Take or leave us

Apologies for the long silence – and for the post that’s about to follow, which will be of much greater interest to some than others.

Unlike Liam and Andy, I am not now and have never been a member of RESPECT. Like Liam and Andy, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the fallout within RESPECT from George Galloway’s August letter. I think there are some genuinely hopeful developments taking place, in among the backbiting and abuse: a renewed RESPECT could be the socialist-friendly left-of-Labour electoral party England has been crying out for. (Could be – we’re not there yet by any means.)

Here are some of my comments from Andy’s blog. My thoughts on all this have developed over time, but I’ve only edited for clarity, brevity and anonymity.

1st September:

I’ve never liked George Galloway, but I’m pleasantly surprised by the clarity & cogency of this analysis. Yes, it is all about organisational structure, but structure can be very important in deciding what gets done and what doesn’t – and how the membership is involved in those decisions, both before and after they’re made.

You could object that Galloway’s line (and/or my take on it) is naive, inasmuch as there are solid political factors underlying the organisational sclerosis of RESPECT (reasons having to do with the death-grip of the SWP), and he clearly doesn’t address those. I think that would be to underestimate Galloway’s critique (which does after all propose leading roles for Yaqoob and even Thornett). I also think that a lot of the problems with the SWP itself are ultimately organisational – the weird stop/start blend of caution, opportunism and control freakery that the SWP has brought to RESPECT is a culture with quite deep roots in the party itself, and it’s not good for the internal life of the SWP any more than it’s been good for RESPECT. Viewed in this light, I think Galloway’s aim is to stir things up within the SWP, perhaps with the longer-term aim of splitting the party and expelling part of it from the New Model RESPECT. How it pans out will depend on how much discontent there is within the SWP, and how deep the divisions within the leadership run – is anyone sufficiently fed up to want to either break with RESPECT or split the party?

13th September:

There’s something Kremlinological about the lines being drawn – nobody really thinks Galloway is standing up for party democracy, or that the SWP Central Committee wants to eradicate any hint of communalism. As far as I can see the competing lines essentially boil down to “build a weak and diffuse coalition as an element in the SWP’s longer-term socialist programme” and “build a weak and diffuse coalition without preconditions, but in the hope that it will eventually become less weak and diffuse”. The CC line sounds more socialist, but I think in practice it’s less constructive.

22nd September:

I don’t think anyone’s saying “SWP out of RESPECT” – just that the relationship between the two needs to change. If that line prevails and the SWP responds by flouncing out… well, it’ll be a gamble, but I think it’s one worth taking. (Hopefully some of the better SWP/RESPECT comrades would jump the right way.) In any case [if] RESPECT is currently only kept going by the SWP machine, would it really be worth having on that basis?

3rd October:

There’s strong evidence, in some towns at least, that RESPECT has quite consciously targeted Muslim areas. Building on the massive mobilisation against the war isn’t a bad idea, but it depends how it’s done. I’ve seen RESPECT campaign material which focused exclusively on causes of interest to British Muslims. That’s not to say they were causes I wouldn’t support (Iraq, Palestine, anti-racism…) but that the list didn’t include anything calculated to appeal to non-Muslim working-class voters, or for that matter to Muslim voters who saw themselves primarily as working-class.

What does need to be dealt with quite openly is the difference between the type of approach I’m describing and the allegations of ‘personalist and clientelist’ organising. If that’s happened, it’s a disgrace and should be rooted out. But at the moment it’s unclear a lot of the time whether ‘communalism’ refers to this kind of corrupt practice or simply focusing on the Muslim vote – a legitimate approach, albeit one I disagree with on political grounds.

Ultimately I think the approach RESPECT took is a tragically missed opportunity. They could have gone a lot harder at the outset on class perspectives and on potentially divisive issues such as feminism and LGBT; the result would have been a smaller organisation in the early days, perhaps, but a much more coherent one. Instead we get socialist principle wheeled out as a factional weapon within the party, at a time when most of the early successes have been dissipated.

