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Respect: The End

Andrew Coates tells a tale of opportunism, egos and splits

Where to begin? Where to end? Respect’s attempt to create a credible left-wing alternative to New Labour has culminated in a split, ferocious even by the standards of the British left. This won it coverage from Newsnight and Channel Four News reports, and a tide of instant Web reports and comments.  Nevertheless, beyond the rhetorical fireworks, and the apparent lack of political differences, is there anything to be gleaned from this débâcle? Did it start from false premises? Does the saga of the two fighting wings of Respect throw up issues important to democratic socialists?

Respect’s feuds appear just another case of the left’s tendency to self-destruct. Yet when it was launched the party looked as if was aiming for an enduring political presence. Called the ‘Unity Coalition’, it was founded in January 2004. It was primarily an electoral vehicle, allying expelled Labour M.P., George Galloway, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), anti-War Muslims and some small Leninist groups. It stood, if one remembers the mouthful, for respect, equality, socialism, peace, environment, community and trade unions. The main platform was opposition to the occupation of Iraq; Respect was the biggest organised force in the Stop the War Coalition.

In the General Election of 2005 George Galloway was elected M.P. for Bethnal Green and Bow, replacing Blair loyalist, Oona King. In three constituencies it came second in the polls – though other results amongst the 25 seats contested were much lower. At its local electoral highpoint in 2006, the party got 26% of the vote and three seats in Newham, 23 % and 12 councillors in Tower Hamlets and a victory for liberal Islamic activist, Salma Yaqoob in Birmingham. To leading SWPer, Lindsey German, this indicated, “there is a big audience for socialism and radical ideas.” (ISJ No 108. 2005). Three further municipal by-election gains seemed to confirm a real, if limited, electoral base. The Coalition’s leaders began to appear on the national media, and their sense of self-importance was visibly growing.

All this was to fall apart. By November 2007 there were two ‘Respects’. One, SWP dominated, held a National Conference, and the other, a Galloway-Yaqoob led alliance, Respect (Renewal), staged an alternative rally on the same day. The former accused the other of launching ‘an onslaught’ on the left. Accusations of communalism and Tammany Hall politics were made. The latter asserted that the SWP operated a two-tier organisation, controlling Respect through a system of ‘Russian Dolls’. There were allegations of packed meetings, an illegal donation, intimidation, and even violence. The pro-Galloway Socialist Unity Blog was flooded with hundreds of posts by warring former comrades. In group therapy they poured out their woes and mutual loathing (http://www.socialistunity.com).

There are now two rival lists for this year’s GLA elections. The SWP is standing Lindsey German as Mayoral candidate with a List for the Assembly. Their opponents are trying to build a “broad based progressive slate” of constituency and party list, candidates, and (with some dissent already) back Ken Livingstone for Mayor. Disputes remain about who has the right to the ‘Respect’ label under electoral law.

Respect had deeper roots than opposition to the war on Iraq, or Galloway’s political ambitions. As New Labour assumed Thatcher’s heritage and abandoned even moderate social democracy the socialist left was marginalised. A hollowed-out party offered no expression for effective dissent. The Scottish Socialist Party, formally launched in 1999, offered an independent alternative based on radical socialism. Tommy Sheridan and five other MSPs’ election to Holyrood in 2003 appeared to show that this strategy could work.

A parallel English and Welsh initiative was the Socialist Alliance (SA). SA candidates stood in the 2001 General Election, combining left groups, such as the SWP, the Socialist Party (ex-Militant), some Greens, and some former Labour left-wingers. In the event it scored an average of 1.7% of the vote, and only saved its deposits in two seats. The SA began to falter. The Socialist Party withdrew over moves towards greater centralisation. Former Labour NEC member and SA Chair, Liz Davies resigned her post in 2002 complaining of financial malpractice and manipulation (Tribune. 1.11.02). 

