There is continuing interest in Ireland (and continuing lack of clarity) in the idea of building a united organisation of the left. In order to provide background information we are republishing an account of the decline of the ‘Respect’ organisation in England by Liam Mac Uaid. This decline, alongside the dramatic events of the split in the other main unity initiative, the Scottish Socialist party, indicate the need for the greatest political clarity in trying to build successful unity of left organisations and the need for the most throughgoing openess and democracy when doing so(ed)
What is Respect’s future?
Liam Mac Uaid
28 December 2006
The announcement by Labour deputy leadership hopeful, Jon Cruddas, that the party is losing a member every twenty minutes should be good news for socialists who want to build a class struggle party to the left of Labour. Blair’s leadership lost the party 160,000 members between 2000 and 2006. Even uber-Blairite Hazel Blears has admitted that much of this has to do with Blair’s predilection for imperialist wars. In fact the majority of people who leave Labour do so with a sense of disgust at its rightward drift, frequently after years or decades of party membership.
Many of these people, if questioned, would find themselves in very close agreement with Respect’s programme of opposition to Blair’s wars and support for public services run for need not profit. Yet they stubbornly refuse to join it. In fact Respect’s loss of members parallels that of Labour. The un-massaged version of the annual report submitted to the 2006 conference said the organisation has 2160 members, a drop from 3040 the previous year. Respect is now more politically narrow than at any time in its short history. It is entirely hegemonised by the SWP in all but two or three branches. Other than supporters of Socialist Resistance, no other left current tries to operate inside it. This is in contrast to the experience of other new European anti capitalist parties such as Portugal’s Left Bloc or Italy’s Rifondazione Comunista which incorporate a political pluralism into their functioning.
Reports from around the country indicate that the exodus from Respect has been of independent members not aligned to political organisations. Many branches are moribund, meeting only once or twice a year. At the 2006 Respect conference several branches sent delegations comprising more than fifty per cent SWP members. This indicates an absence of non-aligned Respect members willing to attend the event.
The most serious attempt to bring fresh blood into Respect was the “Organising For Fighting Unions” conference. This was a numerical success and a political failure. Discussion was kept almost entirely within the limits of a rally, rather than an organising conference. It illuminated starkly the narrow bloc of alliances that Respect has managed to construct and showed that there have been no significant defections either from Labour or the union left in the last year. The event itself, despite what the organisers may claim, succeeded in alienating many more non-Respect members than it attracted.
In the organisation’s Tower Hamlets stronghold the medium term situation is precarious. George Galloway has made clear that he will not stand in the Bethnal Green constituency again. He has set a very strong example of an elected official working without any reference to the democratic structures of the organisation. In this he was given a lot of latitude by the SWP. Some prominent members described things like regular meetings and MP’s report backs as “boring”, “bureaucratic” and “unnecessary drains on George’s time” when it was proposed that these standard Labour Movement practices be made part of Respect’s culture. However Galloway does bind together and occasionally brokers truces between the SWP and other remaining socialist section of the organisation and the councillors and their support bases. The re-selection process will be very messy and potentially bloody since the party in Tower Hamlets lacks an obvious successor. It does however have an abundance of aspirant candidates from a range of political traditions and opinions. None of these potential successors to Galloway have had an opportunity to help Respect develop its own political culture and methods. Real political discussion about what Respect is and what it could become happens in all sorts of places but seldom in Respect itself. The emphasis is always on “getting out and doing things” or “talking to real people”. This is code for “we don’t discuss political ideas”. Yet without these discussions to clarify ideas and forge a distinct identity Respect can only be an alliance of factions rather than an embryonic mass socialist party.
Socialist Resistance supporters have consistently argued that Respect adopts several of the practices of the other emerging socialist organisations in Europe. A commitment to political pluralism and a healthy internal democracy are the most important of these. If Respect continues to be seen (and, in some cases, function) as a front organisation by the majority of socialist and trade union activists it can survive but it will not flourish. Any organisation that grows out of the practice and experience of the British Labour movement will have to include established activists, with their own perspectives. This necessarily includes people who don’t consider themselves Marxists.
This is still a favourable time for the development of a class struggle party to Labour’s left. Most militant working class activists despise new Labour. It has no power of attraction for radical youth, opponents of the war or environmentalists. Its own members are leaving in disgust. The BNP’s success in Dagenham shows what may happen if such a party does not emerge. None of the surviving fragments of the Socialist Alliance are in a position to be the alternative. The Campaign For A New Workers’ Party doesn’t even try to pretend that it is anything but a wholly owned subsidiary of the Socialist Party. Only Respect has the national profile and the proven record of electoral success to be the nucleus of a new party.
Yet the hard fact is that for all but a handful of members Respect is not seen as this alternative. This need not be the case. In several parts of the country supporters of Socialist Resistance continue working actively inside Respect for our vision of a pluralist, democratic, socialist party. The missing ingredients are the large numbers of politically aware and politically experienced militants who know how to organise and how to fight combined with the younger radicalising forces drawn into politics by the war, the environment, campaigning and industrial struggle. Unless Respect can make itself attractive to them the 2007 conference will be even more narrow than 2006’s.
This article was written for the January
2007 issue of Socialist Resistance (www.socialistresistance.net)