15th October:

Kevin Ovenden and Rob Hoverman expelled for working with Galloway; Nick Wrack expelled for standing for the Organiser post, whose creation Rees & German had agreed to… I can’t see that any of it makes any sense unless the SWP leadership is determined to a) leave RESPECT b) split RESPECT c) wreck RESPECT or d) some combination of the above. These certainly don’t look like the actions of an organisation preparing to operate as a minority current within a broader party – or even preparing to operate within a broader party on terms which might at some point in the future reduce them to a minority current.

There’s a much bigger question than the relative merits of RESPECT and the Labour Left, which is what happens if RESPECT goes under. To put it another way, which is the worse outcome for the Left in England – successful RESPECT or failed RESPECT? I think for the project to fail now would be bad news for all of us. But I think there’s a chance that what comes out of the current crisis will be a more coherent organisation with a clearer identity, not to mention a healthier relationship with the SWP and other groups. I think that possibility and that danger are far more important than anything that can be said about Galloway. (Whom I dislike, distrust and have very little faith in. Makes a good speech, mind.)

23rd October:

even if we take the SWP leadership at their word and assume they have adopted the vision of a more explicitly socialist RESPECT, vision and strategy aren’t the same thing. I believe RESPECT has the potential to become a coherent left-wing electoral party with an active socialist minority, which is rather more than it is now – but I don’t believe it can realise that potential by allowing the SWP leadership to control it. Anyone who wants to see RESPECT thrive and survive should welcome the critique being voiced by Galloway, Yaqoob, Wrack, Francis et al.

24th October:

a lot of the initial policy compromises have evidently been unmade in the course of the last four years, possibly thanks to the influence of principled leftists within RESPECT. The opposition to the SWP leadership within RESPECT isn’t a monolithic bloc, and they certainly don’t all dance to Galloway’s tune. There’s a left and a right within the Galloway/Yaqoob/Francis/Socialist Resistance wing of RESPECT, in other words, and I’m confident that the left will counter any attempt to push the project to the right. At the risk of offering hostages to fortune, RESPECT isn’t over yet; it may just be getting going.

30th October:

It all started, it seems to me, with a power-play by Galloway. If it was implemented unchanged, Galloway’s original proposal would have created a rival to John Rees’s position within RESPECT, with a power base among Galloway’s allies and a focus on electoral success (bearing in mind that we all thought there was an election coming up at the time). As such, the proposal obviously wasn’t welcome to Rees & his allies, and it called for some hard bargaining and careful management. What couldn’t be done was to kick it into touch, because it expressed more than just Galloway’s political self-interest and his belief that a party that stands candidates in elections ought to try and win them. RESPECT hadn’t flourished under the stewardship of Rees & co, and significant groups & individuals within the coalition had some genuine concerns about the way things were going. Galloway’s letter gave a voice to those concerns and put names to some of the people expressing them. It meant that the SWP’s leadership role in RESPECT would never be unchallenged again.

Rees and friends could have bargained and managed the situation; they could have accepted a collegiate leadership; they might well have re-emerged as ‘first among equals’ further down the line. Instead of which they declared war on Galloway – and, by extension, on anyone aligned with him, whether for reasons of principle or convenience.

I said at the time of Hoveman and Ovenden’s expulsions that the SWP leadership’s actions were incomprehensible unless they wanted to leave, split or destroy RESPECT, or some combination of the three. I don’t take any satisfaction in having, apparently, been proved right.

1st November:

for the SWP to pull out of RESPECT tomorrow, taking every dual member with it, would be disastrous for RESPECT. For Linda Smith & her allies to witch-hunt the SWP out of the organisation would be to saw off the branch they’re sitting on; tactically it would be crazy, stupid or sectarian to the point of obsessiveness. I don’t believe they’re any of those things.

So what is going on? I think it’s important to draw two distinctions: between reducing someone’s power and reducing it to nothing; and between long-term and short-term. The first is the difference between Edward Heath’s approach to the Left and the unions and Thatcher’s; the second is the difference between Thatcher and Pinochet. The Smith/Yaqoob/Galloway side of the argument are agreed that the SWP’s formal power within RESPECT needs to be reduced. There are people on that side of the argument (possibly Galloway himself) who believe that in the longer term it should be reduced to nothing. There isn’t anybody, as far as I can tell, who believe that it should be reduced to nothing immediately – that the SWP should be chased out of RESPECT.

