects of rhetoric and tactics. 

I also have to disagree that Respect is going nowhere - it still has its boots on, because the SWP are putting effort into it and some important independent and other political forces still think there is good to come out of it.

But this brings me to a wider point which is about the labelling of people who disagree - even on a tactical level - as 'sectarians' who can thus be ignored, demonised, excluded, etc. Not only ourselves, but also the ISG have found ourselves tarred with the same brush, and the problem is in the political method that the SWP have adopted in dealing with political dissent and disagreement. Deconstructing methods always good - and I'm pleased that more comrades understand the term 'amalgam' when it comes to these particular methods. But it needs to be married to praise for what is good about SWP, including its overall role in the anti-war movement, and I think just sending members out to sell SW on the streets and workplaces regularly is a good thing.

I'm still in favour of Respect, although in practice I recoil from the hype, lack of democracy, etc. It is in short too much like the SWP, or too much the sort of dream so-called united front creature of the SWP, in which they are the only organised body, always get their way, everyone thinks they are wonderful and looks up to them and are well on route to joining.  

We face the problem of the SWP. Can we work with them? I think we have to? Can we go round them? Can we work without them? In small and limited ways of course, but still ways that should be encouraged. Which brings me back to the Respect question. Respect remains the central electoral force for the left in the period up to the general election, so I think it is still worth bothering with, building, hoping for its success, etc.

John Nicholson
I am resigning from Respect (though standing at the mike for the last time moving the alternative slate it almost felt like we had been expelled already!). Politically I do think Respect has now set out clearly that it is not a socialist party and for good measure it has removed almost all possibility of challenging this direction from within. These were precisely the reasons that I left Labour, after Clause 4 was removed; and although these lines remain in Respect's constitution, as a reason for not supporting Labour, the fact is that, as Lindsey German made clear, "Respect is not a socialist party. Socialists have failed. We have to reach out ...."

Organisationally, in terms of Respect being about unity, I can only reiterate what the succession of SWP / Respect leading figures said about us, in turn, when opposing the motions they did not like: first, on Saturday evening: "deliberately divisive" (Lindsey German on the abortion rights resolution) then, from Sunday lunchtime onwards: "divisive and dishonest" (Michael Lavalette, on the workers wage) "cynical" (Sait Atgul, on abortion etc) "deceptive" (Salma Yaqoob - smashing the resolution on self organisation of women, black people, etc) "undemocratic" (Chris Bambery - speaking against even the rights of 20 members to move resolutions that was in the constitution he was proposing!) "against the stop the war coalition" (Lindsey German, waving a leaflet - I still don't know whose).

And, of course, that our small amendment to the slate were people who were "unfit" to be in the leadership (John Rees). I believe that it is not a method of seeking unity to dismiss people with genuine (and honest) views in this way.

And if they want to talk about dishonesty and deception, let them start listing the revisions of their official slate (between nomination, website and conference), the pretend delegates elected in Manchester, the absence of executive committee minutes and decisions, the series of gossip and innuendo directed at "us" around the whole two days of the conference....

Lindsey German's threat/challenge - go off and found your own organisation - was sadly only outdone by the widespread applause that greeted it - a sort of whipping up of mass hysteria, almost baying for our blood by the end of the final session. "Unity"? - against the "enemy within"? But we were never "the enemy".

All of which contrasted totally with the conference's initial approval of Mark Serwotka contribution on the first morning- when he called for respect to be inclusive, tolerant of debate, pluralist, democratic, and socialist.

But just on one point, it is not simple enough to say the SWP packed the meeting. they have not taken all their own members with them into respect, by any means. nor were they the only people there. what was more depressing was their use of the platform and the organisation to dominate (unnecessarily) and squash any perceived dissent, and the deference with which most (the huge majority) of the audience (I will use this word because it was so unparticipative) greeted the instructions from the front. this left the dissenters very clearly identified - socialist unity, socialist resistance, (including ken loach on one or two votes), Leeds, and a few others (for different and varying reasons, say on abortion or secularism or just because the platform was so damn rude to them) - and "we" were clearly no better than the CPGB or the AWL (names not used, but constantly implied, through the use of terms such as "divisive" and "dishonest"). The social attitudes of a lot of the hall was conservative - in favour of anti social behaviour orders in a debate titled "youth and crime". it might as well have been called "Liverpudlians and crime".

