Respect victory – a new dawn for the left?
17th May 2005
The election of George Galloway as an MP for the Respect Coalition has been hailed as a major breakthrough for the left in Britain. Contesting its first general election, Respect overturned a Labour majority of ten thousand in the East End constituency of Bethnal Green & Bow to take the seat from the sitting MP and loyal Blairite Oona King. Respect also posted impressive results in a number of other constituencies in London and Birmingham, with support for its candidates ranging from sixteen to twenty seven percent. In electoral terms the Respect intervention in the British general election can be judged a partial success. The significance of Galloway’s victory, the first person since 1945 to be elected to Westminster for a party that presents itself as being to the left of Labour, should not be dismissed. However, neither should it exaggerated.
A closer examination of Respect’s results show wide variations in support. When the votes from the five constituencies where the party did best are deducted from its total the average Respect vote falls from 6.97 percent to 2.7 percent. In 12 of the 26 seats contested by Respect, the candidates received less than two percent of the vote. This figure is closer to the low level of support won by various far left formations that have contested elections in the recent past. So what is the reason for the disparities in the Respect vote? The answer lies in the religious composition of the constituencies where it stood. It was in the constituencies with large Muslim populations, in the East End of London and Birmingham, where Respect got its highest votes. For example, in Bethnal Green and Bow, the site of Galloway’s victory, over forty per cent of the population are Muslims of Bangladeshi descent. What the results demonstrate is that Respect draws the bulk of its support from Muslim communities. In itself this is not a negative development. Historically, left parties have drawn support from members of ethnic minority groups who have had a disproportional representation among the poorest and most oppressed sections of the working class. So in the East End of London during the 1930s, when the left was leading anti-fascist struggles, it drew much of its support from the Jewish population that lived there. This could be compared with the role of the left in today’s anti-war movement and the support it has drawn from the Muslim population. However, there is a critical difference in the basis on which that support has been won. For unlike the 1930s, when socialists appealed to Jews as members of the working class, Respect is appealing to Muslims as members of a religious community.
Respect and Islam
This accommodation to religion is reflected in both the politics and organisation of Respect. In its accommodation of Islam and orientation towards imams and “community leaders” the basic tenets of socialism have been abandoned. What makes this particularly disturbing is that many of the groups in Britain that claim to be upholders of the Marxist tradition, the most important being the Socialist Workers’ Party, are centrally involved in constructing the Respect programme.
An example of the dangers of accommodating religious ideas is illustrated most clearly in Respect’s position on women, and in particular the controversial issue of Muslim women and the headscarf (hijab). Its spokespersons have glorified the wearing of the hijab as being somehow progressive. At the founding conference of Respect, an SWP leader spoke of her pride at addressing an audience where so many young women were wearing the hijab. A recent edition of Respect Newsletter carried an article claiming that: “Women are often judged by their looks or bodies. Hijab forces society to judge women for their value as human beings. A woman in a Hijab sends a message: ‘Deal with my brain, not my body!’ … For British Muslims facing the fear of losing their identity, RESPECT is THE only party.” Although these arguments have a progressive veneer, they are essentially a defence of the oppression faced by Muslim women. The wearing of the hijab is not a symbol of the independence of Muslim women but of their subordination to men. Taken to their logical extreme the Respect arguments could be used to justify the segregation of men and women and the wearing of the burqa. George Galloway has endeared himself to Islamic groups by playing up his own religious views, making it clear that he is a Catholic and “strongly against abortion”. The SWP has refused to publicly challenge these views, on the grounds that they are Galloway’s personal opinions. But with Respect so closely identified with him they can only be seen as those of the party. In the absence of a clear commitment to women’s equality and their rights to divorce, contraception and abortion etc, this is the only inference that can be drawn. What were once seen as fundamental socialist principles, such as women’s equality, have been abandoned or completely distorted in order to accommodate religious prejudices.
Marxism and religion
The Marxist position on religion has long been established. We support democratic rights, which includes freedom of worship. We also defend those who are being oppressed because of their religious background. Today we should defend the right of Muslims to practice their religion, and oppose the whipping up of prejudice against them that has been associated with the “war on terror”. However, at the same time we shouldn’t accommodate to religious ideas in any way, or feed the illusion that one religious group is uniquely oppressed. For Marxists, the influence of religion on the working class acts as a brake on the struggle against capitalism. It is both an expression of powerlessness of workers, and an ideology used by the ruling class to justify the status quo. The idea of a religious community is an attempt to mask the class structure of society by creating an artificial bond between conflicting classes. If the working class is to successfully struggle against capitalism then it will have to reject the basic tenets of religion. This is why socialists have sought to combat religion through promoting science and a materialist viewpoint. For socialists to accommodate to religious ideas is a betrayal of the cause of the working class.
