The Socialist Unity Network

The significance of RESPECT

Alan Thornett,

Respect National Executive and International Socialist Group

This article is also appearing in Frontline

The emergence of Respect - the Unity Coalition, is potentially the most
important development on the left in England for many years.
The need for new left-wing parties, which can embrace a broad spectrum of the left - both those who have reached revolutionary conclusions and those who have not - has been with us since the mid-1990s, not just in Britain but across Europe. This was produced by the wholesale adoption of the neo-liberal agenda by European Social Democracy in that period. In Britain it was a product of the rise of new labour, which was on the radical right-wing edge of that development. A space opened up to the left of Labour, which could not be filled by any of the existing left organisations alone. The key, therefore, was left unity.

The idea that a mass party, which can challenge capitalism, can be built by
one-by-one recruitment, via a single political tradition, from a small party to
a mass one, is an illusion in today's conditions. Even a party, which has been
as successful, in far-left terms, as the SWP, cannot do that. There are
thousands of young people, mobilised by the stop-the-war movement, who are open to socialist and anti-imperialist politics, but who will not immediately join a revolutionary party. Many, however, may well join a broader coalition or party, and work with revolutionaries in that framework, if they think it is a genuinely broad and inclusive initiative.   This conception helped produce the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) in Scotland and the Socialist Alliance (SA) in England at an earlier stage. The SA, however, has been unable to make a the breakthrough the SSP has achieved   A - although it has had some important successes. That is why the mass anti-war movement, and the radicalisation it has generated, is so important. February 15 2003 was the biggest political demonstration in British history, with two million people on the streets. It was a movement with a unique potential to reshape and revitalise the left.  It is also the conception which had produced Respect. Respect has arisen out of the Stop the War Coalition (StWC), the mass movement it led, the radicalism it generated, and the unity-in-action achieved in its day-to-day leadership.

The StWC embraced the whole of the far-left, the Communist Party (CPB), the Socialist Party (SP), the Green Party, the trade unions, CND, the Muslim
Association of Britain (MAB) and a number of left Labour MPs. George Galloway was its most prominent representative.   The question posed, after the high-point of the anti-war movement, was whether this radicalisation could be transformed into a long-term gain for the left - or whether a unique opportunity was to be lost.  The StWC itself could not become a political organisation, of course, it was a single issue campaign and far too diverse.

The SA AGM in May 2003 recognised this opportunity by adopting a resolution calling for a regroupment of the left in the aftermath of the war. It published a pamphlet arguing this. It discussed with many on the left, including the CPB, and key figures of the trade union left including Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka, to this end.  The SA was unable to get a new initiative off the ground, however. The CPB decided not to participate - despite its positive experience in the StWC.  This was partly due to moves by some of the left union leaders, at that time, to launch a campaign to reclaim the Labour Party. This was sharply out of kilter with political reality, of course, but was seen by some in the CPB as an endorsement of the CPB's long-term strategy on these lines. In fact there was an increasing questioning of the political fund and Labour Party affiliation going on in the unions. The SA intervened in this debate with a pamphlet and organised a very successful trade union conference on it. The CPB also saw the SA as over-influenced by certain sectarian groups. 

What opened the way for a new political initiative, in the shape of Respect, was the expulsion of George Galloway from the Labour Party, in October 2003, for his implacable opposition to the war. Galloway promptly called for a new coalition to fight in the European and London elections. It was an important move. He was the first Labour left MP in modern times to make a break with Labour in this way.   George Galloway has been  effectively the MP for the anti-war movement, and had moved closer to the far-left in the course of the campaign or at least had found working with the far-left in the leadership of the StWC a positive experience. He is not a member of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, though it is interesting to speculate whether this might have been a positive factor in his willingness to make a break with Labour.