There wasn't much debate at all, not just because of one mover and one opposer, and not just because of remitting. the fact is that people moved formally, didn't put in speakers slips (I surely only got to speak on the first morning because no-one at all had put anything in), and didn't want to participate. the "audience" (because that is what it was) sat, didn't so much listen as just empathise with the tone, and then clapped - increasingly hysterically - at anything from the platform leadership. Depressing.

I don't think respect can be regarded as the central electoral force on the left even in England, when it is going to fight so few seats - has it even started the process of selecting candidates yet? though there is a good argument here for us organizing discussion meetings in our own areas ("which way for the left to vote at the next election?"??) and asking for people from all possible contesting organisations to share views (on who to vote for and where to fight and so on), so as to raise the prospect of socialist unity in practice trying to negotiate / achieve one left(ish) candidate per seat. 

Matthew Caygill:
I don't agree with John here. Respect remains the main electoral challenge - its weakness is paralleled by the even greater weakness of the rest of us. Is any group planning to stand more, or with hope for greater success? I keep asking: what are the alternatives?

Even where it isn't standing it will clearly be mobilising people to work in areas where there are candidates. In Leeds this will be similar to the 2001 election when only one SA candidate was standing and comrades from other constituencies worked in Leeds Central.

As it hasn't publicly said which seats it will be running in it can't really select candidates - of course there is the issue of re-inventing the wheel as a continuing SA might have been a better position, but that is to ignore history since 2001.

I discussed the prospects for Respect with two SWP members at the weekend. (These are my friends who were interested in the conference as neither had attended) One has taken my lead and will not do any further work for Respect and will criticise it within the party. The other one was less ready to hear the bad news and still defended the project. He admitted that Respect is not a socialist organisation, and therefore 'socialist' motions were blocked. I couldn't get out of him
the SWP are doing this.

I can only assume they believe they can build it/ attract members without and despite the rest of the left?? Will continue this debate with friendly individuals I know...

Have had loads of support from others on the left post-resignation, including AWL and Workers Power comrades which has been nice. But I think much of this is based on anti-SWP sectarianism. Had interesting talk with AGS members too, general feeling was sadness that Respect is lost cause. And a bit of 'I told you so'

Andy Newman:
I think some people are now saying "how can anyone on the left remain in Respect? What's the point?" Ok - as is clear by now several people have resigned from Respect, some of us have not. I think there is an important need to debate this, but I "respect" the decision of people either way.

Let me quote the example of Bath, where for historical reasons there was no Soc Alliance, but did this year launch a Respect branch, the leading figure being the well respected independent John Bamfylde. In Bath, Respect fills the gap that the SA did in some other towns, and unites most of the non-aligned left along with the (small) SWP. If you were in Bath it would be worth participating in Respect.

Take Swindon, where a few people joined Respect who were not previously attracted to the SA. These independents are in Respect and because I am in Respect I have persuaded them to join the Soc Alliance as well (which is much bigger and more active than respect). Whether it is worth me renewing my membership for 2005 I haven't decided.

Look at Manchester where Socialist Unity managed to split the SWP vote half for and half against our motion to conference on left unity; the ISG managed to similarly split the SWP vote in Islington over the issue of self organisation. In both cases we forced Respect members to have a real debate about what is the way forward to build a broad socialist party, and both motions went to conference. The SWP is not a monolith and there are still many good socialists in the SWP. Where possible we should work with the SWP and encourage the good aspects of the organisation and challenge the bad aspects.

Like it or not, the project many of us desire to create a party broadly on the SSP model cannot be built by ignoring the SWP. It is difficult but we need to find ways of engaging with them at rank and file level, and where appropriate at leadership level, to encourage the SWP to change course. Naturally this is very difficult because the SWP as an organisation have decided that anyone who has even tactical disagreements with them is a sectarian, but I cannot see any alternative. Nor is it hopeless, as many individual SWP members are unhappy about this sectarianism (and unhappy about Respect come to that)

That means we have to both support Respect in the general election, as well as supporting all other socialist candidates.