This does not mean that socialist organisations refuse to recruit people who hold religious ideas or work with religious groups. The essential point is that this should not influence the politics of those organisations. It is quite legitimate for socialists to work with Muslims in struggles against racism or war, but we should not dilute our political programme to win their support or conceal our political differences. The problem with Respect is that it does both these. It emerged from the British anti-war movement in which socialists, particularly the SWP, diluted their politics to accommodate the widest possible platform. This was a platform that extended from revolutionary socialists to the CND to the Muslim Association of Britain. It even included the Liberal Democratic Party which, despite its anti-war rhetoric, subsequently supported the invasion of Iraq. The opportunity was there to build an anti-war movement based on the working class, but this was consciously rejected by the socialist organisations involved in favour of building the broadest possible movement. The formation of Respect has taken this a stage further, moving from a tactical alliance between socialists and Muslims on one issue to a political fusion between them. The result of such a fusion can only be the import of bourgeois and reactionary ideas into the left.
A second element of the Respect programme has been an appeal to disillusioned Labour Party supporters. However, this appeal has been based not on breaking people from the politics of Labourism but on presenting itself as the custodian of traditional Labour values. Respect is portrayed as “Old Labour” as opposed to Blair’s “New Labour”. George Galloway made this explicit when described the party as the “ghost of Labour past—we are what Labour supporters want it to be.” This perpetuates that myth that Labour was essentially a socialist party before the rise of Blair. Yet even a glance at the history of the British Labour Party would dispel this. It has always been pro-imperialist, supporting every colonial war fought by Britain. It has always supported capitalism. The Keynesian economic strategy and welfare state policies that marked what is hailed as the heyday of Labourism was actually the broadly agreed programme of the ruling class for reviving the British economy in the post war period. These policies did not represent socialism or even a step towards it. The Labour Party has also had an appalling record on race, introducing some of the most restrictive immigration laws on the statute book.
The consequence of building up this myth about Old Labour is to actually blunt the challenge to the current Labour leadership. Respect appeals to people who are opposed to Blair on the basis that support for it won’t damage the Labour Party. By pledging not to “break the unity of the labour movement” Respect is actually binding a potential opposition to the current Labour Party and trade union leaderships. It is claimed that the result of supporting Respect will be to “make it easier for the left inside the Labour Party.” In the event of a significant vote for Respect, “The whole political spectrum will be forced to move to the left.” Respect is therefore not presenting itself as an alternative to the Labour Party but as a vehicle to reform it. This is just a retread of the old strategy of capturing the Labour Party for socialism, and supporting left wing figures within it like Bevan or Benn. However we don’t have to look at the 50’s or 80’s to demonstrate the fallacy of this. Within the last five years we have had a similar phenomenon with the rise of the trade union “awkward squad” and the expulsion of Ken Livingstone from the Labour Party. The left latched on to these developments as evidence of opposition to Blair. But what happened? From the beginning Livingstone explicitly rejected any attempts to build an alternative to Labour. This killed off the Socialist Alliance project, which was based on the belief that his expulsion would herald an exodus from the Labour Party. After serving as an independent, Livingstone gladly accepted an invitation to rejoin the Labour Party, with Blair praising his responsible leadership as the mayor of London. The so-called trade union “awkward squad”, with the notable exceptions of the RMT and FBU, pledged their support to the Labour leadership and signed up to an election manifesto that promised an assault on public services, including the dismissal of 100,000 fellow unionists from the civil service. In peddling the myth of Old Labour Respect is leading the opposition to Blair into a dead end. It also diverts socialists from the urgent task of building a working class party. If the socialists involved in Respect had the building of such a party as their goal, then splits within the Labour Party’s ranks and the disaffiliation of trade unions from the party, would be welcomed not feared.
As it is currently constituted Respect
does not represent a socialist alternative to the Labour Party. It is a
mixture of “Old Labour” and community politics. However, of these, the
pull of community politics is the greater. The election results show that
Respect’s successes were based on support from Muslims. Where it appealed
for support on the basis of “Old Labour” values it failed. As the objective
of Respect is to build itself to as an electoral force, the likelihood
is that it will accommodate even more to Islamic sentiment and the conservatism
of Muslim “leaders”. Such a trajectory will take it further away from any
concept of socialism. Worst of all, it risks creating further divisions
in the working class, as a party for Muslims would have no appeal to workers
from a different religious background. There is a very real danger that
Respect and the socialists within it will end up in a political ghetto.