Campaign Group MPs have remained the back-bone of the reclaim Labour line - dismissing out-of-hand any thought of organising outside the party. Ken
Livingstone, when he was expelled, called on everyone else to stay in the LP.
What George Galloway has brought to Respect is the Labour left tradition and his considerable reputation in the anti-war movement. Those from a far-left background, of course, will have some sharp differences with him - on abortion and the national question in Britain for example. Though there are differences on the national question amongst the far-left itself. In any case such differences, providing they are openly addressed, should be containable in an organisation like Respect.   The process which brought Respect into being was initiated by an ad-hoc group from the anti-war movement, and the SA, which got together after they had spoke at a series of rallies on "British politics at the cross-roads". They included Ken Loach, George Monbiot, George Galloway, Nick Wrack the chair of the SA, Linda Smith London FBU, Salma Yaqoob chair Birmingham StWC, Mark Serwotka, John Reese and Lindsey German. (George Monbiot has since withdrawn from Respect as its politics became clearer). They agreed an initial draft of a founding Declaration which would be put to a Convention of the Left to be held at the end of January - which would launch Respect. MAB decided at this stage not to join whatever was launched because they could not accept the clause on sexual orientation. They would, however, support from the outside. 

There was no blue-print available on how to create new and diverse organisation of this kind, in such a short period of time, out of a single, if highly successful, campaign. The SA was no guide. It was a coalition of the existing far-left organisations (though not all of them) plus individual socialists and activists. Respect had the potential, from the outset, to reach out to the
anti-war activists (including the young activists and the Muslim activists) and
to parts of the wider movement the SA had singularly failed to attract. This had to be taken into account in the way Respect was launched and in the political basis on which it was launched.  No-one, in this process, therefore, could get the whole of their politics into the Declaration if Respect was going to be launched with a broad appeal. The Declaration had to be strong enough in its socialist content to represent a real alternative to new Labour and broad enough to create a wider coalition.

If we from the SA, for example, had insisted on the whole of the politics of the SA being included, the whole process would have simply reproduced the SA. We needed to create something genuinely broader.  This approach was highly controversial with the sectarian organisations inside the SA. The thought of moving a step to the right (within a socialist perspective) in order to move forward to a new stage of development was beyond their narrow comprehension. The AWL, CPGB and others presented Respect as a betrayal of the politics of the SA. Others denounced it as a popular front - although there was not much evidence they knew what a popular front was. These groups came together in the Democracy Platform of the SA  which set its face against Respect, and voted not to join it. 

There was controversy at the Convention over two points from the SA manifesto not included in the Declaration: a workers' representative on a worker's wage, and open borders - the abolition of all immigration controls. The ad-hoc group argued that since these were controversial issues they should be discussed over a longer period of time, rather than forced through at the point of foundation. We were bringing people together from different traditions and experiences and we needed to take this into account. And these points could have been forced through since there was a majority present which supported them. That majority to its credit, was prepared to vote against their own convictions in order to preserve unity at this stage. This was important, even if some of it was done in a ham-fisted way. The name of the game was to build a new coalition which would be broader than the audience at the Convention, and the audience at the Convention needed to take that into account. 

The workers' wage issue was mainly a convenient stick to beat George Galloway with. This can be seen by the actions of the AWL - who were loudest presenting it as a fundamental issue. In the election for General Secretary of the NUT, however, they took a very different position. There were two left candidates standing - one advocated a workers wage and the other did not - the AWL supported the candidate who did not!  

Open borders is an important issue, of course, with the repeated attacks going on against asylum seekers and immigrants going on today. Socialist Resistance supports this as it does a workers wage. But it is also a contentious issue to which people need to be won. It was contentious when the SA adopted it three years ago, since the SP, part of the SA at that time, did not support it. Dave Nellist and other SP candidates do not call for open borders today. They presumably will not be denounced as "non-socialist" or being part of a popular front as a result. 

In fact Respect is both explicitly and implicitly socialist. Its acronym:
Respect, Equality, Socialism, Peace, Environment, Community, and Trade Unionism is clear enough. The declaration calls for a society based on need not profit - a rather obviously socialist demand and fundamental concept. It is also anti-privatisation, pro-renationalisation, anti-imperialist, anti-war,
anti-capitalist, and internationalist. It is against the Euro and the proposed
EU constitution, and it calls for the abolition of the anti-union laws. It has
the character, therefore, of a broadly socialist organisation on the general
lines of the SA or the SSP and with the potential to move to the left. It is
less developed - politically and organisationally - than the SA or the SSP, but
has the same general political character.