Declan O'Neill:
I can understand the arguments  of those who decide that the correct thing to do is to stay within Respect.  For the  future I imagine, and hope, that the SUN network will include both those who wish to stay as members and those who think the whole project is bound to fail, or has already done so.   If we have a function I believe it is to provide a link and area of co-operation for socialists inside and outside the unity coalition.  In particular, we need to have an orientation towards the many socialists who worked with the SA, but will have nothing to do with Respect.

My own position, though, has changed - largely because of what I experienced at conference.
Having been persuaded that the correct thing to do was to join Respect at least until its conference,  I now believe that there is no valid reason for continuing my membership.  This is only partly because of the decisions taken at conference - on not committing our elected reps to vote for a woman's right to choose, on not allowing separate organisation for oppressed groups, on open borders, on a workers wage, on the right to form  platforms etc.  I accept there are valid arguments for and against on (most of) the issues, though I would love to hear the SWP's arguments for supporting many of these positions within the SSP, indeed demanding the right to a platform as a condition of joining, but arguing against in England.

The crucial questions for me are linked: 
Is it possible to operate within Respect with a realistic hope of moving it in the direction of an open, democratic, socialist organisation?

Is Respect prepared to co-operate with other groups on the Left who are unwilling to join the "unity coalition"? 
Is it possible for socialists to act as an organised platform within Respect to argue for democratic and socialist politics?

I am afraid that the answer to all these is no - and I don't accept the argument that "this is the only show in town", therefore we must join. It is not that things I believe in strongly were defeated - that's democracy, but the way dissent was treated at conference.  Opponents were denounced as "divisive" and  "dishonest", were explicitly told to "go away and found their own organisation", no right of reply was given to the most appalling attacks.  The atmosphere was awful; some of the worst attacks were cheered to the rafters, including the disgraceful slur that those on the alternate slate were "unfit for leadership".

I hope this changes, and I wish those comrades well who continue to work within Respect to push it in the direction of an open and pluralist organisation. 

Andy Newman:
Interestingly, the situation in London does seem different from the rest of the country. There is a very upbeat description of Respect in Tower Hamlets by Glynn Robbins, for example, that we have reproduced on our web page. Glynn describes Respect in Tower hamlets as a very vibrant and inclusive organisation.

Another London comrade referred to the impact that Respect has had in the Muslim communities - notably in Tower Hamlets but also among the Kurds for example in Hackney which seems very positive - and presents an alternative to the Islamist currents such as Hizbut Tahrir who reject all work with non-Muslims even around the war ( and have lost influence as a result). Perhaps this is not a sufficient basis for Respect as a national force as we have discussed at length in the past but it is an important shift without recent precedent for the left in Britain.  Because Respect still does have these strengths it retains support from some significant non-SWP figures ( Loach, Serwotka, Mike Rosen) with the potential to build on that. I think Mark Serwotka's recent interview in Red Pepper is however a warning, where he says he has an open mind about Respect, and some misgivings about its attitude of "you are either with us or against us"

On the other hand I have spoken to other comrades who are committed to Respect but feel unable to influence its direction, there are few meetings where politics are discussed. As one of them put it he didn't feel like just going to barbeques, particularly as anyone perceived as oppositionist might end up on the spit! This lack of political meetings was reflected in the Respect timetables published in one of the SWP pre-conference Internal Bulletins, where there were a whole series of Respect events listed in Leeds, Manchester and London, but no meetings listed where ordinary Respect members could influence events or policy. The decisions seems to be taken elsewhere.

Jim Jepps:
I think the question for a good number of us is are we going to be a paper member of RESPECT where there is no activity and constructive role we can play or not bother being a member. It's difficult to be enthusiastic about either option really.

The Swindon comrades would have to a use lot of time and effort creating a RESPECT branch - who's sole function is to be a political expression of the anti-war movement *at the ballot box* and then find they are unable to stand because of RESPECT's understandable national policy of limiting the number of seats it stands in - but they are already committed to standing a Socialist Alliance candidate. It makes little sense. It could only make sense where there were others who wanted to do this - RESPECT is meaningful only if it pulls in more people to the movement and progressive politics - if it can't do that in your town what is it for?

There are other comrades, for example in Manchester who face a different problem - where some sectarian elements of the SWP are insufferable and it would be an extraordinarily unpleasant experience being a member of Respect. A totally different question and one I am glad I do not have to face.

I think our Leeds comrades probably come somewhere in between.

