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Join Respect everywhere ­ and build it

Alan Thornett


The issue of whether socialists should join Respect is not as complicated as John Nicholson makes it in his discussion article on this site ­ "Why We Should Join Respect ­ or Not"? Socialist should join Respect because it is simply the best opportunity the left has had for a long time. As John Pilger said at the London post-election rally: "it is the breakthrough we have all been waiting for". It is as near as it gets to the only show in town. There is no point in building the Democratic Socialist Alliance or the Provisional Socialist Alliance, or any of the other fragmented groups, as alternatives to Respect. They have no future and in the present period and pointing to the lower end of the Respect results, as John Nicholson does, does not resolve their lack of any impact on the election. Respectıs results were defined by its breakthrough votes not its non-breakthrough votes.

Not that building Respect is without problems - even after such stunning election results, George Gallowayıs momentous Senate intervention, and the increased profile and support it has received as a result. But sitting on the sidelines waiting for something as successful as Respect to come along but which has no problems or about which you have no reservations could be a long and fruitless wait.

True Respect did not do well in every constituency it stood in. It was never going to, but it had to test the water beyond its most obvious choices. Respect unique achievement was that it was able to breakthrough both the electoral system and the stultifying election campaign, by building dynamic campaigns in key inner city, traditional Labour, working class, constituencies with big immigrant communities, Muslim, but not only Muslim, which could concentrate a big vote. It won a mass support in a way no other left party has been able to achieve. People began to realise that Respect could actually win and that their vote would not be Œwastedı.

Respect achieved the near-impossible by winning a Westminster seat as a small left party under first-past-the-post. That is what first-past-the-post is designed to prevent. Simply standing under the Respect banner in its self, however, even where there were big anti-war Muslim populations, did not ensure a good vote. What produced the vote was previous track record plus strong, well resourced, outward looking campaigns which drew people in and developed a real momentum in the communities. It is achieving this which defines Respectıs success and is why we should grasp the opportunity it presents and build on it. The trick now is to both consolidate the strong areas and expand out of them.

It is not true, by the way, as John Nicholson alleges, that Socialist Resistance and the ISG "now perform a largely uncritical role within Respect". Our role in the Respect conference last October makes that clear enough.

What is true is that we do put the building of Respect in front of advancing our criticisms of it. What is true is that we did not see the run up to the election as the best time to polemicise about Respect in public. What is also true is that we do not table a resolution at every meeting of the National Council or the Officerıs Committee designed to Œexposeı the SWP ­ a procedure carried out with great regularity and absolutely no effect (other than hijacking the agendas) by the CPGB and the AWL on the Executive and National Council of the Socialist Alliance (SA).

In fact we have an unresolved strategic difference with the SWP on the future development of Respect ­ as we did with the SA - on what itıs organisational and political character should be. Whether it should continue as a coalition, under which the supporting organisations function informally within it whilst at the same time operating as fully independent, high profile, organisations on the public stage, or a political party under which the supporting organisations functioning in a structured way within it and
conduct their pubic interventions and mobilisations through it - giving the broad organisation the dominant public profile.

One problem with the current coalition model, particularly when there is an organisation involved which is as numerically dominant as the SWP, is that as soon as something important happens the public profile of the SWP overshadows the public profile of the coalition. This not only deprives the coalition of the profile it needs but it feeds the perception that the SWP only want to use the broad organisation when it suits their own party interests to do so.

It is true that the SWP has evolved in a positive direction on some of these issues since the days of the SA. Not only is the word Œpartyı regularly used to describe Respect but John Reeseıs article in the May edition of Socialist Review argues that it is normal for revolutionaries to work within broad organisations like Respect. The SWP also displays a commitment to Respect which is hugely more substantial, and long-term, than was the case with the SA. And since Respectıs election results and George Gallowayıs Senate intervention this commitment has become even stronger. The difference in concept remains, however, and the ambiguity is clear. Not only does John Reese end his Socialist Review article by again defining Respect as a "united front" but it is clear that he means something different when he refers to Respect as a party than we in Socialist Resistance would understand the term.

This ambiguity comes out most clearly in the practicalities of building Respect. John Reeseıs prognosis from the elections results is a good one. He rightly argues that the results were brilliant but they only established "bridge-head" for Respect. This bridgehead he says can only be defended and extended by building Respect into a mass membership campaigning party.

This is an excellent proposal but it has consequences that SWP leaders appear not to have worked through. How is it possible to have a mass membership party without strong local branches with a political life of their own to which the new members can relate? How is it possible to have such a party without a regular publication or newspaper which is both and educator and an organiser of that party? How can such a party have an adequate public profile without a regular publication to sell? In the
absence of this how will these new members be kept in touch with the politics of Respect and how long will they remain members? Any formula which implies Œjoin Respect but get your information and organisation though reading Socialist Workerı would not work long term. The contradictions are obvious. Yet the implementation of the decision of the Respect conference (proposed by SR supporters) to investigate the launching of such a Respect newspaper has been slow to say the least ­ though some progress is currently taking place.

The same problem arises with political debates and discussion. There is a much wider range of political differences within Respect than was the case with the SA. This is natural because it is a broader organisation. George Gallowayıs well known views on a number of things are a prime example. Such issues need to be discussed and understood otherwise they will fester on the margins. But how can these issues be discussed unless there is a well-developed structure within Respect ­ both at the level of the elected bodies ad the general membership - which can contain and develop such discussions? Again this implies a party approach rather than that of a coalition. In fact a coalition implies that you settle for the continued existence of these difference rather than seek to develop a convergence on them.

Respect rightly intends to mount a major challenge in the local elections next year, and logically it will win seats ­ even control of Tower Hamlets Council is a possibility. But how can a difficult area of work like local councils, hamstrung by government controls, be conducted without the kind of strong leadership bodies and decision making process which only a party can develop? How can accountability work adequately ­ at local authority level or at Westminster - without the structure of a political party?

Winning the arguments on the future of Respect will not be easy, of course.But it is very important since its longer-term future of Respect will not be secured unless these problems are resolved. Socialist Resistance supporters are taking up these debates within Respect and will continue to do so.

This debate would be much enriched, however, if a lot of left-wingers and left-wing organisations who are not currently involved in Respect overcame their various objections and joined it. Those who object that the SWP is too dominant could make it less dominant by the act of joining. Those who were in the SA but did not join Respect should come in. The Morning Star should be in Respect since reclaiming Labour is patently dead in the water. Red Pepper should join and play and active role. Respect should be the natural home for those have left the Labour Party and are still leaving the Labour Party. Most importantly there are many in the left of the unions who should be inside Respect and playing a major role. If this kind of development began to happen the terrain would shift inside Respect and the debates about its further development would be on a different level.

At the end of John Nıs posting he concludes only that it may be right to join Respect in some areas. This is far too conservative. The conclusion should be join Respect in every area, and where there is not a local branch build one. As John N says in his penultimate paragraph: "I do not think we can build a successful party along the lines of the SSP without involving the SWP". This is indeed true and the logic of it is to join Respect and build it.



 

June 2005

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Alan Thornett is a leading member of the International Socialist Group (ISG) and on the National Executive of Respect

 

 
 

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