 The founding Convention elected an interim Executive Committee for Respect, which reflects the anti-war movement in its composition. Its 18 members are: George Galloway, Mark Serwotka PCS general secretary. Ken Loach, Salma Yaqoob chair of Birmingham StWC, Dr Siddiqui Muslim Parliament, Nick Wrack SA chair, Lindsey German SWP and convenor of the StWC, Linda Smith London FBU, Clive Protheroe South Wales FBU, Michael Lavalette Preston SA counsellor, John Nicholson Manchester SA, Shaheedah Vawda Just Peace, Chris Bambury SWP, Shelly Margetson SA, John Rees SWP and STWC, Sait Akgul Kurdish activist, and myself.

Its brief is to run the election campaign and organise the second stage
conference.  Respect plans to stand candidates in the European Elections and the London Assembly elections. It will also contest for London Mayor, and stand in a limited number of local government seats.

Already a series of well attended regional conventions have selected its
candidates for the Euro lists and for the London Assembly - both the list and
the constituency candidates. Its campaign structures are being put in place.
Manifestos for these elections will be published shortly. It was clear from the
size, diversity, and younger age profile, of many of the selection meetings that a significant proportion of the activist base of the StWC is involved in it, or at least open to its ideas. The quality, range and diversity of the Respect
candidate lists reflects this as well. Since Respect was launched we have had the historic RMT decision to affiliate its Scottish region to the SSP and the union's consequent expulsion from the Labour Party. Discussions on Respect are taking place in London RMT branches and at the London Regional Council. Waterloo RMT has already supported Respect as has Manchester Piccadilly. The FBU conference in May has a resolution from its Executive on  the agenda to democratise the political fund. The CWU may well see a challenge on the political fund and Labour Party affiliation at its conference. The left union leaders remain cautious about Respect, but it is getting a hearing that the SA never achieved.

There are, therefore, good grounds for optimism.  The impact of Respect on the CPB is indicative as well. Whilst the CPB was able to brush the SA's proposition aside six months ago, it has proved more difficult with Respect. A CPB conference on January 21st was sharply divided on it. Whilst the conference voted not to join Respect the Morning Star continued to promote it. In the days prior to the founding Convention the Star carried an article with a headline "all aboard the unity express". Hopefully the increased support inside the CPB for becoming part of a left alternative outside of the Labour Party will prevail in the not too distant future, since the CPB could play an important role. 

The response of the Greens is also interesting. Respect has bent over backwards to avoid a clash with the Greens in the South East Euro constituency, where Caroline Lucas is the sitting MEP. Respect cannot win there but Caroline Lucas could lose. The Greens, however, have rejected all proposals to avoid this. They even rejected the best chance of Caroline Lucas holding her seat - a joint slate with Respect with her at the top of the list. Faced with this Respect decided it had little option other than to stand - since failure to stand in all constituencies would cost Respect its European election broadcast. For the Greens, it seems, maintaining a sectarian attitude towards Respect is more important than defending Caroline Lucas's seat. It is a position which reflects the fundamental politics of the Green Party which is a rejection of socialism. It is what leads them into a coalition with the Lib Dems when they get the chance in local government. 

The SP has had discussions with Respect, but have decided, at this stage to
maintain their isolationism. They have approached Respect with a request that Respect defer to Ian page who wants to stand in Lewisham and Greenwich as Socialist Alternative for the London Assembly (the SP is not standing in the Euro elections). This would be in return for SP support for Respect in the rest of London. Respect initially agreed to this only to find that this would disqualify its election broadcast for the Assembly elections. Respect has now offered a formula which would allow Respect its broadcast and also allow it to stand down for Ian Page. This is for Page to stand under both names: Respect/Socialist Alternative. The SP have been unable to take a decision on this at the time of writing.  The unknown factor, of course, is how Respect will do in the June elections. Both the Euro elections and the London Assembly will be PR, which gives the best chance to small parties. Respect will call for a referendum on Blair on the war and his neoliberal policies.

Hostility to the government, even over something as powerful as the war,
however, does not translate automatically into votes for a principled socialist
alternative. In the Brent east by-election last year it was the soft anti-war
vote in the shape of the Liberal Democrats who were the main beneficiaries. It is, however, the best opportunity available to a new organisation like Respect to make its mark. There is a propensity for a protest vote if Respect can get its message across effectively. 