The left, however, was bolstered by the opposition to the invasion of Iraq. The massive anti-war march of 15th February 2003 was organised by the Stop the War Coalition, in which the SWP played a major part. How could the demonstrators’ views be represented? An answer, which would take the SA from its impasse, appeared to come. George Galloway had pushed himself out of the Labour Party and was looking for a new political home. Known for his anti-war views, and pro-Arab nationalist opinions (if not notorious for his genuflection to Saddam Hussain), he set about negotiating a deal with the SWP. Respect replaced the SA.

Detractors were not slow to point out the faults of Respect, or Galloway’s sulphurous and erratic reputation. The SWP’s political culture – described as permanent hysteria and disregard for democracy – particularly irked. Complaints rested on the conflict between the SWP’s version of Leninism, and democratic practice. The Party claimed it was in a ‘united front’: it, the ‘revolutionary' element, allied on equal terms with those who opposed racism, exploitation and war. In reality the leadership took decisions with other notables, Galloway to the fore, above the membership’s heads.  On a range of issues, from calling feminism a ‘shibboleth’ to downgrading LGTB rights, to opposition to secularism, Respect alienated the left.

A real bone of contention was Respect’s description of itself as ‘the party of Muslims’. In their dash for electoral gain the party had compromised with the Islamicist bullies described by Ed Husain in The Islamicist (2007). De facto alliances, now admitted by the SWP, had been forged with right-wing Islamicists, such as supporters of the reactionary Jamaat-i-Islami party present in the East London Mosque. Secular Bangladeshis were not slow to point to the bloody role the Jamaat played in opposing independence and suppressing the left in their country. Communalist appeals led to a growing electoral rival amongst Afro-Caribbean voters in the East End, the Christian People’s Alliance. Salma Yacoob associated with Birmingham mosques that played host to ultra-conservative preachers. Any attempt to oppose this approach was met with cries of ‘Islamophobia’. In municipal politics Respect increasingly relied on ‘community leaders’ (including wealthy businessmen) of a Muslim background (Bangladeshi in East London, Pakistani in Birmingham) rather than socialists or trade unionists. Nor was this the only difficulty. Their councillors often operated as councillors frequently do: vying for position, and standing up for ‘their people’ first, squabbling, switching sides, and puffing themselves up, regardless of their party’s instructions.

The low point in Respect’s history came in 2006 when George Galloway became a Big Brother Housemate. Hs antics, whilst highly amusing to the non-Respect left, did the party great harm amongst its supporters. A torrent of ribald jokes about ‘Kitty’ Galloway sapped what little credibility they had. Undeterred, the Honourable Member began a media career, making him one of the five highest paid MPs.

This was but an interlude. It became public knowledge that Respect’s membership had declined from 5,500 in 2005, to 2,200 in 2007.  That autumn Galloway circulated a litany of complaints about the party: ‘The Best of Times, the Worst of Times’, a title modestly drawn from Dickens’s novel of the French Revolution. Respect was “not punching its weight”, its activists suffered from “exhaustion and enervation”, its organisation was marked by “amateurism”. It was unfit to face a General Election (widely mooted at the time). The stage was set for outburst and counter-outburst. Both sides borrowed freely from the analysis of their opponents: the formerly taboo words ‘communalism’ and ‘Islamicism’ were traded against a critique of democratic centralism. Respect had descended into a shouting-match between some very large egos.

The prospects for both the SWP Respect and Respect (Renewal) are not good in the GLA elections, or elsewhere. Their political differences are invisible to the general public. The intensity of the dispute means that voters are more likely to shy away, and the pool of left activists willing to engage in either of these ‘unity’ alliances has shrunk drastically.

Lack of public accountability, the culture of going for ‘what works’ – regardless of who gets hurt – and a disdain for democratic debate, helped bring Respect low. This contempt for the membership of parties, treating people as tools, connects Respect’s leadership to the norms of New Labour. Can anything be learnt from Respect? Perhaps that a serious effort to create democratic socialist politics has yet to be tried.