The SWP leadership are doubly to blame for the escalation of this dispute, it seems to me: they’ve interpreted a demand for reduction of their power as an all-out threat to their position, then interpreted that as an immediate threat. In the process they’ve created that confrontation. It’s true to say that some, at least, of the SWP leadership’s critics have taken a position of “if you want a fight, you can have it” – and this is regrettable. But when concessions are exploited, well-intentioned criticisms are dismissed unread and challenges are met with strident denunciation and refusal to debate, it does tend to try one’s patience.

(Part of the problem, of course, is that you don’t start a position war with the SWP with much hope of winning – SWP cadre do tend to be very good at this stuff. It’s just not the stuff that’s needed right now.)

Having said all that, it’d be nice to think that the RESPECT which comes out of all this would include some SWP members. (Even now, the RESPECT-loyalists don’t seem to have any political quarrel with the SWP-loyalists – and that goes double for someone like Lavalette, whose work is a model of what RESPECT should be doing.)

2nd November:

I don’t think there’s any mystery around why Linda Smith & her allies don’t want to see the conference go ahead. They’ve stated their reasons – they’ve been comprehensively outmanoeuvred, out-organised and out-mobilised, by both fair means and foul. As a result, the legitimacy of the organisational structures of the coalition itself have been brought into dispute – but, as part of the same process, internal democracy has been boxed off to the point where that dispute can’t take place. In this situation, a pause for thought is the only option – ‘full speed ahead’ equals ’self-destruct’.

With two conferences now scheduled for 17th November, this last comment needs some expansion. By pressing ahead with organising for the planned conference, without addressing any of the issues raised by Smith & Yaqoob, the SWP put the ‘renewal’ camp in an impossible position. Turn up at the conference and they’d almost certainly be outvoted and outmanoeuvred; stay away and they’d lose by default. Worse, organising their own event at a later date would risk organised intervention by SWP partisans. (Before anyone cries paranoia, I’ve been in conferences where the SWP wanted to make sure that a mildly critical point of view got across; it’s not pretty. The ‘single transferable speech’ is one word for the tactic (In response to the last speaker, I’d just like to say that one of the earlier speakers raised a crucial question…)) Holding their own event on the same day was really the only option.

That said, it would be good if a split could be avoided; I was particularly glad to see that Michael Lavalette had been willing to share a platform with Galloway and Yaqoob (Andy has photographic evidence). The game is clearly not over yet. (Although after this post I’ll probably go back to the usual mixture of political philosophy, popular singing groups and miscellaneous geekage.)

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5 Comments

  1. Igor Belanov
    Posted 9 November 2007 at 13:42 | Permalink | Reply

    The ‘socialists’ have left Respect, so now it can be transformed into a serious left-of-Labour Socialist Party? The main reason that socialists wouldn’t have anything to do with Respect was the fact that it involved egotists like Galloway and had a political line that seemed to be excessively accomodating to Muslim clericalism. These factors still remain. Why should you expect that people will suddenly start to rally to it? Is there any chance that they might start addressing some ordinary left-wing concerns rather than obsessing about the Iraq War and ‘Islamophobia’?

  2. Posted 9 November 2007 at 22:35 | Permalink | Reply

    a renewed RESPECT could be the socialist-friendly left-of-Labour electoral party England has been crying out for.

    Most unlikely, for good reasons and bad.

  3. Posted 9 November 2007 at 23:46 | Permalink | Reply

    Why should you expect that people will suddenly start to rally to it?

    Mainly because some socialists whose judgment I respect have rallied to it. Obviously the project of a renewed RESPECT is still in its very early stages, but I think there’s grounds for cautious optimism – even among people who have previously shared many of the political criticisms currently being advanced by the SWP (a group which includes me). We’ll have a better idea of the lay of the land after next Saturday.

  4. Posted 21 November 2007 at 12:44 | Permalink | Reply

    Is this post intended as a replacement for Southpawpunch, now that he’s currently off sick?

  5. Posted 22 November 2007 at 00:30 | Permalink | Reply

    Sorry to hear SPP is laid up. I wouldn’t dream of taking on his mantle.

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