Respect is being launched in two stages: the first was the January Convention, the second will be another conference before the end of the year which will adopt a constitution and establish a firmer organisational structure.  We are accused of closing down the SA, which is not true. The SA EC will continue to meet and it will have an AGM in October. What is true is that the SA has decided not to stand in the June elections in its own name but to fully support Respect in standing. This means that the SA's level of activity during that period will be very different to a situation where it was standing its own candidates, it is bound to be. Respect puts the future of the SA into question - but in a very positive sense. If Respect is successful it would be logical for the SA to wind up and become a part of it. This would not mean that the SA had been destroyed, as the Democracy Platform argue, it would mean that the SA has been a means of establishing something better. The SA AGM last May was very clear about this. The resolution said that if it became possible to create a broader coalition it would not be an issue whether it was called the Socialist Alliance or not. 

The longer term strategic task for Respect is the same as it was with the SA; it needs to become a political party broadly along the lines of the SSP. Anything short of this will eventually create an impasse in its development. This means a party where the political organisations function as platforms within it, whilst retaining their own political identity. Where these platforms sell the party's own publication - in the case of the SSP Scottish Socialist Voice - and sell their own publications internally. A party where all its members, and the organisations within it, conduct their campaigning work through its structures and not in their own name. This was the task with the SA and this remains the task with Respect.  Achieving this may well be harder in England than it was in Scotland, not just because the political situation tends to be more radical. In England there is nothing comparable to the Scottish Parliament - which was a powerful factor in both bringing the SSP into existence and in its onward development. It would be a big step forward to get a Respect member into the London Assembly, but it does not have the profile of the Scottish Parliament. Even an MEP would not give the same profile. 

The configuration of the left is more difficult in England than in Scotland as
well. In Scotland the main groupings - Scottish Militant Labour and the SWP -
were of a similar size. In England the numerical dominance of the SWP is huge. Added to this is the position of the SWP. SWP leaders are likely to be as reluctant to go down the SSP road with Respect as they were with the SA. They accept this way of working in Scotland but oppose it in England. Here they argue that the far-left organisations should affiliate to the broad party but continue to fully function as public organisations, prioritising their own publications and reserving a range of campaigning activities to their own party profile. They theorised this by characterising the SA as a united front of a special kind. This allows them to treat it as one of a number of united fronts to through which the SWP organises its work. This debate has rumbled on inside the Socialist Alliance (SA) since it has existed.  This argument never made sense. The SA had a comprehensive political programme and
presented itself as an alternative in elections. When I argued this at Marxism
2002, John Rees's riposte was to quote Trotsky, saying that everything from a trade union to a soviet was a united front. But calls for unity, from the
pre-WW2 period, between the mass Communist Parties and the mass Social Democratic Parties, does not tell us very much. Today the united front is best understood as march separately strike together - the unity of diverse political forces around a common issue.  

The case for moving towards party of the SSP type, however, is likely to be far more credible with Respect than it was with the SA
- good election result would push this process forward. The SA was not in a position to become a party, in any real sense of the term, even if the argument had been won. It was too narrow and unable to attract the necessary forces needed to constitute a party. It was, and is, over-dominated by the SWP - not necessarily because the SWP has sought to dominate, but because the other participating organisation are not substantial enough to provide a counterweight and those who are have not been prepared to join. Now, particularly if the CPB eventually join and/or parts of the trade union left, even the SP, this could be very different. The need for a party would become a real debate rather than the sterile one which has gone on inside the SA.  It is important that Respect develops in this way. The SWP conception would mean carrying on in the old way.  Every demonstration, and major event of the left, would continue to lose its visual identity to the revolutionary organisations - in particular to the SWP because it is by far the biggest. Dozens of SWP stalls and flags and placards and paper sellers ensure that every major event looks at first sight like an SWP event. This is what shocked the European left when the SWP arrived in Florence for the ESF in 2002. We need to get to a position where the visual impact is made by a single united party with the bulk of the left within it. Already Respect is trying to increase its profile, but this needs to go a lot further.

May 2004


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