The Socialist Unity Network

On the workers wage

Andy Newman

The issue of whether Respect members elected to office should draw only a "workers' wage" has caused some controversy. To put this is perspective, Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn and Ken Coates have all drawn their full parliamentary salaries, (apologies to any of you if I am mistaken). 

However, a number of elected socialists have drawn only a skilled workers wage, notably the three Communist MPs: Shapurji Saklatvala, Willie Gallagher and Phil Piratin; the Militant MPs: Terry Fields, Dave Nellist and Pat Wall; and all the elected representatives of the Scottish Socialist party.

Socialists expect their elected representatives to use their position for the advancement of the whole working class, not as a passport to a more luxurious lifestyle. In the words of the old saying, they should "Rise with the working class, not out of it".

But what does this mean in the case of someone like Jeremy Corbyn? There is no doubt that Jeremy leads a modest lifestyle and uses his time, energy and money for the benefit of advancing the labour movement. Were he to only draw a workers' wage, who would he give the rest of the money to? New Labour? It is clearly better that Jeremy uses the money to fund his campaigning activity than to make an empty gesture.

This however raises the question of accountability. All the MPs and MSPs who have drawn only a workers wage have been members of political organisations outside parliament to whom they have given the money. This is a much better way of operating, but it requires that the MP has close trust and a mature relationship with that organisation.

Now because of all the slanders being raised against George Galloway some sensible things need to be said. Firstly, he has undoubtedly thrown all his resources into campaigning against the war. Secondly, he is clearly a man of talent and had he been motivated by self-enrichment then he could have made his peace with New Labour ages ago and been rewarded with a ministers job. Much criticism is made of his clothes and cigars. This is just puritan tittle-tattle, and plenty of people working in factories and offices enjoy the same luxuries. It probably costs more to have a season ticket at Chelsea than smoke cigars. If George Galloway just wanted a comfortable life he wouldn't spend 3 or 4 days every week speaking in community centres and church halls the length and breadth of the country.

George has been able to make a major impact because his parliamentary salary and other earnings have given him independence. By joining RESPECT George could be making the first step in a transition from being a maverick individual towards being part of a collective organisation. It is unrealistic to expect him to surrender his independence as a precondition, and it would lessen his influence within RESPECT as a counterbalance to the SWP. It is therefore quite correct that the founding convention of RESPECT rejected the demand that all elected representatives should draw only a workers' wage. It is quite acceptable for compromises to be made in order to build a broader coalition. What is necessary however is that these compromises should be transparent and based upon a principled accounting of the reasons for compromise.

However, that shouldn't be the end of the matter. The motion from the CPGB to the Socialist Alliance special conference was actually quite cute, by demanding that members of the Socialist Alliance elected as RESPECT members should only take a workers' wage. The importance to this is that it did not make this a condition for all members of RESPECT. What it would have done is use the Socialist Alliance as a lever of influence within RESPECT.

So why was it opposed and defeated at conference? The stated reason (by Sean Docherty speaking against it) was that it was an attempt to impose this condition on RESPECT as a whole. Now Sean is a literate man, and will have read the motion he was opposing, so this is clearly a disingenuous argument.

Unfortunately, there is a culture among some comrades that any idea will be rejected out of hand it comes from the CPGB, or from some other quarters. There is a tendency to see anyone arguing something different as "unhelpful" or "divisive". This attitude has already caused damage in the Socialist Alliance, it is for example quoted by Mike Marqusee as his reason for leaving the SA (https://www.signsofthetimes.org.uk/). It has also exacerbated the bad feelings surrounding the removal of Steve Godward from his position in Birmingham SA. If the same attitudes are carried over into RESPECT, then this will be an obstacle to it becoming a broad inclusive party.

So we are back to accountability. It is interesting that in the cases of Saklatvala and the Militant MPs, they won their parliamentary seats for the Labour Party and then given the money to another organisation. Of course there is no question of impropriety here, Saklatvala openly stood as CP member, and the Militant MPs were open about their support for Militant. Furthermore it is to their credit that they would rather fund a socialist organisation rather than use their MP's salary for personal gain. But this touches upon what sort of organisation RESPECT will become. We hope that it becomes a broad anti-capitalist party with a mass membership. It is therefore correct to argue that any Socialist elected as a RESPECT candidate should only take a workers' wage and give the rest of the money to RESPECT, rather to any other organisation that they happen to be a member of. If RESPECT succeeds, in the fullness of time George Galloway may also feel confident enough of the collective leadership of RESPECT to follow this example.

March 2004