Comrades in Cambridge, are in the fortunate position that Respect meets regularly and seems to be 'staffed' by some rather pleasant young folk and so it would definitely make sense there.

For comrades in London there exists a hot house version of the project which will have both the ups of the stronghold areas with significant sections of parts of London being respect voters / supporters. But its centralised aspect and SWP-centric outlook are likewise intensified.

Out here in windy Lowestoft we have the opposite problem - it's respect put in the fridge - there are people who may like it but aren't going to do anything about it. Of 9 SWP members only 3 are members - but all would argue for voting RESPECT (I think) - in these circumstances its easy to be a member of RESPECT without it entailing any real effort or unpleasantness. Which is nice.

This may seem like materialism gone to extremes but I think respect is one of the most location specific political organisations I've ever seen (including the SWP) by a long chalk. I think a key question here though (to be taken in conjunction with these incredibly localised factors) is that once the elections are underway and particularly when they are over and the post mortem begins what will put us in the most influential position to argue for a broad pluralist socialist party, and a collaborative anti-sectarian method for the left?

John Nicholson:
It is interesting that after the Respect conference some members of the ISG went for a drink with us and commiserated and were thoroughly supportive. they will probably stay in respect as they see the SWP as the largest block around (slightly different to the only show in town) and they will wait to see what happens next (e.g. after the next election). They supported our motions and moved one of them. they (including ken loach) voted for us (and even for some CPGB motions).

But some other members of the ISG have apparently sought to be on the inside track - and were able to be so because the SWP leadership debated with them their attitude to motions and so on. This may have helped to improve the SWP motion on abortion (adding the "mistakenly" uncomposited last line on right to choose, for example). However, the price they were prepared to pay was to denounce us (especially me and my role on the exec - simultaneously both "absent" and "destructive"). Their (limited) success depended on the degree to which they distanced themselves from us. Undoubtedly this is similar to their (dreadful) position at the January 2004 launch conference, where they moved their own (quite good) no borders motion and then remitted it to the exec (which never considered remitted motions). And quite different to our approach (nominating Alan Thornett, for example, in January, when he wasn't on the list. and continuing to ask for exec minutes, after Alan had stopped.) Now either (or both of) these strategies may be legitimate, strategically, (even if they vary in honesty and sectarian outlook) but they aren't compatible (So is the future of ISG therefore an issue in itself?)

The other observation I would make is that for at least three weeks after the Respect conference there was no mention of Respect at all in the SWP's internal Party Notes mailing. Is Respect another organisation that will only be given any life during elections?

Andy Newman:
Some supporters of the ISG and Socialist Resistance (SR) seem to recognise that there is considerable regional variation in Respect, that there is no objective process compelling to it to develop in the direction we would like to see, and that there is not easy way of working with the SWP in Respect. But if these comrades continue to advocate Respect becoming a party it would precipitate SR out of the cosy snug with the SWP into the role of oppositionists.

Clearly not everyone buys the idea that Respect is on the road to becoming a party. The contribution by Francois Sabado in International Viewpoint was very interesting where he agrees with the need for a broad party, but warns that the task is to patiently construct the conditions for such a party, rather than prematurely proclaim a new force, as he puts it: "on the cheap". On the other hand I think some members of the ISG believe that the SWP are serious about transforming Respect into a broad, pluralist party. I think this is self deception.

I remain convinced that there are tactical reasons for working in Respect - where it exists, and where it is possible - I also withdraw my earlier remark that it is "going nowhere", I was shortening a historical process, and over-emphasising only one possible outcome. It is not going in the direction we want, but it has not yet run its course.

Murray Smith posed the question very clearly, does the SWP see Respect as leading to a broad socialist party, or was it set up as an alternative (and obstacle) to that project. At a national level I think they have resolved that question, that not only do they see Respect as an alternative they have ensured both with the structure and culture of Respect that the situation cannot be changed, or even questioned.

On the other hand some of the views from SR supporters seem very confused. It is clear to outsiders that even the ISG do not have a coherent political analysis or project, let alone SR, and the independents have largely dropped away from SR. Also the idea of SR as a "political tendency" is a very confusing one to me. I thought it was a collaborative venture between various Marxists for specific aims, not an attempt to develop it as a coherent current within Marxism? Those limited aims no longer fit the current situation.

Anyway. SR and SUN both share the same aim of building a broad socialist party, and we probably both have similar spread of views over respect if the argument was teased out.

It seems there are two differences between us:

i) They define themselves as Marxists , and therefore revolutionary left; we see left as left and are not necessarily any "ism". Although there are clearly supporters of SUN, like myself, who are Marxists.

ii) tactically their majority view seems to be that the SWP should not be antagonised under any circumstances.

Personally I find it quite confusing as when I read material from the USFI, for example like "International Viewpoint" I find myself very much in sympathy with the current strategic goals of the USFI, but I do not have a generally positive experience of the ISG, which is mainly because of the way they work, and their relationship with the SWP.

Jim Jepps.
There has been some controversy on whether we were right to propose an alternative slate for the Respect National Steering Committee. I still believe it was the right thing to do, despite the fact that it was weaker because we were unable to increase the overall size of the slate, which was our original intention.

It's central object was to focus on Nick Wrack's secret membership of the SWP and that the national chair and national secretary should not both be members of a centralised faction inside of RESPECT.

It was only after we submitted our alternative slate to the executive did they go out of their way to change Nick Wrack's description on the list to SWP (two days before conference began) the very first time that this has been publicly acknowledged.

By submitting the slate we not only forced this to happen, this almost automatically means he can no longer carry on as chair. Whoever they chose as 'independent chair' may actually influence some of the decision making to be more accountable - if only to that individual.

We did not win friends in this process - including among the ISG who were VERY unhappy with an SWP member as chair - but had no strategy for even raising this with the SWP.

John Nicholson:
Yes, Jim, I think you state these points well. even if it was hard to do what we did on the slate (which is my main point) it did still have an effect (even if this is hidden under the barrage of criticism we received). in fact, it had two effects. it also got Ridley to attend the conference - in order to make the public presentation of the raffle prizes immediately before the slate vote.

As for the workers wage, and as I may have said elsewhere, the truth is that "we" were much more supportive of Galloway than of the SWP. the idea that the SWP were protecting him (by their useless and "divisive" arguments) is ludicrous. but much the same as that utterly useless contribution Paul Holborow made to defend Galloway at the conference in January. if I had been Galloway, I would have been squirming. Why not let the guy speak for himself (he hasn't a problem with speaking, you may have noticed).

Andy Newman
I know that both John and Matthew (and maybe others) thought we were wrong to propose the alternative slate. Now of course it was made doubly difficult because our web-site problems meant we were unable to publish our reasons for the alternative slate. Nor do we all have to agree, for example, had I been at conference I would have voted with the SWP on the question of the workers wage.

But it is extraordinary to read leading members of the ISG defending Ger Francis as playing a positive role. He is associated with appalling stitch ups in Birmingham, and had a significant role in trashing the Socialist Alliance. His inclusion was a (deliberate?) signal that Respect will tolerate no debate.

Nick Wrack represents little independent of his relationship with the SWP. And the surely deliberate deception involved in him not declaring his SWP membership would not have been revealed had we not challenged him.

And surely someone has to question why Ridley is on the NC? She has a child at an expensive Public School, but also because she wrote describing Taliban and Al Qaeda: "Their heroics, bravery and the martyrdom of their comrades can never be discussed openly. Yet they all fought for the same sort of ideals and principles as those in the International Brigades.". These views are offensive to many socialists and are hostage to fortune that they may be picked up by the national press during a general election campaign.

Also I think our general argument was correct of including John (an ex-Labour left who actually represents something and also with a history in the SA), Anne McShane of the CPGB (because organised left groups should be encouraged to participate not excluded), and Kath Owen, because she a strong independent, and most of the independents on the exec list are less convincing.

So it comes as a tactical question of whether, given we could not win, it was right to propose the alternative slate. This is what some ISG members have described as a "sectarian antic". Now I think this is interesting, because it shows an adaptation to an abusive relationship with the SWP! We should self-censor ourselves so as not to upset them, in an organisation where our membership has formal equality to theirs.

Every member of Respect has a right to their own opinion about who should be on the NC, and the delegates have a right to hear those arguments and vote on them. Had we not proposed our slate then Nick Wrack's SWP membership would not have been brought up.


January 2005


For Socialist Unity ~ For Internationalism ~ For Peace ~ For Justice ~ For Unity ~ For Socialism